Sauce or salad -- no worries

Little Italy chefs promise tomato dishes with perfect pedigrees

June 14, 2008|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun reporter

The star chef is setting up for an outdoor banquet, as he often does on a summer day, and despite the sweltering heat of a Little Italy afternoon, there's a definite spring in his step.

Even questions about tomatoes don't darken Masood Masoodi's mood.

"Want to see how we're dealing with" [the tomato scare]? says Masoodi, who oversees all things culinary for Da Mimmo's Restaurant on High Street. Down a flight of stairs, he stands surrounded by peppers and mozzarella in the cool of a walk-in refrigerator.

He pulls out a red specimen the size of his fist - a hydroponic tomato that's grown in nutrient solutions, not soil, and thus outside any supply that federal authorities suspect of contamination. The tomatoes he previously used were redder, beefier and a bit more flavorful, he says, but their origins were less clear.

"You can't tell the difference, can you?" asks the Restaurant Association of Maryland's reigning Chef of the Year.

The normally rare Salmonella saintpaul bacterium has turned up in tomatoes in more than 20 states, including Maryland, and made headlines around the nation. But the Food and Drug Administration says just three types of tomatoes are of concern - raw red plum, red Roma and round red. It's easy to avoid serving those or to serve only the locally grown.

State health officials reported last night that a Baltimore City resident has been infected with Salmonella saintpaul but has not required hospitalization. DNA fingerprinting traced the infection to the strain causing the national outbreak, they said, but they don't know where the tomato came from.

In Baltimore's Little Italy - where pomodoros, as the Italians call them, are the lifeblood of a high-volume business, not to mention the signature of a culture - chefs like Masoodi are taking no chances amid a salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 230 people in the U.S.

Even though no problems have been reported in Little Italy, Masoodi and other chefs are taking reports of the outbreak seriously. A shaky economy, including high gas prices, has slowed business since January. The last thing restaurateurs need is for customers to find an extra reason not to come by.

Grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and vine-grown tomatoes - the varieties Da Mimmo and many other Little Italy restaurants favor - are danger-free. For the time being, Masoodi is slicing the safe hydroponics into the restaurant's mozzarella tomato caprese salads.

Few customers seem to be asking about the problem, and when they do, restaurateurs seem to know how to reply - with Italian-style joie de vivre and a hearty portion of common sense.

"You take simple precautions," says Lisa Morekas, whose father, Vince Culotta, co-owns Sabatino's and who also works there. "Wash things carefully. Just think about what you're doing. Do that - and we do - and you ought to have no problem."

At Sabatino's, where mozzarella tomato caprese is also a signature dish, Morekas says that the staff is slicing up the much smaller cherry tomatoes into theirs.

"Once [the scare] started happening, we started preparing for it," she says. "It's very labor intensive to slice a cherry tomato, as you can imagine. But it has the same taste in the end."

At most restaurants, owners, chefs and suppliers have been in frequent, if not daily, contact. Heather Walker, a manager at Amicci's, says co-owner Roland Keh met with staff right away, instructing them to let customers know, should they ask, that all tomatoes in the restaurant are grown in South Carolina, one of the dozens of states the FDA has ruled out as a possible source. (In addition to Maryland, all contiguous states have been eliminated.)

"If business is off just a little bit," Walker says, "my guess is it's because of the heat."

On Thursday afternoon, it didn't seem to be off much. Customers flowed out of Amicci's in a more or less constant stream, most chatting cheerfully. If a group of teachers from the Wolfe Academy in Fells Point is an indication, the scare hardly warrants mention.

"I forgot all about that," says Sally Weaver, a teacher. Told that the chicken parmigiana she just consumed was safe - featuring as it did cooked sauce, which at the majority of restaurants comes from heavily cooked canned tomatoes - she brightens. "Why come to Little Italy if you can't have tomato sauce?" she says.

Little Italy food is as good as always, and safe, says Anthony Gambino.

Matter of fact, Ciao Bella's owner-chef, who says the outbreak hasn't affected business or his particular tomatoes in the slightest, sounds downright indignant to be asked about it.

"When something like this comes along, the Health Department and the FDA get involved," he says. "They're not going to allow something [tainted] to get distributed.

"There are so many things going on right now in this country. The war, the presidential race, the economy, the gas. We haven't received any kinds of notices. Our customers aren't even bringing it up."

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