San Marzano tomatoes are plum tomatoes named for San Marzano sul Sarno, the small Italian town where they originated. The volcanic soil conditions created by eruptions from Mount Vesuvius are credited with the taste the tomatoes are known for.
Considered the Gucci of canned tomatoes, San Marzanos carry a higher price tag than other Italian or domestically produced canned tomatoes. Like other Italian luxuries (such as Gucci belts and handbags), San Marzano tomato fraud is rampant, with many “fakes” being passed off as the real deal in the US.
Keep reading to learn about this luxury tomato and why it’s nearly impossible to have genuine San Marzano tomatoes.
History of the San Marzano Tomato
The San Marzano tomato first became popular around 1875. Cans of these tomatoes from the Campania region in Italy between Naples and Salerno were highly sought after by chefs and home cooks. The incredible flavor and texture is what gave them their primo status.
San Marzano tomatoes have a Protected Destination of Origin (abbreviated as DOP). It’s similar to the protected status of Parmigiano-Reggiano, Balsamic Vinegar, Asiago cheese, and other Italian foods. DOP is a way to guarantee authenticity that a food is what it claims to be. It didn’t take long for fake DOP labels to be placed on “San Marzano” tomatoes not from this region and the practice continues today.
Because of their DOP status, San Marzano tomatoes grown anywhere other than the Campania region in Italy aren’t true San Marzanos — only San Marzano-style tomatoes. But don’t let that discourage you from growing them in your garden.
Characteristics of the San Marzano Tomato
The San Marzano tomato is an indeterminate variety that grows 6-8 feet tall and produces a high yield. Fruit is bright red with an oblong shape that’s pointy at one end. They’re longer and thinner than other plum tomatoes. The tomatoes grow in clusters of 6-8 fruits and the vines need stakes or cages for support.
Ripening Season (early, late, etc)
A mid-season tomato. Fruit ripens 75-85 days after transplanting and plants keeps producing until the first frost.
Tomato qualities: tart, sweet, firm, etc
Meaty fruit with fewer seeds than other plum tomatoes (2 seed pockets instead of 5). The taste is a perfect balance of sweet and tart.
Small, 1-3 inches in length and weighing 4-6 ounces.
Zones 5-10. Starter plants are hard to find, so start seeds indoors 8 weeks before the last spring frost. San Marzanos are ideal for small-space or patio gardens.
Size and Spacing
Plant tomatoes when the seedlings are 6 inches tall, spacing them 24-36 inches apart. Plant with the lower 2/3 of the plant below ground and pinch off all but the top 2 sets of leaves. Before planting San Marzanos, read the Soil section below about their phosphorus needs.
Like most tomatoes, San Marzanos only need natural pollinators like honeybees, bumblebees, and wind.
San Marzanos do require specific care pertaining to nutrients and pinching/pruning.
6-8 hours of sunlight a day
Well-drained soil amended with compost or manure. To add phosphorus, sprinkle bone meal on the bottom of each planting hole. Or you can place a small fish carcass at the bottom of the hole.
Too much water creates soggy soil that suffocates tomato roots and causes rot from fungal infections. Provide an inch of water a week for your tomatoes. Keep the soil consistently moist by spreading a 2-3 inch layer of mulch around your tomato plants, but keep the ground clear of mulch three inches around the base of the plant.
San Marzanos are heavy feeders. When fruits are the size of golf balls add 5-10-10 fertilizer (or lower nitrogen fertilizer) every three weeks throughout the growing season.
San Marzanos are a “bushy” tomato and require ongoing pinching and pruning to allow sunlight to reach vines and provide ventilation. When half of a branch has turned yellow, remove it.
Verticillium and Fusarium wilt are the two biggest concerns for San Marzano tomatoes. If these are a known problem in your garden’s soil, plant your San Marzanos in large containers with tomato-specific soil mix.
Tomatoes suffer a number of pests including aphids, whiteflies, tomato hornworms, slugs, pill bugs, and rodents. Companion plants like marigolds, catnip, fennel, dill, basil, and cilantro repel common tomato pests. Netting helps keep out birds and larger pests, but can also interfere with beneficial insects and pollinators.
When to Harvest San Marzano Tomatoes
San Marzano tomatoes will be ready for picking in August and harvesting will continue until the first frost in your area. There will be about 100 fruits per plant, so plan on making frequent trips to your garden. Once picked, they’ll last 2-3 days at room temperature.
Common Uses For San Marzano Tomatoes
San Mazanos are used in all kinds of Italian cuisine. It’s hard to get more Italian than this tomato.
What Does the San Marzano Tomato Taste Like?
Intense tomato flavor with a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity.
Sauces, pasta, pizza. If it’s Italian cooking that calls for tomatoes, San Marzanos won’t let you down.
While much is made over using San Marzanos in cooked dishes, they’re also great in salads and salsas.
Canning / Freezing / Drying
There are countless tomato sauces featuring San Marzano tomatoes. The one below is just one to start with.
Health Benefits of San Marzano Tomatoes
Tomatoes are high in vitamins C and K, potassium, and folate. They’re also one of the best dietary sources of lycopene, an antioxidant credited with reducing the risks of heart disease and cancer.
Where to Buy San Marzano Tomato Plants or Seeds
It’s possible to find garden centers that sell tomato plants labeled “San Marzano.” Or you can purchase seeds to start indoors.
Where to Buy San Marzano Tomatoes
Canned tomatoes labeled as “San Marzano tomatoes” are everywhere, but authentic Italian San Marzanos are rare (and expensive). You’ll know them by the Pomodoro S. Marzano dellâ Agro Sarnese-Nocerino on the DOP label. San Marzano-style tomatoes are the norm in US grocery stores and they’re also quite tasty.
Fresh San Marzanos can be purchased at Trader Joe’s, specialty grocery stores, online retailers, or at farmers markets.
Wrapping Up the San Marzano Tomato
Who knew there was so much drama and intrigue surrounding a canned tomato? Hopefully this has made you curious enough to try some cans in your favorite Italian recipes to see what the fuss is all about (I certainly will). You may find the taste motivates you to grow San Marzano tomatoes in your home garden (or rather, San Marzano-style tomatoes!).
Have an experience with growing San Marzano tomatoes or want to share a beloved San Marzano tomato recipe? Leave a comment below!
And to read about other tomatoes, click here for our other tomato-related blog articles.