Very few people are indifferent about the tomato. Opinions swing from cultish obsession to virulent phobia, but the lackluster “meh” is conspicuously absent. Recently the tomato has joined the ranks of trendy superfoods as a source of lycopene, an antioxidant phytochemical that fights bad stuff and supports good stuff in our bodies. A few facts: the tomato is a fruit, even though we treat it like a veggie in the kitchen. It’s in the nightshade family, it’s from ancient South America (like so many of our staple foods) and it has boundless guises. There are plum tomatoes, pizza tomatoes, tomatoes for storage, tomatoes for slicing raw, tomatoes for canning, tomatoes for drying. Don’t forget the trendy heirloom tomato boom: everyone wants to grow—and eat!— a bumper crop of Brandywines, Paul Robesons and Green Zebras. Calling all tomato fanatics: look at the juicy goodness we’ve found around town. This is just a mere splattering—uh, smattering.
Bruschetta is one of many fixations of the pronunciation police; sticklers will tell you that it’s brus-ketta, the “ch” being hard in Italian. No worries; it’s delicious no matter how you say it. We love to start a meal or make a light meal out of bruschetta—grilled bread with garlic, chopped ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil and a balsamic glaze. Tomatoes and basil are natural partners; garlic and balsamic vinegar heighten the flavors. Good bread is important here, and Angelina’s nails it. $9. 2170 Eagle Creek Lane; 651.998.0474.
Punch makes the best authentic Neapolitan pizza in the greater Twin Cities area, and we’re lucky to have an outpost in our cozy burb. What makes it the best? Thin, heat-blistered crust, crispy and chewy in all the right places; a fragrant wood-fired oven and the best ingredients at their simplest, most advantageous presentation: creamy bufala mozzarella and primo crushed tomatoes with fresh basil. This classic combination is referred to as “Margherita,” and at Punch you have two choices: the regular or the extra. The extra is made with super special tomatoes—that’s right, even more special than the regularly special San Marzano tomatoes from the same region. They are legendary Mt. Vesuvio tomatoes of story and song, the "hanging tomato of Vesuvius." It’s a small winter tomato that grows in clusters, which are hung to dry in pizza kitchens. Armed with this knowledge, park yourself near the oven and watch your tomato-of-the-gods pizza cook—at 800 degrees, it only takes 90 seconds. $11.25. 8300 City Centre Drive; 651.714.7986.
Ronally’s is a family restaurant that’s been feeding us unpretentious Italian-American fare, like red sauce, for over 35 years. “Red sauce” sometimes called “gravy,” is a sacred staple of Italian-American comfort cuisine, and by extension, our comfort cuisine. You can mix and match pasta types with sauces here; take the mostaccioli—a tube-shaped, ribbed pasta— with red sauce and top it with a big ol’ meatball. This has got to be the happiest, and possibly the tastiest, meatball around, bathing in a vibrant pool of long-simmered sauce that’s a seamless mix of key flavors: garlic, tomato, onion and basil. The pasta is al dente, but not aggressively so (the al dente thing went a bit overboard in the ‘80s)— just a slight, satisfying resistance to each bite. $12.25. 1560 Woodlane Drive; 651.739.3823.
Jambalaya, a fun word to say if there ever was one, comes from the Provençal French word for “mish mash,” for the obvious reason that jambalaya is a mish mash of tasty bits of this and that. Tomatoes are a key player in this Creole delight, which began as an attempt to recreate paella for homesick Spaniards and evolved with African, French and new world influences. David’s makes a wicked version with sautéed peppers, onions and lots of tomatoes tossed with zingy Andouille sausage and chunks of chicken. Pretty pink shrimp play peek-a-boo; white rice adds bulk for a filling one-pot meal. $23. 9555 Wedgewood Drive; 651.294.3160.
Woodbury Café builds this beloved sammy with Old Smokehouse bacon, which is as old-fashioned as it sounds, meaning thick-cut and oh-so-smoky. Hearty slices of freshly cut tomatoes and a nice leaf lettuce complete the sandwich; choose sourdough, white, honey grain wheat, or pumpernickel rye toast; we like the way sourdough complements the tartness in the tomato. There’s a decent schmear of mayo on this baby; altogether, it’s a perfect BLT for when the craving hits $8.50. 803 Bielenberg Drive; 651.209.8081.
We are all familiar with—and love—a classic bowl of tomato soup, especially when paired with a grilled cheese sandwich. The tomato soup at India Palace is an engaging riff on the one we know; it’s deep red, thick, and tinged with spice such as turmeric, cumin and peppercorn. It’s as warming as it is exotic; try it with some fluffu naan, an Indian flatbread. $4.95. 8362 Tamarack Village; 651.731.6300.
Tomato and Onion Salad
Tomatoes are a great supporting cast member and pairing the sweet and juicy flesh with something pungent is genius: raw onion and bleu cheese. At Bonfire, tomatoes and red onion get together over mixed greens with a basil balsamic drizzle; it’s topped with marvelously stinky bleu cheese dressing and more bleu crumbles for the chunk factor. What a tasty way to liven up a big hunk o’ grilled meat. $9.45. 1424 Weir Drive; 651.735.0085.
Small Plates: Spread Trio
Let us not gloss over the sun-dried tomato, which flooded the scene in the food-innovating 80s. The frenzy has subsided a bit but the little buggers stuck around, which is a good thing: sun-dried tomatoes have a concentrated, non-acidic tomato flavor that goes a long way on a salad or pizza, in pasta or bread, or at Cravings, in a spread. The spread trio includes Boursin cheese, a garlicky, creamy cheese; salty olive tapenade and sun-dried tomato pesto, an intense combination of tomato, olive oil, garlic and basil that’s impossible to resist. The spreads are served with freshly grilled pita bread. $10. 755 Bielenberg Drive; 651.528.6828.