You like potato and I like potahto, You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let’s call the whole thing off
– Ira & George Gershwin
Prior to the introduction of tomatoes in 1548, the Italian diet was largely similar to the diet throughout the rest of the Mediterranean. Such staples as bread, pasta, olives, and beans were commonplace, as was a variety of different types of polenta. The Italian diet of the time varied depending on region: fish featured heavily near the coast while inland regions would rely more on pork and wild game. Garlic, onion, pepper and onion oil was used to add flavor. Olive oil also held a central role in the region’s cuisine. While a Mediterranean diet is delicious and even healthy, it’s certainly not as popular as Italian food has become across the world thanks largely to the now ubiquitous tomato.
Tomatoes were initially received with skepticism on account of their unusual qualities. They were associated with eggplant, another foreign vegetable introduced to Europe from abroad (in this case from the Middle East). Similar to tomatoes, it took hundreds of years for eggplant to become an accepted ingredient in the Italian diet. Both vegetables were believed to have malevolent effects on the body. European colonists had no interest in learning about the cuisines of the New World peoples they conquered. They lacked and were not interested in acquiring the proper knowledge on how to prepare and make edible and tasty such vegetables as tomatoes, potatoes, and other New World staples.
For nearly a century and a half after being brought from the new world the much maligned (some would say forbidden) fruit was avoided throughout Italy. Its use was eventually spurred on by the poor in Naples who cared more about filling empty bellies than subscribing to the wrongful notions about the tomato. It was in Naples that in 1889, the tomato became forever entrenched in culinary history when an Italian pizzaiolo crafted a pizza whose colors reflected the red (marinara sauce), white (mozzarella cheese) and green (fresh basil colors of the Italian Sabauda flag. He named the pizza the Margherita, for his queen.
Today the once scandalized tomato is as revered as it once was reviled. The notion of Italian food without tomatoes is nearly impossible to conceive–like a day without sunshine. Can you imagine salsa–America’s favorite condiment–made without tomatoes? Without tomatoes, there would be no Bloody Mary, no Caprese salad, no BLT sandwich, no ketchup and no gazpacho. Soups, barbecue sauces, stews, ceviches, meat loaf–they would all be forever different without the ubiquitous, nutritious, delicious tomato. To say tomatoes are the fabulous foundation of many a meal is a vast understatement.
In 1993, Deborah Gagnon and Don Watroba founded an upscale, all-you-can-eat Italian buffet restaurant named Mama Lena’s. Within a year, the restaurant changed its name to the Tomato Cafe, but by any name, this award-winning treasure can’t be mistaken for anything but a unique restaurant concept that provides great value while serving generally very good Italian favorites. The Tomato Cafe’s mission statement is to “Provide our guests with delicious, high quality food, friendly service in a pleasant atmosphere at a good value.” Mission Accomplished! The restaurant has earned a gaggle of accolades, consistently winning or placing high on “best of” annual restaurant polls. In 2002, manager Deborah Gagnon was named “restaurateur of the year” by the New Mexico Restaurant Association, a tribute to this restaurant’s success.
When my Kim and I returned to New Mexico after eight years of living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Tomato Cafe was one of the very first restaurants we tried. Over the years we’ve returned many times and still haven’t tried any of the salad ingredients that aren’t atop a pizza. That’s how eager we are to dig into the main event–five handcrafted pizzas, two homemade soups, three types of pasta, breadsticks, polenta, garlic green beans, fresh broccoli, six sauces, meatballs, ravioli and ice cream with toppings included. If you think the build-back-better economy has made “quality” and “inexpensive” an anachronism, you owe it to yourself to visit the Tomato Cafe. The only sticker shock you’ll experience here is when you see how low the bill of fare is.
7 January 2022: An exhibition kitchen gives you the opportunity to watch as pizza pies are deftly tossed into the air and fashioned into thin crusted orbs of deliciousness. If a specific type of pizza isn’t available on the buffet line, one of the accommodating pizzaioli artisans can craft it for you. The gourmet pizza is sometimes ameliorated by non-traditional pizza ingredients–feta cheese, barbecue sauce, piñon nuts, and other savory offerings. You’ll only find thin-crusted pizza here, but it’s substantial enough to hold the great ingredients that adorn each pizza. My very favorite is the barbecue chicken pizza in which the barbecue sauce has just the right amount of tang to make it interesting. The chicken is applied parsimoniously, but what lands on the pizza is moist and delicious. My Kim’s favorite is a plain cheese pizza. Right out of the oven, it may be the best cheese pizza in town. Needless to say, any pizza constructed with green chile is gone quickly.
Two types of soup–a vegetarian posole and a roasted tomato basil–are positioned next to the salad ingredients in the family-style buffet line-up. The roasted tomato basil soup is one of those comforting home-style soups which will give you pause to contemplate the greatness that is the tomato. This flavor-rich elixir for whatever ails you is redolent with the aromas of fresh vegetables and Italian seasonings in perfect proportions. Avert your eyes if you’re as determined as we are not to have salad. If the leafy green stuff doesn’t get you, maybe one of the gluten-free dressing choices–Italian, Ranch, Parmesan Peppercorn, Feta Vinaigrette and Tomato Basil Vinaigrette–just might.
Six sauces such as roasted tomato garlic, white clam, green chili Alfredo, sausage and Bolognese will embellish your choice of pasta. The white and red clam sauces actually reminds me of my halcyon days in Massachusetts when my palate (and waistline) began to expand as I experienced theretofore foods outside my New Mexican comfort zone. Other than red or green chile, there’s perhaps nothing better on a cold winter day than a bowl of pasta with a generous amount of deliciously chewy clams and a tangy tomato sauce.
New Mexicans might prefer the tasty green chile Alfredo sauce as a pasta topper. This sauce has a surprisingly piquant taste chile aficionados appreciate. Next to the pizza, the favorite fare for children of all ages just might be the meatballs. A tray of meatballs swimming in a tangy tomato sauce is frequently replenished as it seems most diners load their plates with these delicious orbs. Other patrons prefer the spinach and ricotta cheese ravioli (available only for dinner and Sunday lunch) which is nearly as big as an iPhone.
Since 2002, the Tomato Cafe has donated all unused food to feed the homeless, the type of civic mindedness which endears this terrific restaurant to its patrons almost as much as the food does.
7900 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 7 January 2022
# OF VISITS: 13
BEST BET: Gourmet Pizza, Ravioli with Green Chile Alfredo Sauce, Red Clam Sauce, Meatballs