San Marzano tomatoes
I've seen a variety of sources (e.g. Rao's cookbook) that specifically recommend San Marzano tomatoes for sauces. I have some questions:
1) Have you tried them? Does it make a difference?
2) Where to find them around here (I assume only canned are available)?
3) What to use if I can't find them - other canned vs. fresh plum tomatoes?
4) or just cheat completely and use Rao's bottled sauces?
I've used canned San Marzanos, Whole Foods and other place sell them. I mostly make sauce from fresh tomatoes nowadays but thought I'd try canned, my reaction was that these were meatier than the fresh plum tomoatoes I normally use. People like Batalli insist on canned San Marzanos, I don't like the idea of using canned and am not sure there's a big difference but it's probably good for the local economy.
You have to be careful, a lot of cans that say "San Marzano" are not DOP San Marzano. The tomatoes are grown elsewhere and packaged in the region, hence the labeling. Accardi Foods in Medford distributes the La Regina DOP San Marzano tomatoes which are probably your easiest to find in Supermarkets and Italian food stores. Those would be a starting point, although there are alternatives. Good prices are generally in larger Italian stores: New Deal Fruit in Revere, Fresh Cheese usually has some DOP tomatoes at a decent price, Regina's on Main in Everett, etc. Capone's and Russo' s would certainly have them, Whole Foods carries their own brands (muir glen is an organic californian brand they have) and Trader Joe's has Californian/Italian options. Johnnie's and DeMoula's have good deals on locally distributed Italian Roma's non-San Marzanos which may suit your taste (one is another "Regina" in a blue can, but there is another which Johnnie's always has which is good) and DeMoula's inexpensive fresh Romas. Stop&Shop tends to have sales on the Cento Italians. There are more organic Italian options coming on the market too.
"Does it make a difference" -- this is a question you can research opinions on the Internet, but should really form your own opinion based on taste. Try the San Marzanos, try californian packaged Roma tomatoes, try other larger italian brands (Cento comes to mind, but they can vary a lot depending on batch), and then compare them to fresh Roma tomatoes you buy from a local farmer. Keep in mind that a pizza sauce is different from a fresh (uncooked) pasta sauce, which is different from chicken cacciatore. I would find out what suits your tastes and you consider affordable, but a homemade sauce made with any of these options should be better than the Rao's bottled sauce. I like the La Regina San Marzanos and some, but not all of the other DOP options in the area, but I also like fresh and use the basic canned romas too.
That's pretty much all I use for cooking and making traditional pizza, whole never crushed, the taste is clean and not acidic. Costco has 102oz cans for about $3.50
There isn't much that itaunas has not covered. I would only add that, in terms of the question "does it make a difference," there is also the issue of what you are using the tomatoes for. If you are making a dish that calls for a large number of ingredients, and, e.g., only 8 oz. of "canned tomatoes" are part of the recipe, then there is more leeway. For something like a sauce, though, as your post specified, Batali's idea of "prima materia" becomes even more paramount. And while I agree that personal taste is always the guiding principle to what is "good" or "better," I confess that it is hard for me to imagine a hound opening a can of DOP San Marzano's, looking at the robust, bright red color; feeling the soft and almost rich feel of the tomatoes themselves, derived from the volcanic-ash-rich soil of the region; and tasting the end product of a sauce that utilizes them, and ultimately finding them inferior to a generic can of plum tomatoes or even a larger Italian brand.
Both have their uses in a kitchen. Seeking out and trying a can of San Marzano tomatoes such as La Regina to make a sauce with is well worth it, though.