I was recently reminded of the power of this simple ingredient. We’d thrown a wildcard NY-pizza party for 10. If you’ve read the story about that event, you know that people’s heads exploded.
Whenever I use this ingredient, one refrain is, “I’ve never tasted pizza like this before!” A friend who’s had my pizza twice now says, “Oh, this will ruin you for any other pizza.”
There are many factors at work here. But the simplest difference is in a unique product that has a distinctive taste and is so very yummy. We’re talking about the fabled San Marzano tomato.
“What!?” you exclaim, “San Marzano tomatoes? Minchiata!” (That’s one of the many Italian words representative of the American “BS!” Only less polite.) How could a single kind of tomato have any such effect on a pizza eater?
Here’s a point worth considering. The San Marzano tomato is the designated tomato for True Neapolitan Pizza as approved by the Associazione Versace Pizza Neapolatana, or AVPN.
The San Marzano tomato is an epic enough feat of agriculture that it has spawned a market in counterfeit tomatoes. There have even been lawsuits about it. Several years ago, the Italian carabinieri confiscated 1,620 tons of improperly labelled canned tomatoes worth over a million Euros.
These tomatoes are grown around the village of San Marzano sul Sarno near Naples. The tomatoes benefit from the distinctive qualities of the volcanic soil around Mount Vesuvius. The flavor of the San Marzano is notably brighter and sweeter than other tomatoes.
I remember the first time I ever tasted one of these tomatoes directly from the can. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that a canned tomato could have such a pop and so much depth of flavor. It was tomato love.
When you use a sauce of San Marzano tomatoes, you can’t have crazy expectations. You can’t expect your diner to say, “Oh, my God! This sauce is amazing!” Few people have a palate tuned to that level of discrimination.
That said, pizza is a synergy. A pizza adds up to more than the sum of its parts. And using a San Marzano sauce helps bolster that synergy.
Your friends won’t be sure why they love your pizza so much. They’ll just know that it’s distinctive and they want more.
But fair warning: You have to be discriminating about your San Marzano tomatoes. The only way to be certain you’re buying genuine San Marzano tomatoes is by looking for the DOP designation and seal of approval from the Italian government. It’s typically on the back of the can and it’s unmistakable.
There are brands that call themselves San Marzano and are clearly not. Some say “San Marzano style.” Others say, “San Marzano” and “product of USA.” And still others just say nothing but “San Marzano” with no DOP designation.
Some of those pretender tomatoes are OK. Some of them taste nothing like a true San Marzano. So if you want to be assured you’re using true San Marzanos, look for the DOP seal on the label.
[SIDEBAR: I always have a link to some true San Marzanos on the Free The Pizza! website. You can find them by clicking here to visit the tools page and scrolling down to the can of tomatoes.]
Yes, San Marzano tomatoes are expensive. I admit that I’m insulted not by their high price, but by the high prices charged by purveyors who are NOT true San Marzano.
Yes, the tomato itself can be grown from a true seed. But terroir matters. And if the tomatoes are not grown in San Marzano, you never know what you’re getting or how it tastes.
There’s a particular brand of so-called San Marzano that is everywhere. It has a yellow label and is not DOP approved. They’re also very expensive despite not being DOP. I admit that I’ve used them in a pinch. They’re OK. Sometimes. But I prefer paying the differential as insurance for the authentic tomato.
A heresy that I do commit against these tomatoes is not using them as the true Naples pizzaioli do. I normally make a sauce with basil, salt, olive oil, garlic powder, onion powder and wine.
I reduce the sauce so it doesn’t contain as much water. That works out better in a home oven, which is not as hot as a true Neapolitan wood-fired dome.
The traditionalists say you should break the tomatoes apart with your hand and cook them no further than that. Use them as they came out of the can.
I do that occasionally—but this is pizza. And the rules are: Do what works. Every pizzaiolo has preferences. There’s one famous pizzeria that uses part-skim low-moisture mozzarella. Heresy! But it works for them, and they’re more famous than I am. Let it ride.
Do you need to use San Marzanos? Hardly. I often don’t. There’s a brand from New Jersey called Sclafani that I sometimes use when making New York-style pizza. That’s because it’s one of the common tomatoes used in such pizza. There are plenty of other styles of tomato that you may or may not like.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the kind of pizza you want to make—and whether you can taste the difference. As stated earlier, most people will not say, “Wow, this sauce is amazing! San Marzanos!?” But most people will know there’s a difference, whether they can pinpoint it or not.
You know what else happens when you use San Marzano tomatoes? You get to have one more unique topic of pizza trivia to share with your diners as part of your pizza story.
And everyone loves a story. Right? And think of the amazing story they'll tell of pizza at your house...
It has ranked as a #1 Bestseller at Amazon in the Pizza Making category. That silly little homemade pizza guide, Free The Pizza! (A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven You Already Have), is ready and waiting for you when you're ready to enjoy a Homemade Pizza Effect of your own.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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