The real star of FX’s “The Bear”? San Marzano tomatoes

For restaurant aficionados, “The Bear,” a new FX series about a pressure cooker from a professional Chicago kitchen, is full of adorable nods to the industry. There’s Sydney’s resume in which her experience at the city’s Michelin-starred Alinea is purposely at the top. There are 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 chefs stumbles upon a James Beard Award certificate haphazardly tucked into one of those cookbooks.

But my favorite culinary Easter egg is also one of the most common and consistent of the series. Stacked in the kitchen, on shelves and under the counters are small pyramids of San Marzano canned tomatoes. Everywhere you look back-of-house, there’s a can or six. While initially only seemingly part of the background, these canned tomatoes eventually come into the limelight.

In “The Bear”, Jeremy Allen White plays Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a culinary prodigy who left his position at the “Best Restaurant on Planet Earth” to take over his family’s restaurant, The Original Beef of Chicagoland. , echoing that of his brother’s (Jon Berthal) suicide. The restaurant is in debt of more than $300,000 and receives a C rating from the health department. It’s time to change tack, which Carmy does with the help of eager newcomer Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) and a messy team of initially unruly experienced chefs.

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

That emphasis on quality is one of the reasons adding San Marzano tomatoes is a great idea. Courtney Storer, once the longtime executive chef of Jon & Vinny’s in Los Angeles, is the culinary producer of the show. She helped her brother, series creator, Chris Storer, portray authentic restaurant life, from the expressions in the kitchen (“Behind!”) to the ingredients on the shelves.

“San Marzano, in particular, are my favorite tomatoes around the world,” Storer said in a phone call with Salon. “I grew up in Chicago cooking with them and I remember discovering them from — it could be like Lidia Bastianich’s show on Channel 11. She’s talking about San Marzano and I was like, ‘Oh wait, those are the ones you should use.'”

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

“I picked up all these recipes — like the classic Marcella Hazan tomato sauce recipe that I love — that called for San Marzano tomatoes,” she said. “Eventually I thought, ‘This is the secret ingredient.'”

“They’re just kind of a brand standard,” said Eric Rivera, a 2021 Food and Wine Game Changer and owner of Addo. “Maybe through marketing, word of mouth, or just being around for years, that’s kind of the route beepers take when looking for Italian-style tomato sauces.”

“Maybe through marketing, word of mouth, or just being around for years, that’s kind of the route beepers take when looking for Italian-style tomato sauces.”

According to food writer and gardener Amanda Blum, that may come as a surprise to some food lovers. As she put it: “Every commercialized image we have of tomatoes – the ideal, is a slicer. A giant house of a tomato with [a] strangely consistent red color, ready to be cut.”

Blum said pasta tomatoes, of which San Marzano’s are an excellent variety, differ in design.

“Rather than the juiciness we value a Berkeley Tie-Dye for, pasta tomatoes use up the most pulp,” she said. “They grow elongated to a pointed tip. Yield is the name of the game with pasta tomatoes, to make sauce, salsa and pasta. But even in the field of pasta tomatoes, the San Marzano is prized among gardeners for its taste.”

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

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

“The US will not respect the DOP nomenclature until the regions come after us – [for example] Kraft has to change their product to Parmesan because it’s not Parmigiano,” said Lin. “San Marzano tomatoes are part of that story. Most of what we get in the US comes from New Jersey.”

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

It’s the convergence of old-fashioned Italian tradition and American marketing and ingenuity, all wrapped up in a can

It’s the convergence of Old World Italian tradition and American marketing and ingenuity, all packed into a can. It is also a nice nod to the cultural context surrounding ‘De Beer’. Like much of the population of Chicago, Carmy and his family are Italian-American (or want to be Italian-American, as 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.

Every weekend Mike made his family chops, a Sicilian dish in which thin slices of meat are rolled up with cheese and breadcrumbs before being pan seared. Then the sandwiches are finished in a rich tomato sauce (sometimes called gravy or “Sunday sauce,” depending on where you live). Another thing 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 are known for being fantastic in sauce due to being flavorful in a meaty yet mild way with a naturally lower acidity that lends themselves to being simmered in sauce – important as tomatoes can become more acidic with prolonged cooking time as the fluid in it decreases,” she said. “Also, like all taller plum-shaped tomatoes, such as Roma, these types of tomatoes will have fewer seeds.”

That said, Mike’s spaghetti was a dish that Carmy initially shunned when he stepped into The Original Beef’s kitchen, noting that spaghetti was a weird item for a sandwich shop to serve in the evening. However, he doesn’t throw away the San Marzano tomatoes 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 some point early in the season, he puts on the menu a chicken piccata that is nearly identical to a dish made by his sister, Sugar (played by Abby Elliot). And finally he finds a note that his brother left him before he died.

It doesn’t say much. It’s on a piece of paper the size of a recipe card. On the front it says: “Let it rip”, an abbreviation between the brothers to take on a new challenge with feet first. On the back is a recipe for “family meal spaghetti” with, you guessed it, two cans of those special tomatoes.

Carmy collapses and, in an emotional climax, is seen preparing his brother’s spaghetti. Small spoiler: It’s a decision more valuable than Carmy initially thought, and one that makes the viewer realize that those cans of tomatoes serve as a bigger metaphor in the series.

As well as being a symbol of culinary excellence and Carmy’s Italian heritage, the stacks of San Marzanos also symbolize the way Mike is still all around Carmy, even though they struggled to connect in Mike’s final years. Seriously, everywhere Carmy looks in the kitchen, there’s a can of those tomatoes Mike left behind.

It’s not yet known if there will be a second season of “The Bear,” but if and when Carmy decides to take the family restaurant in a new direction, viewers are pretty sure Mike’s spaghetti will be a standby on the menu. – and that San Marzanos will remain a kitchen head there for years to come.

“The Bear” is now streaming on Hulu.

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