ANALYSIS

The real star of FX's "The Bear"? San Marzano tomatoes

This particular tomato variety is a culinary industry darling, as well as a metaphor for brotherly love

Published July 3, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

Jeremy Allen White as Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto in "The Bear" | Canned Italian San Marzano Tomatoes (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Matt Dinerstein/FX)
Jeremy Allen White as Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto in "The Bear" | Canned Italian San Marzano Tomatoes (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Matt Dinerstein/FX)

For restaurant lovers, "The Bear," a new FX series about a pressure cooker of a professional kitchen in Chicago, is full of cute little nods to the industry. There's Sydney's resume which has her experience at the city's Michelin-starred Alinea purposely at the top. There's not one, but two Noma cookbooks in the kitchen —  "Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine" (2010) and "The Noma Guide to Fermentation" (2018). One of the cooks stumbles on a James Beard Award certificate haphazardly tucked in one of those cookbooks. 

But my favorite culinary easter egg is also one of the series' most prevalent and consequential. Stacked throughout the kitchen, on shelves and under counters, are little pyramids of canned San Marzano tomatoes. Everywhere you look back-of-house, there's a can or six. While initially they are just seemingly part of the background, these canned tomatoes eventually take the spotlight. 

"The Bear" stars Jeremy Allen White as Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto, a culinary wunderkind who left his post at the "best restaurant on Planet Earth" to take over his family's restaurant, The Original Beef of Chicagoland, following his brother's (Jon Berthal) suicide. The restaurant is in debt to the tune of over $300,000 and is rocking a C-rating from the health department. It's time to turn things around, which Carmy does with the help of eager newcomer Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) and a ragtag team of initially recalcitrant veteran cooks. 

A dominant theme over the course of the series' eight episodes, all of which are available on Hulu now, is a push-pull tension between the way things were at The Original Beef under Mike— which was comfortable, but occasionally substandard — and Carmy's fixation on perfection and profitability, which was hammered into him in punishing fine dining kitchens

That emphasis on quality is one of the reasons that the inclusion of San Marzano tomatoes is a great touch. Courtney Storer, once the longtime chef at Los Angeles' Jon & Vinny's, is the show's culinary producer. She helped her brother, series creator Chris Storer, portray authentic restaurant  life, from the phrases used in the kitchen ("Behind!") to the ingredients on the shelves. 

"San Marzano specifically are my favorite tomatoes in the whole wide world," Storer said in a phone call with Salon. "I grew up in Chicago cooking with them and I remember discovering them from — it might have been like Lidia Bastianich's show on Channel 11. She's talking about San Marzano and I said, 'Oh, wait, those are the ones to be using.'" 

When Storer eventually became a chef, she'd quickly replace the canned tomatoes in the kitchens in which she worked with San Marzanos.

"I was picking up all these recipes — like the classic Marcella Hazan tomato sauce recipe that I love — that required San Marzano tomatoes," she said. "Eventually, I was like, 'This is the secret ingredient.'"

"They're just kind of brand-standard," said Eric Rivera, a 2021 "Food and Wine Game Changer" and owner of Addo. "Maybe through marketing, or word of mouth, or just years of being around, that's kind of the route peeps take when they seek out to make Italian-style tomato sauces." 

"Maybe through marketing, or word of mouth, or just years of being around, that's kind of the route peeps take when they seek out to make Italian-style tomato sauces."

According to food writer and gardener Amanda Blum, that may be surprising to some food-lovers. As she put it, "every commercialized image we have of tomatoes — the ideal, is a slicer. A gigantic house of a tomato with [a] weirdly consistent red color, ready to be sliced." 

Blum said that paste tomatoes, of which San Marzano's are a prime variety, are different by design. 

"Instead of the juiciness that we prize a Berkeley Tie-Dye for, paste tomatoes maximize the flesh," she said. "They grow elongated to a pointed tip. Yield is the name of the game with paste tomatoes, to make sauce, salsa and paste. But even in the realm of paste tomatoes, the San Marzano is prized among gardeners for the taste." 

Prized enough that the name itself is associated with such culinary excellence that there is long-running controversy about what can and should be called a San Marzano tomato. Food writer Su Jit Lin explains that in Italy, San Marzano tomatoes grown in Valle de Sarno under certain specifications can be classified as Pomodoro San Marzano dell'Agro Sarnese-Nocerino and have the  "DOP" — or Protected Designation of Origin — emblem on the label. 

The DOP emblem is essentially a way for consumers to identify that a particular product comes from a special region, much like how people want to drink champagne that is actually from the Champagne region of France. 

"The U.S. doesn't respect DOP nomenclature until the regions come after us — [for example] Kraft having to change their product to parmesan since it's not Parmigiano," Lin said. "San Marzano tomatoes are part of that story. Most of what we get in the U.S. is from New Jersey." 

This is the case for the brand  most frequently seen in the kitchen of "The Bear." The company that makes these cans — which are white with striking illustrations of long sauce tomatoes on the side — is called Simpson Imports and is actually based in the United States. They grow and can a San Marzano variety of tomato, which they have trademarked as "San Mericans." 

It's the convergence of Old-World Italian tradition and American marketing and ingenuity, all contained in a can

It's the convergence of Old-World Italian tradition and American marketing and ingenuity, all contained in a can. It is also a nice nod to the cultural context surrounding "The Bear." Like a huge swath of Chicago's population, Carmy and his family are Italian-American (or wants to be Italian-American, like in the case of his cousin who is "Polish as f**k"). 

And Italian-American food was central to Carmy's relationship with his brother, Mike. 

Each weekend, Mike would make his family braciole, a Sicilian dish in which thin slices of meat are rolled up with cheese and breadcrumbs before being pan-seared. After that, the rolls are finished in a rich, tomato sauce (sometimes called gravy or "Sunday sauce," depending on where you live). Something else that Mike would make for his extended family — meaning his kitchen staff and even some of his customers — was his tomato-packed spaghetti, made with San Marzanos/San Mericans. 

Lin said this is a natural choice. 

"They're known for being fantastic in sauce for the fact that they're flavor-dense in a meaty but mild way with a natural lower acidity that lends itself to being simmered in sauce —important because tomatoes can get more acidic with prolonged cook time as the liquid in them reduces," she said. "Also, these types of tomatoes, like any longer plum-shaped tomatoes, like Roma, will have fewer seeds."

That said, Mike's spaghetti was a dish that Carmy initially shunned when he stepped into The Original Beef kitchen, noting that spaghetti was a weird item for a sandwich shop to serve up in the evenings. However, he doesn't ditch the San Marzano tomatoes that his brother had used to stock the kitchen; they're good for other things, like braising Italian beef (a move employed by the real Chicago restaurant Tempesta) and short ribs. 

But Carmy is eventually led back to the dishes that remind him of his family. At one point early in the season, he puts a chicken piccata on the menu that is nearly identical to a dish made by his sister, Sugar (played by Abby Elliot). And eventually, he finds a note that his brother had left him before he died. 

It doesn't say much. It's written on a slip of paper about the size of a recipe card. On the front, it reads, "Let it rip," a shorthand between the brothers for jumping feet-first into a new challenge. On the back, there's a recipe for "family meal spaghetti," featuring, you guessed it, two cans of those special tomatoes. 

Carmy breaks down and, in an emotional climax, he's seen preparing his brother's spaghetti. Slight spoiler: It's a decision that's more valuable than Carmy initially thought, and one that makes the viewer realize that those cans of tomatoes serve as a greater metaphor in the series. 

In addition to being a symbol for culinary excellence and Carmy's Italian heritage, the stacks of San Marzanos are also symbolic of the way in which Mike is still all around Carmy, even though they had difficulty connecting in Mike's final years. Seriously, everywhere Carmy looks in the kitchen, there is a can of those tomatoes that Mike left behind. 

There's no word yet as to whether there will be a second season of "The Bear," but if or when Carmy decides to take the family restaurant in a new direction, viewers are left pretty confident that Mike's spaghetti will be a standby on the menu — and that San Marzanos will remain a kitchen staple there for years to come. 

"The Bear" is now streaming on Hulu.

Hungry after watching "The Bear"?

Here are our favorite Italian-American recipes


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's deputy food editor.

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