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Tomatoes are for eating! (A recipe for tomatoes that don’t suck.)

21 Sep

Although living in Southern California means access to pretty good tomatoes pretty much all year long, there’s no beating those big sweet beasts of summer. The heirlooms at the farmers markets call out with their awkward flesh and promise of juicy goodness. Even the fake-looking grocery store versions eat well solo with salt and pepper at this time of the year.

Of course, tomatoes in these parts haven’t always been so tasty. (Maybe anywhere, but I’m familiar only with So Cal.) I didn’t really take to tomatoes until my late teens, early 20s when I had my first homegrown beauty that erased the taste of every mediocre mealy-fleshed tom I’d ever tasted.

I can remember back to my youth, to restaurant side salads ruined because of THAT one seed left behind by the unwanted tomato slice I’d always forgot to ask be left off. Tucked into a booth at Bob’s Big Boy with my mom and sister for an after-league-bowling meal, I’d stare at that bright red seed spoiling the vast creamy goodness of the coating of Big Boy’s own blue cheese dressing. The taste memory of those nasty things haunts me still.

But that was then and now we have tomatoes of every stripe and variety — and they sometimes grow in our back weed patch when the blight doesn’t get them first. Otherwise, it’s off to the farmers market (or even those plastic tubs of mildly decent heirlooms from Trader Joe’s) for real honest-to-God good tomatoes. It’s still kind of a wonder the wide variety of fresh produce that’s available to the masses compared to the mid-70s/early 80s.

For these specimens, there is this dish. It was one of the first I ever made back when realizing that I really, really enjoyed cooking. Snagged off the early days of the world wide web, it’s a recipe that’s become part of the Johnson Kitchen Canon and gets eaten several time when tomatoes are at their absolute best. As with many dishes, it’s pretty good when tomatoes are OK, but kind of of sucks when there’s nothing but those uniformly red softballs available at the grocers.

So Fresh Fresh Fresh is the key for all the ingredients. And if you can’t get fresh — say with the mozzarella or balsamic — go for quality. It absolutely pays off with the first bite. This dish is meant to be eaten at room temperature so keep it outa the fridge. The cold will do the flavors no justice. Heating, however, kind of works for any leftovers you may have.

NOTE: Though these pictures show grape tomatoes, I don’t recommend it. While they’re certainly sweet and flavorful enough, I’ve found there’s too much skin in the finished product and it gets kinda chewy. These were from a garden bounty that needed to be eaten.

(Apologies in advance for the pictures. Still working out the kinks in my technique and I’m a huge sucker for high saturation filter on most iPhone camera apps.)

Ingredients:

  • Five to seven FRESH (if you can), SWEET (if they are) tomatoes, chopped
  • A big fistful of fresh basil leaves, julienned or finely chopped*
  • One pound good, whole milk mozzarella diced into 1/2 in. cubes
  • Three tablespoons GOOD balsamic vinegar (really, it makes a difference)
  • One half cup chopped black olives
  • Salt/freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Three quarter cup GOOD olive oil
  • Five to six cloves garlic, minced
  • One pound spaghetti or linguini noodles

1. In a large bowl (glass works best and looks nice too) combine chopped tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, balsamic, olives — salt and pepper to taste. I got heavy on the pepper because I like the punch it give it. Mix well and let sit, about an hour is good, but two is better to let the flavors get it on.

2. Cook your pasta the way you like to cook your pasta. While it’s cooking jump into the next step.

3. Pour olive oil and minced garlic into small skillet or sauce pan and warm over medium-heat. Don’t deep fry the garlic — this isn’t the county fair — just slowly warm the olive oil and garlic for about four-five minutes. If the garlic starts to brown, it’s too hot. The idea is to flavor the oil and keep the garlic as supple as possible. If it gets crunchy it tastes kinda crappy.

4. OK, here’s where it comes together. After pasta is al dente, drain and mix it into the tomato/basil/whatever mixture and thorough stir. Next, pour in garlic-infused oil into pasta/tom mixture and continue to toss and stir. Get that stuff good and mixed up. Season to taste.

5. Serve immediately and enjoy.

Drink: If memory serves me, the O.G. recipe suggested a Valpolicella to go with, but I’ve found that just about any good red wine works. Really, we’re just talking about a good homey meal here. As with most things in life, a good red wine makes this that much better.

* Depends on how you like it. I usually finely chop. For a great easy method for julienning (word?) check this out. http://christinenurnberger.blogspot.com/2009/06/perfectly-julienned-basil.html

Antonio’s Pizza doesn’t live here anymore

14 Aug
Antonio's PIzza

The long-closed pizzeria in North Torrance still stands empty and abandoned.

Antonios7If you’re from North Torrance you know Antonio’s Pizza. Hell, if you’re from the South Bay you probably know Antonio’s Pizza. And, quite likely, if you know Antonio’s Pizza you know that despite now being closed for something like 16 years, the once proud pizzeria sits empty and abandoned.

The lonely shell of Antonio’s Pizza is like a snapshot of what once was. Sitting prominently on Prairie Ave., where the busy boulevard intersects with 182nd St, the building that at one time served some of the freshest slices in the area stands frozen in time.

Antonio's Pizza

Antonio's PizzaThe exterior looks exactly as it did back the mid 90s, the last time I ate there. The red painted Antonio’s lettered across the storefront facade looks faded, but still reads clearly. The mustached Italian chef is still giving his knowing wink and OK sign. Wanna order a pie? There’s the phone number, in all its seven-digit glory, well before area codes became a mandatory part of the equation. Even better is the admonition painted above the entry door, “If you like it, tell your friends. If you don’t, tell us.” Sadly, there’s nothing left to like or share with your friends (hello Facebook!). Even the phone number remains disconnected. The days of Antonio’s much-loved BYOB policy are long gone.

The interior is the tell that Antonio’s Pizza is no more. Gutted save for a few miscellaneous bits and pieces, a large stainless-steel backsplash, industry range hood and a monstrous, commercial Hobart mixer. It’s like the ghost of a business.

I’d like to perpetuate the Mystery of the Abandoned Pizzeria, as it’s the kind of thing that generates its own myths and urban legends, but I know the puzzle has already been solved. My former colleague at the Daily Breeze, Nick Green, wrote a couple of stories back in 2007 on the real story behind Antonio’s demise, helped by info from former co-owner, Charlie Byrd. I remember Charlie. After Antonio’s he went on to run a joint called Cialuzzi’s in Redondo Beach. Cialuzzi’s begat Charlie’s, a New York Italian Joint that’s also in RB.

I don’t remember all the details of what happened and I’m too cheap to pay the entrance fee to get behind the Breeze’s archive system pay wall, but I recall there was some drama and personnel issues and tension and real estate problems. At least I think that’s what it was. I supposed I kind of like not remembering the details. I prefer the mystery that these photos illustrate. And I suppose I’m also too lazy to write a simple email to Nick to get some info. Again, the mystery.

It’s always strange making the trip back to North Torrance, easing into the intersection of Prairie and 182nd and looking to see if Antonio’s Pizza still stands, is newly inhabited or has finally met the bulldozer. A lot of the South Bay landscape I grew up has long been clear-cut to make way for many more mini-malls and dense housing developments. But there seems to be a few stubborn parts — some of them in North Torrance — that never seem to change. Maybe they get a facade makeover or some fresh new bland paint, but it seems that these places — businesses, apartments, houses, whatever — are left to be worn away by time, the elements and neglect. Like Antonio’s Pizza. I know this isn’t exclusive to the South Bay, but when it’s your own home turf, your own memory base, it just feels more personal.

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