I am 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 beneath a blue neon sign proclaiming "Nick's Hair Stylists" in the window of this 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 exporting 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 that the san marzano 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 at last.
Still wary about this tomato that Nick and Savino are seducing me with, I begin to track down the san marzano 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. For further research, I turn to no less an authority than Balducci's, Manhattan's legendary Italian market. Yes, they tell me, only the best of several brands of imported plum tomatoes bears the varietal name san marzano.
Savino Zuottolo insists that even san marzano tomatoes grown outside San Marzano wouldn't have the same great taste. "I think that's a lot of hogwash," says Professor Charley Rick, a tomato geneticist at UC Davis, 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, The 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 no longer seems so far-fetched.
I was aware that Lycopersicon esculentum (the designation translates literally as "edible wolf-peach") had once been viewed with alarm. The first Italian reference to the tomato—by Pier Andrea Mattioli in his herbal of 1544—describes it as both toxic and aphrodisiac. Almost two centuries later, a Dutch herbalist asserted that the tomato's seeds "cause faintness and a sort of apoplexy". What I hadn't realized before visiting the Horticultural Society of New York, however, 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 fruit, which had already been cultivated in southern Mexico, had changed considerably from the tiny, bright red fruit that grew in the northern Andes—the tomato's place of origin. By the next century, the red variety had become preeminent throughout Europe, but only as a decorative vine, used to enhance arbors, for instance—and even to camouflage outhouses.
Despite the bad press the mysterious berry received, the common people of Spain and southern Italy (where the climate proved particularly suitable to its propagation) insisted on eating it. Then, in 1797, the tomato went uptown when Francesco Leonardi, chef to Empress Catherine II of Russia, included a tomato coulis in his gastronomic encyclopedia, Apicio Moderno. Was it this entry, or perhaps the first published recipe for pasta with tomato sauce (which appeared in Naples in 1839 under the name viermicielli co le pomadoro), that finally conferred respectability upon the fruit that everyone loved to hate? We will never know. But in the country whose cuisine is now unimaginable without them, tomatoes didn't become truly popular until they began appearing as conservati, or conserves—processed and canned (in glass)—in the late 1800s.