Just what are DOP tomatoes? Good question. The short answer? DOP stands for the Italian phrase Denominazione d' Origine Protetta (roughly, "protected designation of origin"). The long answer, after the jump.
Before we go any further, I should state that, yes, we are talking about San Marzano tomatoes here. DOP certification guarantees that a tomato is of the San Marzano variety. But not all San Marzano tomatoes are DOP — that all depends on whether a producer wants to go through the rigamarole of getting its product certified.
To confuse matters a little more, I should note that San Marzano refers both to the region of Italy that these fruits are grown in and to a strain of tomato — thus you could have a San Marzano strain of tomato grown outside the San Marzano region. Got that? Haven't lost you? Good. (I will also note that a very good resource on everything San Marzano is the website sanmarzanotomatoes.org.)
OK, so what exactly is DOP?
According to Wikipedia, the purpose of the DOP mark (or Protected Designation of Origin [PDO] in English) "is to protect the reputation of the regional foods and eliminate the unfair competition and misleading of consumers by non-genuine products, which may be of inferior quality or of different flavor."
If you're familiar with the concept of "Champagne" vs. "sparkling wine," it's sort of like that.
Why bother? Imagine you're a tomato producer (or wine- or cheese-maker): There's a significant economic benefit in trumpeting the unique qualities and flavors of your product — and therefore in protecting the very notion of what defines that product.
In the case of DOP tomatoes, the regulations that define them designate, among others:
- What strain of tomato they are
- Where in Italy they can be grown
- How they are to be grown
- The size, shape, and color when harvested
- That they be harvested by hand
- That they are peeled when packed
To read the full list of regulations, here's a document (translated from the Italian) that sets forth all the small print.
Does DOP Make a Difference?
Of course, all of this certification rests on the notion that DOP tomatoes truly are superior in flavor and cooking results to similar tomatoes grown elsewhere or marketed under different names.
Are they? This is a fiercely debated topic among tomato geeks, and we'll cop out here by saying that when it comes to tomatoes, taste is subjective.
But if you want to pin us down, we at Slice have found over the course of a couple different canned-tomato tastings (here and here) that our panel of tasters didn't rate Italian DOP tomatoes any higher than U.S.-grown "Italian-style" tomatoes.
What You Might Find in Grocery Stores
Notice how in the text just above we said Italian-style tomatoes? That's not an accident. Visit the tomato aisle of your grocery store and look at the labels. For the most part, if they're grown in the U.S. or somewhere else that is not Italy, the label will read "Italian-style" (right) or sometimes "San Marzano–style." Most U.S. canners seem to respect the DOP designation by avoiding the outright use of "San Marzano" in their nomenclature.
There are some exceptions, though. Like this guy:
Look closely at the bottom of that label: "Grown domestically in the U.S.A."
Not that there's anything inherently wrong with U.S. tomatoes. In fact, we rated U.S.-grown Whole Foods and Trader Joe's tomatoes at the top of our list in our first round of tomato-tasting. Just that you might think you're getting a product of Italy when you see this familiar red-and-white can — I mean, look how old-world quaint that simple logo and packaging is — but the fine print tells you otherwise.
And this last example brings us back to the notion of San Marzano as a strain of tomato. These tomatoes use the same variety of seed as those in San Marzano, Italy. The producer here, not bound by European Union laws, has chosen to name its product as such.
Which brings me last to this ... If you really care about DOP-certified tomatoes, look for this little red-and-yellow starburst mark on the label:
But, again, in the end, it's all about what you prefer. Taste a bunch of different tomatoes; decide for yourself. But now you have some basic DOP facts to help you along.