Tomatoes: San Marzano vs. Other Varieties


Tomatoes are a cornerstone of Italian cuisine, revered for their vibrant flavor and versatility in countless dishes. Among the many varieties, San Marzano tomatoes hold a special place, often considered the gold standard for cooking, particularly in making sauces. This article delves into the unique characteristics of San Marzano tomatoes, compares them with other varieties, and explores their significance in culinary traditions.


The San Marzano Tomato

Origin and Characteristics

San Marzano tomatoes originate from the small town of San Marzano sul Sarno in Italy’s Campania region. Grown in the rich volcanic soil near Mount Vesuvius, these tomatoes benefit from an ideal climate and soil composition that impart a unique flavor profile.

  • Shape and Size: San Marzano tomatoes are oblong and slender, typically about three inches long.
  • Flavor: They are known for their sweet taste, low acidity, and rich, full-bodied flavor, with a hint of bitterness that adds depth to sauces.
  • Texture: The flesh is dense and meaty with fewer seeds and less water content than other varieties, making them perfect for thick, flavorful sauces.


San Marzano tomatoes are grown using traditional methods and are often harvested by hand to ensure quality. They are protected under the European Union’s Denomination of Protected Origin (DOP) status, which ensures that true San Marzano tomatoes come from the designated region and are grown according to strict guidelines.

Comparison with Other Tomato Varieties

Roma Tomatoes

Roma tomatoes, also known as plum tomatoes, are a popular variety often used as a substitute for San Marzano in cooking.

  • Shape and Size: Like San Marzano, Roma tomatoes are oval-shaped but are generally shorter and stouter.
  • Flavor: Roma tomatoes have a balanced sweet-acidic flavor, though they are not as sweet or rich as San Marzano.
  • Texture: They have a firmer flesh with fewer seeds, making them suitable for sauces and canning but with a higher water content than San Marzano.

Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, each with a distinct flavor profile.

  • Shape and Size: These tomatoes vary widely, from large and bulbous to small and round.
  • Flavor: Heirlooms are celebrated for their complex and varied flavors, which can range from intensely sweet to tart and tangy.
  • Texture: Heirloom tomatoes have a higher water content and more seeds, making them less ideal for sauces but perfect for salads and fresh dishes.

Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes are small, round, and sweet, commonly used in salads and as snacks.

  • Shape and Size: They are small, round, and typically about the size of a cherry.
  • Flavor: These tomatoes are very sweet and juicy, with a high sugar content.
  • Texture: Their high water content and abundant seeds make them unsuitable for thick sauces, but they add a burst of flavor to fresh dishes.

Beefsteak Tomatoes

Beefsteak tomatoes are large, meaty, and often used in sandwiches and for slicing.

  • Shape and Size: They are large and typically irregular in shape.
  • Flavor: Beefsteak tomatoes have a mild, balanced flavor that is less intense than San Marzano.
  • Texture: Their flesh is juicy with a high water content, making them less ideal for sauces but great for fresh applications.

Culinary Uses and Significance

San Marzano in Italian Cuisine

San Marzano tomatoes are the preferred choice for traditional Italian dishes, especially sauces like Marinara and pizza sauce.

  • Sauces: Their dense flesh and low water content allow for thick, rich sauces that cling well to pasta and other ingredients.
  • Preservation: San Marzano tomatoes are often canned, preserving their peak flavor and making them available year-round. The DOP certification ensures that canned San Marzano tomatoes maintain their authentic quality.

Versatility of Other Varieties

While San Marzano tomatoes excel in sauces, other varieties have their own niches in culinary applications.

  • Roma Tomatoes: Widely used in sauces and salsas, Roma tomatoes are a versatile and affordable alternative to San Marzano.
  • Heirloom Tomatoes: Their diverse flavors and vibrant colors make heirlooms ideal for fresh salads, salsas, and garnishes.
  • Cherry Tomatoes: Perfect for adding sweetness and color to salads, pasta dishes, and skewers.
  • Beefsteak Tomatoes: Excellent for sandwiches, burgers, and fresh tomato salads, providing juicy, thick slices.


In conclusion, San Marzano tomatoes, with their unique flavor, texture, and culinary heritage, are a prized ingredient in Italian cuisine, especially for making rich, flavorful sauces. While other tomato varieties each have their own strengths and applications, San Marzano’s unmatched quality and taste make them the preferred choice for many traditional Italian dishes. Understanding the distinct characteristics of each variety allows cooks to select the best tomatoes for their culinary creations, celebrating the diversity and richness of this essential ingredient.