I'm folded into an old-fashioned barber's chair, a striped sheet fastened around my neck and draped down to my knees. Nick Soccodato wields the scissors while his Italian nephew Savino Zuottolo lounges on a banquette under the blue neon sign proclaiming "Nick's Hair Stylists" in the window of the Greenwich Village barbershop. "The san marzano is the best tomato in the world for making pasta sauce," says Nick, as he clips away at my few remaining strands. "You ought to write about it." I respond with more than a touch of skepticism, since Savino is about to export said tomato to America, and Nick is involved in the enterprise. Savino, who is short, compact, taciturn-Bob Hoskins, Italian-style-speaks no English. When I ask why the san marzano tomato is so superior, Nick listens to Savino's lengthy response and translates: "It has less sugar."
This may not be easy, I realize. "Does that mean it has a higher acid content?" I hazard.
Another discussion. "No, it has less acid."
Now I'm confused. If a tomato's sugar content is lower, wouldn't the natural acid be more pronounced? And if so,why would more acid make a better sauce? I persist with my questions, trying not to annoy Savino. (I'm not certain I succeed.) "The fields are near Mount Vesuvius," Nick translates. "The volcanic soil acts as a filter. The water goes down a couple of feet and...... Nick's hands describe the shape of a circular pool. "So the impurities are filtered out?" I venture. "But how does that make the tomato both less sweet and less acidic?" Nick and Savino chew the apparent contradiction over. "It's bittersweet," says Nick.
Still wary about this tomato that Nick and Savino are seducing me with, I begin to track down the san marzano tomato in the U.S.-not a simple task. I discover that the San Marzano legend on an imported can of Italian plum tomatoes may refer to San Marzano the town, not to san marzano the tomato variety, and that the can could therefore just as easily contain roma tomatoes, which are also grown and canned in the San Marzano region but are quite different in taste. Subsequently, using a recipe (at first glance, much too simple) provided by Nick's wife, Rose, I make a basic san marzano tomato sauce that turns out to be absolutely delicious. When made with a can of Progresso roma tomatoes, the results are markedly inferior. I then speak to no less an expert than the produce manager at Balducci's, Manhattan's legendary Italian market. Yes, he says, only the best of several brands of imported plum tomatoes bears the varietal name san marzano.
Savino Zuottolo insists that even the san marzano tomatoes grown outside San Marzano wouldn't have the same grate taste "I think that's a lot of hogwash," says Professor Charles Rick, a tomato geneticist at UC Berkeley, when I tell him this. "The genetics of the thing is much more important than the environment," declares the man acknowledged to be the reigning American tomato expert. Next, I talk to plantsman Shepherd Ogden, who grows san marzano tomatoes in Vermont and offers the variety's seeds in his mail-order catalogue, Cook's Garden. He dissents strongly: "Speak to a wine person," he suggests. "Ask what they think about the importance of the soil." Suddenly, the idea of writing a profile of a tomato doesn't seem so far-fetched.
I was aware that in the distant past, Lycopersicon esculentum (the designation translates literally as "edible wolfpeach") had been viewed with alarm. The first Italian reference to it, by Pier Andrea Mattioll in his Erbario of 1544, calls it both toxic and an aphrodisiac. Almost two centuries later, a Dutch herbalist asserted that the "seeds cause faintness and a sort of apoplexy." What I didn't know before visiting the New York Horticultural Society was that until the 1500s, the tomato was a stranger not only to Italy but to most of the world. "The pomo d'oro, commonly named for its intense deep yellow color," wrote naturalist Costanzo Felici in 1572, was a "singular and mysterious berry" brought home aboard their caravels by Pizarro's conquistadores. Clearly, this tomato, which had already been cultivated in southern Mexico, had changed considerably from the tiny, bright red fruit growing in the northern Andes, its place of origin. By the next century, the red variety had become preeminent throughout Europe, but only as a vine-prized for its ability to enhance arbors and camouflage outhouses.
Despite the mysterious berry's bad press, the common people of Spain and southern Italy insisted on eating it. Then, in 1797, Francesco Leonardi, chef to Empress Catherine 11 of Russia, included a tomato coulis in his gastronomic encyclopedia, Apico Moderno. Was it this entry, or, perhaps, the first published recipe for pasta with tomato sauce that appeared in Naples in 1839, that finally conferred respectability upon the fruit that everyone loved to hate? We'll never know. But in the country whose cuisine is unthinkable without them, tomatoes didn't become truly popular until they were processed and bottled in glass in the late 1800s. The rage began in the south, not just because of the climate, but because of the potent Spanish influence on Italian cuisine.
From Rome's Fiumicino Airport, I aim my rental car towards Naples on the Al autostrada. Two hours later the Salerno and Reggio Calabria sign appears, just as Nick had predicted, and soon afterward, almost as an afterthought, a smaller one announces the turnoff for San Marzano. Immediately, I plunge into a succession of towns, each one indistinguishable from the next and all bearing arrows pointing to my destination. "As soon as you get off the highway and head for San Marzano you notice something strange," Nick had told me. "You say 'What's going on?' Then you notice the fields with fruits and vegetables. You see the soil and it's saying, 'Look at me. Look how rich I am!"'
Does the soil speak to me? Yes and no. I had pictured great tracts of farmland bursting with perfect produce. Instead, there are plots of every size in every possible place-in front yards, abutting gas stations, along the edges of the road. The vegetation is rampant, elbows flying, watch out, here I come! Exactly like the drivers in San Marzano. There are no signs, no traffic lights, nobody stops. Except me. Then everybody honks as if I'm the crazy one. At 8 P.M. the streets are full of people. Chairs are set inches from roaring motorbikes, and nobody seems to notice. Small alleys are a jumble of houses. Anarchy is in the drivers, the fields, the town-in the Italian blood. I know. I feel it myself.
As a child, Savino Zuottolo lugged fresh tomatoes from his father's small farm to local markets in nearby San Marzano. Now, as a partner in a company that owns hundreds of hectares, at harvest time he ships 4,500 pounds of tomatoes daily to locations throughout Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. "Three years ago, when I went to Italy, we exchanged ideas," Nick had told me. "Savino had the best tomatoes in the whole area at a great price. He said he would like to come to the U.S." Now, from the Albergo Nappo, I place a call to Savino's office. The word Americano gets the message across, and an hour later Savino, his partner Nicola Coppola, and I are engaged in a Marx Brothers routine of mutual incomprehension. Ultimately, we agree that Savino and an interpreter will pick me up at ten o'clock the next morning.
At 10:30 A.M., I am sitting on the hotel steps when Nicola pulls up. We walk across the street for a caffe macchiato-two sugars, a dash of cream, and a shot of pure caffeine. Nicola is friendly and outgoing, simply dressed, unshaven, rugged. The tiny demitasse almost disappears in his powerful hand. Chatting with the local men, some of whom are farmers, I can picture him striding through fields of San Marzano tomatoes, a true man of the soil. When we leave, I notice that his little red car is an Alfa Romeo.
Inside a warehouse a mile from town, workers are preparing vegetables for shipping. A woman chops the outer leaves from heads of lettuce and tosses them into a tub of water. Gialletto di Sicilia melons, which look like bright yellow footballs, fill metal bins. Vincenzo Zuottolo, a thinner, more carefree version of his older brother, helps two young women sort a pile of peppers twice the size of any I've ever seen. "Wait till you see them," Nick had said. " They look like they come from another planet." I'm called into the office. Savino and the interpreter have arrived. Anna Pina Franza is a blond high school English teacher who sounds like Sophia Loren. She accompanies me to the rear of the warehouse, where deep red plum tomatoes are being boxed. Now can I find out why the san marzano is the best in the world for making sauce? I wonder. I ask Anna, who asks Vincenzo and translates his reply: "It has less sugar."
An empirical demonstration awaits. Several newly washed roma tomatoes are lying next to some just-picked san marzanos. The difference in appearance is striking. The san marzanos are thin and pointed. (Scrawny would be the most appropriate word.) The romas are plump and glowing with health. I try a roma first, and find it mild, juicy, and very pleasant, albeit a bit bland. In contrast, the san marzano is meatier and drier, with a much stronger, much better taste. And ... it is less sweet! "I told you," says Anna. 'It's not like candy or cake. In the san marzano tomato, less is more."
The Romano canning factory is state-of-the-art and smells like tomato juice. Savino is negotiating with the owners to package his product, and he wants me to see how a modem cannery operates. In a white lab coat, I follow two chemists through a maze of conveyor belts. Thousands of tomatoes are being ferried, analyzed, sorted, washed, scalded, peeled, and packed into cans, which are then sterilized and capped. Adorned with colorful labels, the cans rise in silver phalanxes to the celling.'It's all quite fascinating, but I'm much more comfortable when we leave this antiseptic environment, pick up Giacomo Mura (one of the farmers who supplies Savino with tomatoes), and drive out of town to his fields. There, row upon row of head-high san marzano tomato plants are growing so thickly that it is impossible to see where one ends and another begins. Trained on wires supported by wooden stakes, the bushes bear their fruit in hefty clusters. Some are so heavily laden that they have snapped the stakes like matchsticks.
Up and down the rows we walk, Giacomo stopping to point out particularly abundant yields. Now, the soil speaks to me-and I'm at a loss for words. I can only shake my head in wonder. As we return to the car, a worker with a bunch of grapes greets us and passes them around. The man shows me his hands, stained black as if by a permanent tattoo. "It's from picking tomatoes", he tells me. "The juice from the stems. Hard work," he gestures with a grin and waves us on our way. The fresh tomatoes I've seen wi 'II go to supermarkets in Rome, Ancona, Florence-throughout Italy. Next year, they will be in the La Bella San Marzano brand of canned tomatoes (with a ripe, beaming, and bosomy maiden on the label, her lips and fingertips lacquered red like the san marzanos in her golden crown) and shipped to the United States. Then, as Savino comments, as he drives me back to the hotel, who knows? Nicola may be able to buy another Alfa Romeo.
As for me, if someone should ask why I wrote a story about a tomato, I'll simply say, "My barber made me do it."
That the San Marzano tomato is different from - and superior to - other plum tomatoes is easy to establish. You simply have to taste it. How it got that way is a much more complicated matter.
According to Linneaus' classification, the tomato belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshade) family which includes potatoes, peppers and other less benign plants. Because it begins as a plant ovary it is botanically a fruit, though the United States Supreme Court decreed in 1893 that it is a vegetable, and lawyers ought to know. The San Marzano has two locules or seed pockets as opposed to 5 to 7 in round tomatoes. But how did that come to be?
"It, (the plum shape) might have arisen as a mutation," said tomato genetist Charles Rick of the University of California. "The genetic difference between it and the round type is only one or two genes. It apparently wasn't in any of the original varieties that were brought into the Mediterranean," he added, "but the fact that it is pretty widely spread through the Mayan area sugests that it is a very old type of variant."
In Italy farmers traditionally selected the best tomato fruits, then picked and dried their seeds. So a primitive sort of selection resulted in a series of hybrids. Savino remembers being told that at the beginning of the 19th century when farmers found a particularly beautiful or unusual plant they set aside the seeds. "Bit by bit the shapes changed until we got the present San Marzano shape."
In a treatise of 1789, two Italian abbots described a "pear-shaped tomato which is of a more delicate and less acid taste," possibly the forefather of the San Marzano. The conjecture is that this tomato resulted from a spontaneous hybridization of two other varieties, Fiaschella and Fiascone, and was distinct from both them and the Roma plum tomato best known in the United States. It eventually spread into the San Marzano area from which it took its name.
So the tale of the San Marzano tomato is part scientific, part anecdotal and totally debatable. We know that it is indeterminate in nature (bears fruit over an extended period), has a small seed cavity that can be scooped out leaving all meat and peels easily. It ripens in about 80 days after transplanting in the U.S., 60 to 70 days in San Marzano's volcanic soil, is resistant to cracking, cylindrical with two longitudinal depressions and has fruit grouped in bunches of 5 or 6 or more.
The ultimate description, however, was offered in 1920 by Ferruccio Zago in his "Notions of Horticulture."
"The peeled tomato industry is a source of pride in the Agro Nocerino area," he wrote. "People use a variety known as San Marzano. The plant can bear up to 10 to 12 bunches of fruit, the skin has a bright red color and is easily removable, an indispensable characteristic for preparing peeled tomatoes." And finally, "The pulp is dense and not much sacchariferous." In other words...