What Are San Marzano Tomatoes and Are They Really That Great?

They’re pricier than other canned tomatoes and chefs love them, but are they actually worth the splurge?

Bowl of canned san marzano tomatoes on a table

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A canned tomato is a canned tomato, right? Eh, not entirely. You might have noticed that some recipes specify a type of canned tomato, often a San Marzano tomato. This variety is lauded in Italian cooking for its sweeter, highly concentrated tomato flavor. 

What Is a San Marzano Tomato?

The tomatoes themselves are longer and skinnier than a regular plum tomato, with a thin skin and thick flesh. The smaller size and dense flesh lead to less of that watery goop in the middle, meaning they have more flavor than other, similar types of tomatoes. More tomato per tomato, if you will.

But in the way Champagne can only be produced in the Champagne region of France, real San Marzanos can only be grown, processed, and canned in a specific region of Italy. Other producers, especially in California, grow San Marzanos from the same seed, but they're not quite the same. 

Related: A Basic Guide to Canned Tomato Products

This is because real San Marzano's have what is referred to as a DOP, an acronym that translates to "protected designation of origin." This is the law that specifies where and how something can be grown and produced if a certain name is to be used. Parmigiano Reggiano is another popular Italian product with a DOP protections. These special requirements that limit where the tomatoes can be grown, and how they can be harvested and canned, mean that real San Marzano tomatoes can nearly break the bank compared to other canned tomatoes.

So Are They Really That Much Better?

In short — yeah, they kind of are. For things like all-day simmered red sauce and pizza sauce where the tomatoes are the star of the show, using a high-quality tomato is vital. And there is no higher quality than a San Marzano.

The San Marzanos that are grown in the U.S. just utilize the San Marzano seeds, but so many other factors affect how the fruit will eventually taste. Ask an Italian, and they'll tell you that the nutrients in the soil and the light breeze from the sea and even the sun in southern Italy is what makes the difference in DOP San Marzanos, a difference that just can't be replicated elsewhere. Whether or not these things actually make the difference, tasting an authentic San Marzano will undoubtedly make you consider it. But for some, having the nuance in the tomato shine through a dish isn't as important. Does it really matter in a recipe like goulash where tomato is just a supporting character? Maybe not. 

Bottom line: Yes, they are high-quality and ultra-delicious, but it's only worth the money if you're making something where quality tomatoes are the center of attention.

Canned Tomato Counterfeiting

Given that producers in Italy can charge a high premium for their lovingly produced tomatoes, it logically makes sense that any company producing canned tomatoes would want to jump on that bandwagon. The san marzano seeds are widely available, so domestic producers slap the San Marzano name on their cans and charge twice as much, even though they were likely grown in the same hothouse as the other domestic plum tomatoes they produce. Because most consumers don't know about the DOP for real San Marzanos, they buy the domestically produced varieties and end up with an inferior product. It's not illegal to write "San Marzano" on the can, but it is a misleading practice to intentionally mislead consumers to believe that they're getting real DOP San Marzanos.

Related: How to Decode Your Supermarket's Massive Canned Tomato Aisle

To avoid an impostor, always look for the DOP seal somewhere on the can label. It's a circular red and yellow sun-shaped seal that's usually to the side of the main label. A key element to look out for on impostor cans is anything that says "San Marzano style" or "Italian-style," that's a sure-fire way to know you're not getting real San Marzanos. Some that say San Marzano on the label will also say somewhere "grown in the USA" or something similar, indicating a domestically grown product. To ensure you're getting the real deal, just make sure to thoroughly read the label and look for something that says "DOP" or a signifier that the tomatoes were grown in the San Marzano region of Italy.

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