RED BANK: TOMATOES, JUST OFF THE BOAT

dibartoloJimmy DiBartolo gives PieHole a crash course in imported Italian tomatoes. (Photo by Jim Willis. Click to enlarge)

By JIM WILLIS

A few months from now in the fertile fields of Foggia, Italy, farmers will sow seeds for Roma plum tomatoes. Prized for its role in red sauce, this variety of tomato will mature and ripen under the warm Mediterranean sun. Come August, there will be an enormous crop of sweet, slightly acidic tomatoes with just a few seeds inside.

What’s got PieHole hot on the trail of these particular tomatoes is that if you’ve eaten red sauce or had pizza anywhere on The Green lately, there’s a very good chance that you’ve tasted these exact tomatoes from Foggia.

saucesPieHole‘s neighbor Melissa Bartolone cooked up a pair of sauces to compare San Marzano and standard-variety plums. (Photo by Melissa Bartolone.)

With some help from Jimmy DiBartolo, who owns Quick Stop Food & Paper, those tomatoes will be harvested at the end of the summer in Foggia, get canned near Naples, Italy and ultimately end up in his store on Newman Springs Road in Red Bank.

DiBartolo is going into his third year of supplying the area’s restaurants with this particular variety of tomatoes. We’re not going to name names here, but let’s say that according to DiBartolo, the list of Red Bank-area restaurants that buy his tomatoes is pretty comprehensive.

“Look,” says DiBartolo his hands dancing with his words, “I’ve been in the wholesale food business for 30 years. The key to every restaurant is their Italian tomato.”

DiBartolo tells PieHole that after years of opening cans of tomatoes and talking with his customers — chefs from some of New York and New Jersey’s big-name Italian restaurants — he knows a thing or two about tomatoes.

Foggia is nicknamed Tavoliere (think tavolo, or table) because it is a key agricultural region just north of the heel of Italy’s boot. DiBartolo, who visits the region each August to line up his supply of tomatoes, says the climate produces a slightly sweeter tomato that makes an exceptional sauce.

“If a good Italian handles these tomatoes, forget about it,” says DiBartolo.

But it’s not just where they’re grown that accounts for the flavor, says DiBartolo. Over the years he’s refined his canning process to include a porcelain-lined can that prevents the tomatoes from picking up the metallic taste that you can sometimes find in a canned tomato.

DiBartolo’s Quick Stop Food & Paper is a restaurant wholesaler, so we’re talking about jumbo-sized 88-ounce cans of tomatoes here. Roughly equal to just over three of the smaller, grocery-store sized cans of tomatoes. Still, at $3.95 for the 88-ounce can, it’s a considerable bargain if you’re making a Sunday sauce for your family or making some red sauce to freeze.

DiBartolo says that while the store typically caters to stores and restaurants, individual consumers come in to shop, too. “There are items shoppers can get here that they can’t get anywhere else,” says DiBartolo.

DiBartolo also imports San Marzano tomatoes (aka D.O.P tomatoes, for Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta, the Italian government organization that oversees the sale of this specific type of tomato).

The San Marzano, grown in soil that is rich with Mount Vesuvius’ volcanic ash, has a reputation for its bright flavor. DiBartolo’s are $6.95 for the 88-ounce can, and carry the D.O.P. stamp.

PieHole asked DiBartolo if he thought the San Marzanos were worth almost twice as much as the non-D.O.P. variety. Clearly proud of his canned tomatoes, he told PieHole he suspected that we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between his standard Romas and the San Marzano variety, and might even prefer his.

As a rule, PieHole does not wake up in the middle of the night pondering questions like “Are San Marzanos worth the extra money?” However this is exactly the kind of question that will leave us sitting at an intersection for an extra moment or two after the light turns green.

And so it was that we found ourselves at our kitchen counter with one can of each variety of DiBartolo’s tomatoes, carefully dividing them into containers that we would label as “Tomato A” and “Tomato B” and distribute to our neighbors for some good old-fashioned, blind taste-testing.

The Bartolones of Mori Place and Rossano family of Marion Street — both families have accomplished home cooks with Italian red sauce in their veins — volunteered their kitchens and palates.

Melissa Bartolone made a pair of identical marinara (quick cook) sauces and put them to her family for tasting.  Jenny and Alex Rossano made a pair of long-simmer sauces. Neither family could taste the difference between the San Marzanos and the standard variety. When pressed to choose, both slightly preferred DiBartolo’s standard variety tomato over the San Marzano.

So if you want to pay double, go ahead, because here’s the thing: whichever tomato you decide to buy, it’s going to mean spending some time at home cooking and thinking about your food and where it came from. And you can’t put a price on that.