The uses of tomatoes in Italian cooking are endless, but an often-asked question is, “Which one do I use to make pasta sauce?”
The fresh plum tomato is the ideal sauce tomato. It is rich in pulp and low on seeds and juice. In Italy the best plum tomatoes come from the town of San Marzano near Naples. When buying plum tomatoes, look for a healthy vine ripened specimen. They should be firm with a deep red color. If they are not mature, keep them on the window sill or in the kitchen for a few days. The Roman tomato is also available in the United States and is a good substitute for San Marzano tomatoes.
The range of choices for canned tomatoes is much larger. There are peeled tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, tomato puree, peeled tomatoes with puree and conserva (tomato paste). Each will give your sauce a different consistency and taste. “Grown and packed in Italy” on the label will ensure you an authentic Italian product. “Italian style” on the label indicates a style of preparation, not the country of origin. For best results, look for San Marzano Pomodori Pelati (peeled tomatoes from San Marzano) on the label when buying imported canned peeled tomatoes.
When fresh tomatoes are not available, I use the peeled tomatoes in their juice for basic light tomato sauce. Crush them with your hands or with a vegetable mill, then proceed to make the sauce. I myself do not like the pre-crushed tomatoes or tomato chunks in puree. When cooking sauces with meat, such as bolognese, or game sauces, I use the tomato puree or tomato paste. Crushed tomatoes make good sauces for lasagna, baked pasta dishes or vegetables and meats parmigiana.