A San Marzano Snob Goes Downmarket

I can’t remember when I started using San Marzano tomatoes, but it’s been long enough that I figured I’d become a snob for life. If you read Foobooz, chances are that you’re one too. When it comes to commonly available canned tomatoes, San Marzanos are simply the gold standard. Ever since I got turned onto them, I’ve never understood why anyone would buy anything else. Sure, they cost twice (or even three times) as much as Hunt’s, but we’re talking $3.69 versus maybe $1.75 for a 28-ounce can that will probably form the basis of a sauce or dish that’ll feed four people. Why would you scrimp when that extra $2 makes so much difference?

The question contains its own answer—at least the way I’ve always intonated it. But recently I found cause for doubt, thanks to The Industry’s Pat Szoke.  The man makes a soul-soothing lamb neck gravy, and when I called him up to ask him about it, he mentioned a brand of tomatoes I wasn’t familiar with.

He told me he uses #10 cans of Saporito tomatoes for his gravy. He actually seemed to be mistaken about them, because (unless I misheard him) he said they were a brand of San Marzanos. But they aren’t.  They’re packed in California by Modesto-based Stanislaus Food Products.

I can see where the confusion comes from. Stanislaus markets its products (mostly to restaurateurs) with the somewhat misleading slogan “Real Italian.” But hey, if they were good enough for Szoke—and his lamb gravy is the love—they were good enough for me to try.

Those #10 cans are big. You won’t find them in a normal supermarket. But I found a 6-pound, 6-ounce can of Saporito Filleto di Pomodoro—peeled tomato strips—at Talutto’s in the Italian market. It cost $6.99. By weight, that’s about half the price of supermarket San Marzanos, and the way these tomato strips are packed, you actually end up with more tomatoes. I almost didn’t buy them, they seemed so cheap. But then my inner miser refocused me on the mission at hand.

I used them to re-create The Industry’s lamb neck gravy along Szoke’s general outline.

It would be nice to be able to manufacture a bit of suspense here, but the possibility vanished as soon as I opened the can. The tomatoes were bright red, tender, and totally ripe. Very flavorful. And so was my lamb neck gravy, which turned out a little meatier than Szokes, but still channeled those tomatoes to splendid effect.

Will I still use San Marzanos? Sure. But next time I visit Talutto’s, I might bring a suitcase. Fall is coming, and I see a lot of bulk tomato-based recipes in my future.

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