Few industries supplying the pizza world are more high-tech than tomato sauce processors. In California, it's common to see machinery using global positioning satellite systems to maximize tomato harvests, as well as complex cooking systems that turn the fruits of the field into shippable sauce in mere hours.

That's not the case at Williamsport, N.J.-based Violet Packing, however, and company president Rob Ragusa is darn proud of it. His company, which makes the Don Pepino line of pizza sauces, leans on decidedly lower-tech production methods, which Ragusa believes yields a more authentic tomato flavor.

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"We cook ours in the old-world style; we use open kettle and batching systems," he said. "I like to call what we do 'a crafted product.' In my opinion, it's cooked with a little more care, like the way you'd cook it in your kitchen," which means processing sauce at harvest time only, without preservatives and with very little added seasoning. Customers want to taste tomato, Ragusa said, and little else.

While some customers of more modern processors prefer their sauce made on demand and year-round from paste, others believe doing it in season is better. Bob Sleep, a vice president in charge of product development at the 20-unit Pizza Magia chain in Louisville, Ky., believes time spent in the can after harvest "just gives (sauce) a deeper tomato flavor, in my opinion. It's almost like a fine wine."

Don't mess with success

Nearly four decades after Frank Cristiano's Italian immigrant father opened Tony's Pizzeria in Washington Mills, N.Y., the company still uses Don Pepino pizza sauce. Co-owner Cristiano said the quality and taste have never changed, and locals know and appreciate that.

"We hear it a lot from kids who go away to college and come back here. They say no pizza at school tastes like this here (in Washington Mills)," said Cristiano. He said he could use a less-costly product, but he knows his customers will notice it. "Don Pepino is big on the retail shelves here, which means people are using it in their home cooking. So when they order something out, that taste transplants itself to something they want to order from us."

Cristiano knows a lot of operators who buy off-the-shelf pizza sauces and modify them to suit their own tastes, but by and large, he uses the Don Pepino product straight from the can. A fresh tomato flavor is dominant, he said, and the sauce lacks the sweetness of pizza sauces found at many large chains.

"It spreads really well on the pizza and has a lot of body to it," he said. "We sometimes put a little oregano in there, but you can take it straight out of the can."

Such ease of use relieves the pizza operator of worrying over which employee is adding how much of every ingredient to the sauce on a given day, Ragusa said. "When you're trying to run a business, you don't want to have to think about that. The sauce should be ready to use, or close to it."

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