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If you ask a food nerd why they love San Marzano tomatoes, prepare yourself for a tangent peppered with words like “terroir” and “pizza napoletana.” But for all their pretensions, foodies are onto something. Even so, the question remains: Is it worth paying up to three times more for a can of imported Italian tomatoes? We'll try our best to answer that question while also explaining what makes these tomatoes so special.

What Are San Marzano Tomatoes?

The San Marzano tomato is a type of plum tomato that comes from the Campania region of southwestern Italy. The most prized San Marzano tomatoes are grown in the Valle del Sarno in Italy, where the mineral-rich volcanic soil gives the tomato its coveted sweet flavor. Like parmesan, Champagne, or balsamic vinegar, these tomatoes come labeled with a Denominazione di Origine Protetta (D.O.P.) badge attesting to their provenance.

That said, tomato farmers cultivate San Marzano-style tomatoes throughout the world, including in the United States. While domestically produced San Marzano tomatoes might be cheaper, some foodies argue that it’s worth paying extra for the real deal.

San Marzano TomatoesPhoto credit: eZeePics Studio/istockphoto

Why Do Foodies Love San Marzano Tomatoes?

San Marzano tomatoes from Italy are held to higher standards, according to Bon Appetit, and are “bright, full, and sweet.” The tomato itself, regardless of origin, is also renowned for its meaty texture and having fewer seeds — two qualities that make it excellent for sauces. The tradeoff is that cans of D.O.P. and domestically produced San Marzano tomatoes are more expensive than other varieties.

Are They Worth the Extra Cash?

There are tangible reasons why San Marzano tomatoes from Italy are held as the gold standard, but it’s hard to say whether they're worth paying a premium for, especially given the significant difference in price.

For example: At Sprouts supermarket in Los Angeles, a 28-ounce can of house-brand canned tomatoes costs $2.49. A can of Cento-brand D.O.P. peeled tomatoes costs more than three times that amount at $7.99.

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Close Up Photo Of Man’s Hands Opens Lid Of Canned Tomato PureePhoto credit: miniseries/istockphoto

Which Canned Tomatoes Should I Buy?

Regardless of your budget, there are a few things to look for while shopping for canned tomatoes, according to the experts at Bon Appetit.

  • Always Buy Peeled Tomatoes: Whether you want your tomatoes smashed, crushed, diced, or whole, it’s best to buy peeled tomatoes. That’s because whole peeled tomatoes are versatile — you can dice or smash them yourself — and often have the shortest list of ingredients.

  • Look for a Short List of Ingredients: You want the fewest ingredients possible for the same reasons. The tomatoes should taste like tomatoes, unadulterated by additives like calcium chloride or seasoning that you could add yourself.

  • Consider Buying D.O.P. Tomatoes: If you can afford it and are looking for top-shelf tomatoes, D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes are always a good bet. You can also buy domestically grown San Marzano-style tomatoes as a compromise between quality and price.

What Can I Make With San Marzano Tomatoes?

  • Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce: a rich, Italian-American pasta sauce that requires just three basic ingredients

  • Pasta Pomodoro: a simple sauce that lets the San Marzano tomatoes be the star of the show

  • Pasta Puttanesca: an aromatic pasta dish that pairs tomatoes with anchovies, capers, and olives

  • Pizza Sauce: a basic, no-frills pizza sauce that doesn't require any cooking

The Bottom Line

Whether San Marzano tomatoes are worth the extra cost depends on your preferences and budget. We recommend that you pick and try a few different brands while keeping in mind the above tips. But if money isn’t an issue, you can’t go wrong with a can of whole peeled D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes.

Related: From Bruschetta to Salsa, Here are 10 Ways to Preserve Tomatoes

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