Chef Elle Simone's trip to the Campania region in Italy. She learns about the San Marzano tomato from cultivation to cooking. Photo credit: Chef Elle Simone

Chef Elle Simone discovers that the soul of San Marzano, Italy is in a tomato

6 mins read

An American chef went on a culinary adventure where they discovered the unique and unparalleled experience of farming, cooking and eating a cherished Italian tomato.

Sunshine and lava. These words poured from Chef Elle Simone when describing the first bite into the famously sumptuous, high-end San Marzano tomatoes. Located in the Campania region, the tomatoes were one of the many incredible edibles she savored during an immersive trip to Italy. There, the renowned American chef explored its culinary and wine traditions from an insider’s perspective. 

From village to town, to alcoves by the sea, the Detroit-made, Brooklyn-raised gastronomy goddess traversed the charming villages of Sorrento and Amalfi Coast, as well as Naples. Venturing from farm-to-farm, she met with food producers and artisans, while discovering the local food ways that make this corner of southern Italy so special. 

Before we proceed. There is something essential to this story that you must know. Italians are serious about their food, and how it grows. How serious? To eat one of their dishes is ingesting both tradition and many generations of experimenting with agriculture that is painstakingly grown with the deepest respect for the land.

This science of soil love and culinary reverence floods Chef Elle Simone’s degustation notes from that journey. In fact, they still linger on her sensory palette. Like, the moments she sampled the depths of different marmalades crafted from locally grown fruits; or the light, yet creamy textures found in buffalo milk mozzarella. She remembers the delicious specialties so profoundly. However, amongst all the exceptional flavors she both supped and devoured, there was one true gem—San Marzano tomatoes.

The Gem

San Marzano tomatoes grow in the Sarnese-Nocerino district of Campania, near Naples. Renowned for blooming in the most ideal conditions, including mineral-rich volcanic soil, ample water sources, and consistent relative humidity, San Marzano tomatoes take an elongated plum shape, and are colored a vibrant red. 

During harvest, each tomato is selected with the kind of care to that of a rare flower—hand-picked with concerted attention and without bruising. The agricultural treasure is so precious, it received the coveted DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin) label. A prestigious certification, the DOP validation ensures the tomatoes have been cultivated within a specific geographical area using strict production methods, guaranteeing their authenticity and quality. 

The DOP also explains its premium ranking, but Chef Elle Simone details its taste. “San Marzano tomatoes are known for their low acidity levels and high natural sweetness, which make them meatier than other tomato varieties,” she says. “They have fewer seeds and less water content, resulting in a thicker sauce with a more concentrated flavor.” 

Pairing this variety with the grassiness of an organic olive oil resembled the volcanic explosions from the nearby Mt. Vesuvius, which contributes significantly to the tomato’s robust, yet fresh taste. This also points to why it is a coveted ingredient in kitchens around the world and a popular choice for tomato sauce. From its unique constitution and superior-quality, chefs and home cooks value this specialty of tomato.

On her trip to the Campania region in Italy, Chef Elle Simone experienced the complete farm-to-table process. During her excursion, she learned the special harvesting process on San Marzano tomatoes (top left and top center), and the rigorous processing of them to maintain the DOP label (top right), which is a premium stamp of approval by Italy’s agricultural department. The San Marzano tomatoes are often imported as a canned product (bottom right) and used in kitchens across the world. Chef Elle Simone enjoyed the rich cultural and culinary heritage of the region (bottom center) with a group of chefs and food writers who received the hella local experience from tour guides (bottom right). Photo credit: Chef Elle Simone

Flavor and versatility

According to Chef Elle Simone, these tomatoes offer a subtle sweetness that is not overpowering, along with a meaty and firm texture when consumed raw. This makes them an excellent addition to salads or sandwiches. However, the real magic of San Marzano tomatoes happens when they are cooked. They develop a deep, rich flavor that cannot be replicated with any other type of tomato.

Chef Elle Simone adds, “They caramelize easily and produce a sauce that is smooth and velvety, without any bitterness or tanginess.” 

This makes them the perfect ingredient to use in a variety of dishes, particularly on pizza and in soup. As a versatile ingredient, San Marzano tomatoes can elevate any dish, and their unique flavor and texture have made them highly valued by chefs and home cooks worldwide.

Luckily, enjoying the delicious flavor of San Marzano tomatoes can happen outside of Italy. These tomatoes are widely available in specialty food stores and supermarkets worldwide. While fresh San Marzano tomatoes are in season during the summer months, canned varieties can be found year-round. To ensure that you’re getting the real deal, look for the official DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin) label on the packaging. 

This certification also guarantees that the tomatoes have been grown and processed according to strict standards within the designated region of Campania, Italy. Reputable brands of canned San Marzano tomatoes carry the DOP label and can be easily found in the U.S. That said, there’s no excuse not to try this superior tomato variety in your next culinary creation. For a head start, below are two recipes for quick, easy summer salads using fresh San Marzano tomatoes.

The Recipe: San Marzano Tomato & Peach Salad

Enjoy this refreshing summer salad that combines the sweetness of mango with the rich flavor of San Marzano tomatoes and fresh herbs. It’s perfect as a side dish or light lunch on a hot summer day.

Ingredients:

  • 5 fresh San Marzano tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 ripe nectarines, peeled, pit removed, and diced
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions:

  1. In a large bowl, combine the chopped San Marzano tomatoes, diced mango, thinly sliced red onion, chopped cilantro, and chopped mint leaves.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together the honey, lime juice, and olive oil to make the dressing.
  3. Pour the dressing over the tomato and mango mixture, and toss gently to coat.
  4. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Serve the salad immediately or chill in the refrigerator for up to 1 hour before serving.

The Recipe: Roasted San Marzano Tomato and Mango Salad

This salad combines the savory, earthy taste of San Marzano tomatoes with the sweet, juicy flavor of fresh mango.  The addition of goat cheese and pistachios add a creamy, crunchy texture, while the dressing gives the dish a unique flavor profile that is both tangy and sweet. Fresh herbs, add a burst of freshness and a beautiful aroma to the dish

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound San Marzano tomatoes, halved
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups mango, peeled and sliced
  • ¼ cup fresh basil, chopped
  • ¼  cup fresh mint, chopped
  • ¼  cup goat cheese, crumbled
  • ¼  cup pistachios, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • ¼  teaspoon cumin
  • Chopped herbs for garnish

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. Using a small spoon, gently remove seeds and pulp. 
  3. Place the San Marzano tomato halves on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 15 minutes, tomatoes should be tender and slightly caramelized.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk together balsamic vinegar, honey, cumin, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Slowly whisk in ¼ cup olive oil until the dressing is emulsified.
  5. In a large bowl, combine the roasted San Marzano tomatoes, mango slices, chopped basil, chopped mint, and crumbled feta cheese. Add dressing over the top and toss gently to combine.
  6. Sprinkle the chopped pistachios over the salad, garnish with chopped herbs. Serve immediately.

About Chef Elle Simone: Elle Simone, also known as Elle Simone Scott, is a highly accomplished chef, culinary producer, test cook, and food stylist. She is the founder of SheChef, a mentorship program that helps women of color break into the culinary industry. In 2016, Elle Simone became the first African American woman to host on the popular PBS television show America’s Test Kitchen, where she also serves as Executive Editor and Food Stylist. She is also responsible for developing videos for the show’s online cooking school, authoring books such as Boards: Stylish Spreads for Casual Gatherings and a future show called, Entertaining With Elle. 

Elle Simone has set her sights on becoming the “culinary Oprah,” a testament to her desire to use her platform to make a positive impact on the world. Her vast culinary knowledge and unwavering commitment to diversity and inclusion in the industry make her a force to be reckoned with, and a true inspiration to aspiring chefs everywhere. Check her out on Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok.

Chef Cassandra Loftlin travels around the world digging into delicious dishes.

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