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Canned Tomato Taste Test, Round 2

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[Photograph: Adam Kuban]

Last week I joined some other pizza-mad folks at Pizza a Casa in Manhattan for Round 2 of a canned tomato tasting organized by Scott Wiener. On hand were 14 tasters total who sampled 15 different cans of tomatoes.

If you didn't catch the first round of canned tomato tasting, go catch up here.

OK. Caught up? Good. After the jump, Scott brings the rundown...

The results are in from Round 2 of our canned tomato taste-test. Big thanks to Mark Bello and Jenny Philips of Pizza a Casa for hosting and, of course, to all of you for attending. Before I dive into the analysis, I should give a rundown of the test.

Here's how the test went down. I brought unlabeled cans to Pizza a Casa for Mark and Jenny to distribute into identical serving boats. Prior to delivering the goods, I marked each can with a letter (A–O). Each serving boat was marked with the letter from its corresponding can. Tasters were each given a unique tasting order, so no sample was relegated to the first or last position. We graded sweetness, acidity, texture, color and overall flavor on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. We tasted 15 samples but one tomato appeared twice to act as a control. Any tasting sheets whose findings for these two identical tomatoes were drastically different were ignored in the final tally. Two sheets were disregarded for this reason; one additional sheet was ignored because it didn't have data for most of the tomatoes. This left eleven data sheets to be included in the final tally.

It must be noted that these are the results of a single tasting so no definitive conclusions can be made. The only conclusions I will draw are based solely on our tasting and the data that has been culled from it. That being said, here we go...

Sweetness

The top three spots in this category go to Luigi Vitelli, Woodstock Farms, and Cento Italian Style. Spots four and five go to Sclafani (Don Pepino) and Bella Terra by Racconto. I'm really excited to report that Nina takes both sixth and seventh places, so our tasters nailed their similarities. Way to go, tasters! What about the tomatoes' origins? I hope you're ready for this. Maybe you should sit down. The top two tomatoes in the sweetness category are products of Canada. Wow. The Cento can says "Product of Italy," but the use of the word "Style" in the phrase "Italian Style" sounds dubious. Either way, a $1.99 can beat it in this division.

Acid

This category is pretty interesting. Three of the top five finishers contain citric acid, which is included as an acid regulator. Leading the charts are Luigi Vitelli, Sclafani (Don Pepino), Red Pack, Afeltra DOP, and Mutti. Once again, both Nina samples were awarded the same score. Not much to add here except for the fact that the top three are each under $2 a can, but spot #4 jumps up to $4.80, so no clear conclusion based on price.

Color

This round of testing was much more accurate in the color category because we were indoors with consistent light (until the disco ball was fired up during the after party). Spots 1 through 3 go to Luigi Vitelli, Cento Italian Style, and Sclafani (Don Pepino). I'm starting to notice a trend here. All three of these have citric acid and two of them contain calcium chloride. CaCl2 becomes more important in the next category, but perhaps it helped retain some bright ripe color as well. The Ninas split a bit more on this round with 0.2 difference between them.

Texture

For a second I thought my computer was acting funny. I was just surprised that some of these high-scoring tomatoes kept popping up at the top of the list. The texture department prefers Luigi Vitelli, Sclafani (Don Pepino), and Cento Italian Style. Calcium chloride is a firming agent and pops up on the labels for the top two of these tomatoes. Cento doesn't need that dope to shine! Our control held up, with the Nina results differing by only 0.1.

Overall Flavor

Let's just dive right into the big category. It all comes down to this. Logic leads us to believe that tomatoes with high scores in the other categories will end up in this paragraph and logic prevails today, my friends!

Top three tasting tomatoes are Luigi Vitelli, Cento Italian Style, and Bella Terra by Racconto.

This batch of winners were awarded best overall flavor, but their total scores (sum of all categories) were not necessarily the highest. After 1st and 2nd place, things get a little crazy. Bella Terra came in 3rd and Sclafani (Gus Sclafani) tied for overall points but Red Pack, Nina, and Sclafani (Don Pepino) beat it. Nothing to lose sleep over, but all names should be noted for their high scores. After the top three spots in this category, close followers are Sclafani (Don Pepino), Nina, Red Pack and Woodstock Farms.

Conclusions

We tackled some fun questions in this round. Of the two Sclafani companies on the market, the Don Pepino variety scored higher on all accounts. Don Pepino's labels claims only that the tomatoes are whole and peeled with no mention of origin while Gus Sclafani is a "Genuine Italian Tomato." The label says, "Grown and Packed in Italy." It's pretty interesting that these two companies coexist. Anybody know more about the situation?

The whole list reveals a lot about Italian vs non-Italian tomatoes. We didn't seem to care where the tomatoes came from and Italian tomatoes certainly did not reign supreme.

Our first round of tasting checked two Cento varieties (DOP and organic) so it only made sense to look into their third whole tomato offering, the "Italian Style." It did pretty well! I don't want to get too far into an overall analysis of both tests just yet, but the "Italian Style" is the highest rated of the three and carries the lowest price tag.

Speaking of price tags, price didn't play a big role in the flavor of these tomatoes. None of the top eight samples toppled the $4 mark and the top two stayed below $3 a can.

Buzzwords

Let's address the buzzwords. Only one out of the top eight spots in the overall flavor category is a San Marzano tomato. The Bella Terra (I picked it up at a Shop Rite in Garwood, NJ) claims to be "Grown in the San Marzano Region." Fair enough. The highest rated DOP tomato appears at position #9 (Afeltra) with the remaining two DOP's landing in position 13 (Strianese) and 14 (Collucio & Sons) out of 15 total tomatoes tested. Yikes! It should be noted that none of the DOP tomatoes contain calcium chloride. Maybe CaCl2 is the secret ingredient they are missing.

O, Canada?

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Scott Wiener holds up the Luigi Vitelli label, the tomato that ended up winning Round 2 of our tasting.

I'll stop ignoring the elephant in the room. It's a Canadian elephant and his name is Luigi Vitelli. This guy was included in the tasting because he's available in most low-end grocery stores around New York. I picked him up at the Pioneer across the street from my Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, apartment for $1.99. You may have heard of this exact neighborhood for being the site of a recent tornado and two shootings, one of which was fatal. Despite being raised in such a rough 'hood, Luigi Vitelli took the top spot in every single category and won top honors in overall flavor. It's like a Canadian rags-to-riches story! The other Canadian, Woodstock Farms, did pretty well too. What a big day for tomatoes and a big day for Canada.

Wow. Thanks for that explanation, Scott! For the stats-minded among you, here's a spreadsheet that includes on its first sheet, the rankings from both Tasting 1 and Tasting 2; on the second sheet of this spreadsheet are results from only Tasting 2.

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