What are 'certified' San Marzanos?

Cento Italian tomatoes are "certified" San Marzanos. (Oct.

Cento Italian tomatoes are "certified" San Marzanos. (Oct. 10, 2012) (Credit: Newsday / Erica Marcus)

Erica Marcus

Erica Marcus (face disguised) is Newsday's food writer. Erica Marcus

Marcus has covered food for Newsday since 1998.

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Who "certifies" Cento-brand San Marzano canned tomatoes, and what does the certification signify?

That's what I wanted to know when I recently came across a can in an Italian specialty market. I was familiar with Cento's D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes, but "certified" was a new one on me. Turns out that the label has changed but, according to Cento, the tomatoes have not.

San Marzano is a variety of plum tomato renowned for its sweet flavor, meaty texture and relative paucity of seeds. There's no better canned tomato for sauce. San Marzanos can be grown anywhere, but they are most associated with Agro Nocerino-Sarnese, an area of Campania between Naples and Salerno whose climate and volcanic soil (thank you, Mt. Vesuvius) is said to provide ideal growing conditions.

In the 1990s, tomato growers from the region banded together to form a consortium to regulate production and, in 1996, the European Union granted the consortium the exclusive right to label tomatoes "San Marzano D.O.P." The abbreviation stands for "Denominazione d'Origine Protetta."

The border around the "protected" area is very irregular; in many cases part of a town lies within it; the rest, outside. Moreover, the consortium's growers must adhere to dozens of rules, for example: Each tomato's seeds must be traced back to the original San Marzano cultivar, the tomatoes must be grown in rows with 16 inches between plants and 43 inches between rows and they must be harvested by hand.

There are about 20 brands of imported San Marzano tomatoes sold in the United States. Some, such as Asti, are labeled D.O.P.; some, such as Bella San Marzano, are not. Some brands -- among them La Valle, La Fede and Pastene -- are available in both versions, with the D.O.P.s selling for up to a dollar more.

Cento is one of the country's largest importers of Italian tomatoes, and, until about a year ago, its San Marzano tomatoes bore the D.O.P. label. Then, said Maurice Christino, the company's creative director, the consortium asked Cento to change the wording on the label, an expense the company did not wish to take on. So, Cento hired the same third-party organization that the consortium uses to "certify'' that Cento's tomatoes are indeed San Marzanos from Nocerino-Sarnese and adhere to all the D.O.P. regulations.

This all put me in mind of my favorite San Marzano story. I was at the annual Fancy Food trade show in Manhattan and met a representative of a tomato importer whose D.O.P. and non-D.O.P. San Marzanos I'd never been able to tell apart."What is the difference?" I asked.

"Well," he said, "the non D.O.P. tomatoes are grown across the street from the D.O.P.s."

Is farfalle related to farfel?

No, farfalle is the Italian word for butterflies, and even though farfalle are usually described as bowtie-shaped pasta, you can see their resemblance to butterflies.

Farfel are little pellets of egg pasta (also known as egg barley) that show up in Ashkenazic soups and, most deliciously, sauteed with mushrooms and onion. The Yiddish word farfel is probably is derived from the Middle High German varveln, or noodles.