Why San Marzano Tomatoes Make The Best Sauce, According To A Master Pizza Maker

Excellent pizza sauce does not require a ton of ingredients or time, but it does require good tomatoes. According to pizza master Anthony Mangieri of Una Pizza Napoletana in New York City, the best sauce starts with Italian San Marzano tomatoes. Mangieri knows a thing or two about making excellent pizza, which led to Una being named the No. 1 pizzeria in the world by 50 Top Pizza for 2022.

Neapolitan pizza is not a heavily topped pizza with so many add-ons it's hard to taste them all. Mangieri tells us that it is pretty much the opposite: "There should be a nice light coating of sauce. Maybe more if you aren't adding cheese. It's not about specific quantities but about creating balance and tasting each element on the pizza." At Una, Mangieri keeps his sauce very simple, not even adding salt, instead seasoning the assembled pizza, so the tomato flavor is fresh, pure, and easier to pair with whatever goes on top. On a Neapolitan pizza, he adds, "The basic sauce is never cooked before going on the pizza. The idea is that it cooks in the oven and cooks and fuses together into a perfect balance." Cooking the tomatoes would result in "a flavor that isn't bright and popping," Mangieri says.

So, only the best and most flavorful tomatoes will make the best sauce and pizza, and that all comes back to San Marzano tomatoes from Italy.

Use Italian tomatoes

San Marzano is a type of tomato and a region in Southern Italy. These tomatoes are prized for having a thin skin, few seeds, and a flavor that hits the right balance of sweet and tangy. While a San Marzano can be grown in any climate that is hospitable to growing tomatoes, it's not considered a real San Marzano if it comes from outside of the Agro Nocerino Sarnese region in Italy. This is why you may see some canned tomatoes labeled San Marzano style tomatoes versus certified or having a DOP (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta) seal, which verifies the origins and quality of the tomato.

What that all boils down to is that not all tomatoes, even of the same style, are created equally. On a Neapolitan pizza, the sauce needs to cut through the richness of the cheese and olive oil and carry enough flavor and moisture to hold up to the thicker, fluffy rim of dough without sogging out the thin center. The soil and climate are what make San Marzano tomatoes from Italy so unique. 

While California produces a lot of great quality tomatoes, they fall short for pizza sauce, in Anthony Mangieri's opinion. Of Italian San Marzano tomatoes, he feels, "They just have more flavor and are not too sweet like a lot of California varieties. They have more natural acidity and just taste better."

How to choose an Italian San Marzano tomato

Knowing that Italian San Marzano tomatoes will give the best flavor and texture to pizza sauce is the first step, but even within that pared-down category, there is a lot of variety. It can be confusing to understand the differences between brands, especially as the tomatoes themselves can vary year to year. Anthony Mangieri says, "I used one brand for the last year or so pretty consistently for our base. There are other brands [I use] if I do something a little different." More recently, Mangieri offered a special pizza featuring four different tomatoes, but the base sauce was still the same and an anchoring flavor.

Mangieri recommends tasting an assortment of different tomatoes and not defaulting to just one particular brand. He notes that in the search for the best tomato, "There is no end. You have to be open." He also acknowledges that over time, things like companies and the products themselves can change. That is one of the reasons why he doesn't partner with specific brands but rather leaves the door open to select at his discretion. 

It all comes back to creating the perfect pizza, which Mangieri describes by saying, "The dream case is that it's light as air but super flavorful and digestible. A really beautiful experience texturally with a beautiful flavor."