Sept. 12, 2005
New Jerseyans are serious about their tomatoes ... so serious that the city of Camden holds an annual New Jersey Tomato festival to celebrate the harvest of the state's chief crop.
Drawing a crowd of about 7,000, the event is smaller and less raucous than Bunol, Spain's, annual La Tomatina festival, a gathering legendary for its 40,000-person "tomato war" in the streets. Camden has its own tomato war, but festival organizers focus more on promoting tomatoes through recipe contests and fruit judging.
Still, locals believe their tomatoes are the country's best. Though surely rooted in home-state pride, some of their belief is based on Jersey's unique weather and growing season. Unlike California, where 95 percent of all the nation's process tomatoes are grown, New Jersey's season runs from May to August, fully two months after planting begins out west. Soil peculiarities, such as the state's loamy earth, also play a role in the final flavor, they say.
Rob Ragusa, president of Violet Packing, headquartered in Williamsport, agrees that soil is a factor. But he said what most affects the flavor of his company's Don Pepino tomato sauces is how they're prepared.
"The sand in our soil here is much different from what you see in Indiana, Ohio or California," said Ragusa. "But the way we process our tomatoes — the fact that we cook them in open kettles — that's what gives our sauces a different flavor profile."
Ragusa said the Violet's methods resemble those employed in home kitchens.
"If you're making a fresh sauce, what you have are fresh tomatoes, fresh spices and maybe oil," he said. "You don't add citric acid, corn syrup, starches or gums, which many other processors use. We don't do that, ever."
Ready to go from the can
Frank Christiano, co-owner of Tony's Pizzeria in Washington Mills, N.Y., has used Don Pepino pizza sauce for decades. He said other manufacturers have had him taste and test their sauces, but none have won him over.
Other than adding some oregano, he said he uses Don Pepino straight from the can.
"It's a consistent sauce, and it's not sweet; a lot of companies put a lot of sugar in theirs," Christiano said. "It's nice knowing you don't have to think about who's making your sauce in the shop. It's ready to go."
When asked whether Jersey tomatoes should get the credit for Don Pepino's performance, the native New Yorker chuckled.
"I don't know if you can say it's just the tomatoes that give it that flavor," he began. "I think that what you do to the tomato after you harvest it, that's where the flavor comes from. They don't water this product down from paste, which some sauce makers do."
Since tomato paste doesn't factor into Violet's pizza sauce recipe, Ragusa said the cost of production tends to be a little higher. But if the end result is what his customers want, that's what they'll get.
"We're basically a high-end niche processor," said Ragusa. "That makes what we do distinct."