Our friend Chris came over to dinner tonight. I was going to make spankopita but didn't get my act together to dash over to the Ballard Market for filo dough. So I decided to make pasta, with a tomato sauce from my favorite cookbook, The Romagnoli's Table (original 1974 version, not the revised one). Because we had fresh basil (from the pizza experiments) I decide to make the extremely simple sauce of melted unsalted butter, good plum tomatoes, fresh basil and salt. Without the onions, salt pork, garlic, and olive oil many people believe are essential for tomato sauces, this is nevertheless an astonishingly flavorful sauce. The key is excellent tomatoes, and I was planning to use a couple cans of peeled plum tomatoes (pomidori pelati), da Napoli brand.
When a peek into the cupboard revealed only one can of tomatoes, I hiked up to the neighborhood grocery, Sunset Hill Greenmarket, and picked up a second can, called San Marzano.
When I got home and opened the two brands of tomatoes side by side I nearly went into shock. The da Napolis, which I've always liked, appeared coarse, fibrous, and sort of limp. The San Marzanos, smaller, rounder, and redder, were delicate and the juice much richer. The taste of the San Marzano's was absolutely to die for--flavorful and complex without being sweet. The da Napoli's didn't taste bad...they just didn't taste much.
As it turned out, the recipe called for only one and a half cans of tomatoes, so I used the all San Marzanos and filled in with a few of the smallest da Napolis. When I crushed the tomatoes, I noted that the San Marzanos have hardly any seeds! (Recipe: melt butter, put in the tomatoes, crush them a little, add salt and basil, let cook 20-30 minutes until the sauce suddenly darkens and thickens. Serve.)
The sauce was great, and I give those San Marzanos full credit.
Some web research reveals that I have barely begun to experience San Marzano tomatoes. The domestic San Marzanos I cooked with (sold by Simpson and Vail, who also sell some killer imported olive oils) are the relatives of Italian tomatoes grown in the San Marzano valley in the Campania region of Italy--"in the shadow of Vesuvius."
The Italian-grown San Marzanos are available from these brands: Sclafani, Strianese, Rosa, AnnalisA, Miracolo di San Gennaro, and La Valle (though not all tomatoes sold with these labels are San Marzanos--you have to check the label). Prices range from $2 a can to $9.50 a can (before shipping). The Miracolo di San Gennaro brand, sold on the Gustiamo website is the most expensive. But based on my previous experience buying cheese and olive oils from Gustiamo, these are likely the tomatoes to end all tomatoes. [NOTE: A heated San Marzano discussion on eGullet includes the information that real Italian San Marzanos will have the letters D.O.P. (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta) on the label. But many folks in the discussion noted that there are some good Italian canned tomatoes with out the D.O.P. accreditation.]
I'm going to look into buying a case of San Marzanos through the Sunset Hill Greenmarket or Larry's Market (where I've seen them in the past). Please let me know if you see any San Marzanos (whole, peeled) anywhere else in Seattle. First good tip leaded to the local purchase of San Marzanos by the case will be rewarded with a pasta dinner, or homemade pizza, with a San Marzano-based sauce. [NOTE: Contest closed. Domestic and imported San Marzanos have been located at the Ballard Market for $2.99 a can. Stand by for an upcoming taste comparison.] [NEW CONTEST: Reward as specified above for information on where to buy Miracolo di San Gennaro brand tomatoes in Seattle.]