As one of the area’s most prolific and versatile restaurateurs, Payman Bazooband’s contributions to the local dining scene run the gamut from Brazilian steakhouse (Brasa) to Mongolian grill (Crazy Fire) to gastropub (Red Monkey Tavern). With the opening last November of Tomato Pie in Crabtree Valley Mall, he’s returning to his culinary roots.
“My first restaurant was a little place in Durham called Italian Café,” says Bazooband. “That was almost 20 years ago.”
Tomato Pie’s decor nods nostalgically to a more distant past. Large vintage black-and-white photographs of bicycles with leather seats and trolley cars rolling along cobblestone streets decorate the walls. Oldies, mostly from the ’60s and ’70s, play in the background. A tomato-red 1960 Fiat 600 (forerunner of the modern 500 that is scratching the nostalgic itch of car buyers today) sits smack in the middle of the dining room.
Still, the overall vibe is modern, from the sleek black-and-white tables and chairs, to the flat-screen TVs suspended over a granite bar to the open kitchen, at one end of which sits a gold tile-clad pizza oven that looks like a giant Hershey’s Kiss.
The wood-fired oven turns out thin, blistery-crusted pies with topping options ranging from classic margherita to combinations such as the Steak Pie: smoked brisket and gouda on a base of mozzarella and house-made plum tomato sauce.
That sauce strikes just the right note – ripe tomato flavor, not too sweet – on the restaurant’s namesake Tomato Pie, a purist’s delight garnished with fresh oregano and basil, a drizzle of olive oil and the merest suggestion of grated pecorino Romano. (If you’re a student of pizza history – or if, like me, you have a father-in-law who grew up in New Jersey – you may be thinking of the focaccia-like tomato pies that were once a common sight on bakery counters in that region. These are different, though their rustic simplicity pays homage to the tradition.)
While pizzas are solid here, the rest of the menu can be hit or miss. Chicken wings that issue from that same wood-burning oven tend to be greasy and heavily seasoned. Wood fire-roasted mushrooms stuffed with house-made Italian sausage and cheese are a better bet.
Another starter option, listed as “Italian sushi salad,” is a clever visual riff: salami, prosciutto, roasted peppers, asparagus, goat cheese and olives rolled in parmesan risotto and cut to resemble a jumbo maki roll. The combination works, though it wouldn’t hurt to dial back a couple of notches on the intensity of the syrupy “fresh ginger and balsamic dressing” that’s drizzled over the accompanying greens.
The menu offers a varied selection of pasta dishes, all featuring house-made pastas. Serving fresh pastas exclusively is a commendable goal, but it sets a higher bar for execution in the kitchen. Fresh pasta cooks much faster than dried, and can go from just right to mushy faster than you can say “al dente.”
Thin pastas in particular are unforgiving of lapses in attention on the part of the cook, as I had the misfortune to experience one night with a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Compounding the problem of overcooked pasta was the fact that it had been insufficiently drained, transforming some of an otherwise fine tomato “gravy” into a watery soup in the bottom of the bowl.
That same night, the more substantial radiatore scored a pasta bull’s-eye in a light, truffle-scented cream sauce with mushrooms and filet tips.
In short, stick with thicker pastas – penne alla vodka, say, or chicken Marsala over fusilli – and you should be fine. Steak pizzaiola over radiatore is deservedly popular.
So is sausage and shrimp carbonara, which is authentically sauced with a last-minute egg tossed with the pasta. Be advised, though, that this one poses a dilemma: Do you gamble on the traditional linguine that’s offered, or do you substitute a heftier pasta? Your call.
House-made pastas aren’t the only way in which Tomato Pie is striving to set itself apart from the mall restaurant crowd. Just last week, the restaurant began opening every day at 8 a.m., serving an ambitious breakfast menu with options ranging from spinach-ricotta omelet over crispy potatoes to an Italian take on chicken and waffles.
The sustained popularity of Red Monkey Tavern has already established that Payman Bazooband can hold his own with the national chains that dominate in malls. Given his track record – and with a little more consistency in the kitchen – it’s a good bet that Tomato Pie will enjoy similar success.
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