The story of the San Marzano tomato starts in a little town in Italy named San Marzano Sul Sarno around 1823. A man named Raffaele Esposito from Naples, Italy, wanted to impress the Queen of Savoy by making her a small pie created with very specific fresh ingredients sourced only from the local region. He used San Marzano tomatoes, only grown in Valle del Sarno as a paste, and topped the flattened dough with mozzarella and fresh basil to celebrate the colors of the Italian flag. Needless to say, the Queen was very impressed. From then on, the exact recipe has been cherished and held in very high esteem.
The overwhelmingly popular type of pizza was named The Neapolitan Pizza. Even to this day, genuine Neapolitan Pizzas are made using San Marzano tomatoes. In 1984 Naples, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN) was established to identify, recognize, and certify authentic Neapolitan Pizzas. The VPN abides by strict criteria that true Neapolitan pizzas are made with the freshest ingredients, including raw San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, mozzarella cheese, and basil. Neapolitan Pizza’s classic traits are most notably that the dough is pulled by hand and that the sauce is laid on thick, allowing for it to bubble while being cooked at high temperatures. The Neapolitan Pizza also only has chunks of mozzarella cheese, not to take away from the complex tomato taste.
The San Marzano variety has received so much worldwide recognition for its rich flavor that, similar to French Champagne, a Protected Designation of Origin, or DOP was given in 1996 to genuine San Marzano tomatoes. To be certified, they are grown under very specific and rigorous regulations. Valle del Sarno is the valley in Italy where this variety is grown because of its unique Mediterranean microclimate and famed nutrient-dense Mount Vesuvius soil that gives the San Marzano tomato its distinctive richness and deep flavor. It also requires that all of the tomatoes be picked and inspected by hand.
The San Marzano tomato is so sought after that 1,450 tons of fraudulently labeled counterfeit tomatoes worth $1.2 million USD were sized by Italian Carabinieri in 2010. All commercially grown tomatoes labeled as San Marzano must be grown according to the regulations in Italy.
Despite their pizza fame, San Marzano tomatoes declined in popularity in the 1970s with the rise of variety hybridization, but by the 1990s, they regained the spotlight and became one of the most popular canned tomato varieties. Another growing demand for this tomato is sun-dried. Again, true to their roots the tomatoes are allowed to lay out in the sun to dry naturally instead of in industrial dehydrators. Today San Marzano tomatoes are still found in select regions of Italy and are also grown in the United States and Mexico without the DOP certification.
In the US, we are more accustomed to Roma tomatoes being used for home sauce making, but the great San Marzano is making a huge comeback. Most find it to be far superior to the Roma because it is bigger, sweeter, has fewer seeds, and the taste is stronger.