Are San Marzano Tomatoes Worth It?

The first time I made Marcella Hazan’s somewhat legendary tomato sauce, I saw “canned imported Italian tomatoes” on the ingredient list and balked for two reasons:

  1. All canned tomatoes aren’t the same?
  2. Where would I find these fancier-sounding tomatoes?

I chose San Marzano tomatoes for the sauce not because I knew what they were, but because the label said they were Italian tomatoes “From Italy.” Yes, they were more expensive (about double the price of other canned tomatoes), but the recipe called for them, therefore there was no other way. And, I’m sad to report, I’ve continued buying San Marzano tomatoes, without knowing what they actually are or if they’re actually worth it, for any recipe that calls for them.

I've had it with my willy nilly tomato buying!
me, to myself

Recently, I said enough. I've had it with my willy nilly tomato buying! Here’s what you need to know about San Marzano tomatoes:

Where they come from:

Italy (duh) but, more specifically, Mount Vesuvius. The volcanic soil makes them sweeter, less acidic. Authentic San Marzano tomatoes will be stamped with an official DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protteta)—the same kind of certification and set of rules used for identifying wines grown in certain locales in Italy. (So, these are real and these are not.) DOP basically means "protected designation of origin" and ensures the quality of the tomatoes. Here are all the DOP regulations for San Marzano tomatoes, translated from Italian.

What makes them different:

Besides their sweetness and lower acidity, San Marzano tomatoes have firm pulp, easily removed skin, and less seeds. Authentic San Marzano tomatoes are only sold canned peeled whole or cut in half, so if they’re puréed, chopped, or diced, then they’re not the real deal (see the following point).

Can they be grown outside of Italy?

Yes and no. There are domestically grown San Marzano tomatoes, however, remember that DOP certification? Its rules ensure strict growing and canning standards and quality, which means domestically grown San Marzanos will taste a lot different. As The Kitchn says, “It's comparable to the difference between French Champagne and sparkling wine from California.”

Are they worth it?

In a word, yes—especially in dishes where the quality of the canned tomato shines. (Like, for example, tomato sauce or on pizza, but not in chili.)

Shop the Story

Grab yourself a can and try one of these recipes:

Tell us: Do you use San Marzano tomatoes? Can you taste the difference?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • SuzanneM
  • Catherine Oliver
    Catherine Oliver
  • ACH
  • Caralyn Haglund
    Caralyn Haglund
  • Allan Mahnke
    Allan Mahnke
I fall in love with every sandwich I ever meet.


SuzanneM August 6, 2023
The biggest difference between canned whole (and diced) tomatoes from the US and those from Italy (including but not limited to San Mariano) is that those in the US are canned with calcium chloride so that they retain their look and firmness. This makes it so they do NOT break down with heat in sauces. Even US organic tomatoes are canned this way (shame on you, Muir Glen!). So, I only buy Italian tomatoes because they taste and perform better in cooking!! They have no other additives besides basil leaf, salt and citric acid (required to get the proper level of acidity to prevent botulism). Better yet, if you are able, can your own into glass jars at peak season.
ACH August 6, 2023
Consider that the overwhelming majority of canned tomatoes imported from Italy have puree added to them, which tends to give the tomatoes a 'cooked' taste. That said, I only use San Marzano Italian tomatoes in cooking tomato sauce. Their sweetness reminds me that it is a fruit and should have a sweetness of flavor. I buy ones with the least amount of salt so as to avoid the natural sweetness of the tomato being overwhelmed.
Catherine O. July 29, 2023
A couple of years ago I bit the bullet and switched to San Marzano. And, yes, I agree that it's for things where the tomato taste needs to shine. I make Hazan's tomato, onion, butter sauce, freeze in mini-muffing tin and put in zipping bag. Easy to use. I won't go back.
ACH February 12, 2020
There are so many considerations and facts to be dealt with here.

1. Salt content- most American brands and some Italian brands use copious amounts of salt. As that is a flavoring that is basic to almost every food and to which Americans are addicted, it is difficult to compare tomatoes with staggeringly different salt content. As a general rule of thumb, be suspicious of highly salted tomatoes from
wherever. You're tasting the salt, not the tomato.

2. Tariffs. Any item of produce, like a can of tomatoes, has a 100% tariff assessed against it upon import. How to get around this? Put puree in the can and, voila!, it is a prepared food product and not subject to the tariff. But, the cooked product that is the puree takes away from the 'freshness' of the tomato.

3. You've heard it before but, it is true. The soil that any plant grows in affects the taste of the product derived from that soil tremendously. Winemakers have been heard to say that they try to 'kill' the vines and imbue the wine with the essence of the terroir, or soil. No one with knowledge of the issue would seriously argue that the volcanic soil and climate around Mt. Aetna is not the best place to grow plum tomatoes of the San Marzano varietal. Whether that translates into the can with the puree issue is another question.

4. Brands- There is very little question, in my mind, that the best San Marzano (or any other kind) of tomato is Sclafani. They don't load the tomatoes with salt. But, Sclafani has a unique 'advantage' over other Italian tomatoes. They are not packed in puree but rather in tomato juice. How the Sclafani people convinced U.S. Customs to let them do this is a mystery to me. On the other hand, Sclafani San Marzano and their other tomatoes are so much more expensive than other brands that perhaps they are paying the tariff. If you can afford them, buy them.

5. Outside of Sclafani, my personal favorites are Coluccio and Vantia. The way I compare tomatoes is to taste the 'juice' straight from the can. Because of the 'sweetness' of the volcanic soil, the San Marzano tomato juice tastes wonderful straight from the can unless you get too much of the puree flavor.

6. Pay attention to best-by date. The dates should be within 3 years of the harvest. If the producer puts the harvest date on the can, you should probably avoid buying tomatoes approaching the end of the 3 years and, the closer to the date of harvest, the livelier the flavor.

7. As with all things involving food and drink, your odds of getting a better product will generally (but not always!) come from a smaller rather than a mass producer. Cento tomatoes are available practically everywhere but, I consider them a fairly mediocre product compared to many small to medium San Marzano Tomato producers but, as ever, there is no arguing with taste!

Thanks and bye!

Caralyn H. July 8, 2019
I've done blind taste tests. I can not tell the difference at all.
Allan M. July 8, 2019
They are absolutely worth it. We have tried them in a variety of dishes (well, maybe not chili), and the difference is huge. They have an intense flavor that nothing else approaches.
Catherine O. February 8, 2019
I confess to buying and using San Marsano for the first time recently. And made "her" sauce. Difference was huge! I'll also add that I freeze it in mini muffin tins, pop into a zipping bag and freeze. One is about enough for a small pizza.
Catherine O. February 8, 2019
BTW, I used the onion chopped in a meaty sauce. Waste not )
witloof September 12, 2018
I buy Italian canned cherry tomatoes from a company called La Valle, and they are just exquisite. Pretty much the only thing I use them for is Marcella Hazan's sauce, and it is delicious.
Catherine O. February 8, 2019
I'm guessing you don't peel them. Do the peels come off in the cooking?
Tish February 19, 2018
I grew San Marzano tomatoes last year. No, they would not have gotten the seal since I live in Illinois, but they were still the best tasting cooking tomatoes I have ever tasted. My dishes were that much tastier. I plan to raise them every year from here on out.
Nina B. February 5, 2017
IMHO, it's the variety of tomato, not the DOP. It takes a bit of effort to find San Marzano tomato plants to buy but since I live in a fantastic city, we plant some every year (though we fight nematodes tooth and nail). I agree SMs are the best sauce tomato and I use Marcella Hazan's recipe. I'm sure all that onion has a heavy influence but the resulting sauce is our favorite, sweet beyond belief though I confess to adding some garlic, and black pepper. I just made a double batch from giant bags of tomatoes frozen last summer.
Nancy February 5, 2017
We buy a variety of organic tomatoes including organic San Marzano tomatoes from our local farmers market here in SF Bay area. We can jars every summer for wonderful tomatoes all winter long. NOTHING is better than home canned tomatoes. We know what is in every jar because we are doing the canning. And we use glass jars .. not metal cans! Try canning your own tomatoes, you won't be disappointed!
cookycat February 5, 2017
Totally agree!
Catherine O. February 8, 2019
I blanch tomatoes, remove the peels, freeze on a baking sheet and put in a zipping bag. Love it. Just recently had it with some white corn that I had cut off the cob last summer and froze. Such a treat in winter.
Sal L. February 5, 2017
Glen Muir San Mariano Style tomatoes are, in my opinion, very good.
Tyler L. February 15, 2017
I have to agree. I used to spend the extra $$$ on imported DOP San Marzano tomatoes, and one day decided to look at online reviews on my phone while at Whole Foods. I was surprised to see Muir Glen tomatoes as a common favorite. I bought them, and was surprised how much better they are than the Italian ones I've had. I got so many complements on my dinner that night. After reading about all the fraud with Italian olive oils, I have to wonder if we're getting sub-par Italian tomatoes as well?
Caralyn H. July 8, 2019
I buy Muir Glen canned tomatoes. I have done blind taste tests with the San Marino canned ones. I much prefer Muir Glen. By the way, the famous Hanzan tomato sauce recipe lacks depth, herbs and taste. I made it once but never again. My recipe is far better. Just because someone is famous does not mean every recipe they produce is a good one. Just like tomatoes. The San Marino one's get much publicity, but it does not make them the best.
Frank February 5, 2017
I can say this much, after turning 45 my body decided eating ANY tomato based products was going to give me acid indigestion for the rest of the night. First time I made one of my Italian dishes using GUSTAROSSO POMODORO S. MARZANO DELL'AGRO SARNESE-NOCERINO D.O.P. tomatoes, I was in love. Great taste and NO acid re flux. I have to admit, I do sometimes buy the less expensive U.S. grown plum tomatoes, but when the real thing goes on sale, I buy cases. They may be more expensive, but it's the difference between Filet Mignon and just steak.
Jane R. February 4, 2017
My favorite are any tomato products by La Valle. I have had such awful canned tomato experiences... entire pots of chili ruined. Some brand that was fire roasted was horrendous and the 12 pack from costco of kirkland signature tomatoes were terrible, sweet and flat.
witloof September 12, 2018
La Valle canned cherry tomatoes are the best!
Gary S. February 4, 2017
Yes thats about right....and not a Frenchman in a blind taste test can tell the difference in very good California "sparkling wine" and very good Champagne.....thats why many of the California "sparkling wine" houses are owned by the French, for example Mumms.
cookycat February 1, 2017
For about three or four years I've made this sauce with tomatoes fresh from my garden. I used whatever variety happened to be ripe and plentiful at the time. The sauce has always tasted like sunshine and oh so delicious. About a month ago I made it for the first time with canned tomatoes and I didn't use San Marazano tomatoes I used some tomatoes that were grown and canned in New Jersey. The sauce wasn't as good as my fresh tomatoes but it was very close and still excellent. Usually I make enough in the summer and freeze it so it isn't an issue. Next time I'll try the San Marazano tomatoes just to compare.
G H. January 31, 2017
True San Marazanos are worth it. More importantly do a grocery store check in the canned tomato aisle. Compare the labels for sodium content-- it can vary from 720 (most regular canned tomatoes) to 20mg (San Marzano and a few others) per serving!!
melissa January 31, 2017
good point about checking for salt!
Lusty D. January 31, 2017
San Marzano 🍅 is the best possible canned tomato you can purchase. My Sicilian grandparents always cooked with them. They're so delicious. Some olive oil, onion and basil. I sometimes add some cooked sausage,
amandainmd January 31, 2017
Has anyone done a side by side (a la America's Test Kitchen) comparison of canned tomatoes?
Smaug January 31, 2017
I plan to try one tomorrow with a can of Cento San Marzano tomatoes and one of their regular Italian tomatoes- the price difference was about $2; this seems like as likely to produce a fair comparison as anything. I suspect most of us have done some informal testing by making favorite recipes with various types of tomatoes over time- not "scientific" really, but side by side tests aren't really very accurate.
Peter January 31, 2017
AntoniaJames January 31, 2017
Thank you, Peter. ;o)
amandainmd February 1, 2017
Thank you Peter! That is more or less what I expected. San Marzano's are great, but seriously, are they worth double the price? I am unconvinced. And if you want to be super groovy about it, are they also worth shipping heavy cans of produce across an ocean? again, unconvinced.
Caralyn H. July 8, 2019
I have done blind tests with other good quality tomatoes. The San Marino has never won.
melissa January 31, 2017
very annoying that there is actually a supermarket brand called "San Marzano" that is not the DOP-stamped version...!
babsandbijoux January 31, 2017
Here in Milan my mother-in-law from Naples does NOT use the San Marzano tomatoes because of all the nuclear waste buried there. We get the tomatoes from Puglia to make our tomato sauce in August.