- May 19, 2023
The cool thing to do at my high school was ditch the brown-bag lunch your mom lovingly made you, hop in the car of whoever had a driver’s license, head to a local deli and pick up an overpriced yet perpetually outstanding sandwich.
I scarfed down several sensational sandwiches over the years (looking at you, chicken salad melt with honey mustard), but there has always been one sentence needed to seal the deal on my delectable deli demand: “No tomatoes, please.”
Fear sets in when I take the first bite of my sammy, hoping no ooey-gooey seeds slither out the sides, resisting the slippery-slimy sensation I get before eventually spitting out said bite, removing the slice altogether and exclaiming, “I said no tomatoes!”
But alas, April is Fresh Florida Tomato Month, and I was determined to find the best tomato-based dishes in our area to make me now say, “I like this vegetable — from my head to-ma-toes.”
While there might be tomato-centric dishes that top mine, here are a non-tomato-lover's favorite tomato dishes from local eateries.
5104 Ocean Blvd., Siesta Key; 941-349-1423; CafeGabbiano.com
Let's Ketchup: The first year my husband and I were dating he took me to Café Gabbiano to celebrate another year around the sun, knowing that my birthday meal of choice is chicken parmesan. I might be birthday-biased because this is my pollo parmigiana paradise, but with the restaurant’s interior, astounding aromas and the wonderful wine selection, you too will feel like you’re celebrating a milestone in Tuscany rather than in the heart of Siesta Key.
Just My Ripe: Café Gabbiano chefs hide tomatoes behind the most iconic duo found in food heaven — carbs and cheese. Who could possibly say no to that (insert sincerest apology to readers who have gluten and dairy allergies here)? I dutifully add tomatoes and basil ($6) to my formaggi and salumi plate, but with mozzarella, everything is magical. What enchanted my belly next was the spaghetti al pomodoro fresco ($19), despite that ghastly ingredient, the cherry tomato. After ordering the handmade pasta graced with garlic, olive oil, marinara, basil and cherry tomatoes, I found myself twirling every beautiful bite. Silently I asked myself, "Do I tolerate tomatoes now?"
Sauce it Up: For patrons who loathe tomatoes more than myself, let me pour you something that won’t have you seeing red, but maybe double. Mulling over the marvelous martini selections at this café might be the most difficult decision you will have to make in one day. Choose from espresso, strawberry basil, Gabbiano blue cheese, Limoncello or basil. The choice is yours, but I’d go with the blue cheese.
7205 85th St. Court E., Bradenton; 941-755-2757; LingerLodge.com/restaurant-home
Let’s Ketchup: The origins of the lodge date back to 1945, and if the walls and the taxidermied animals on the walls could talk — oh, the stories they would tell! Just ask Al Roker, (the guy telling you about the weather for years before Alexa) who named Linger Lodge one of the five weirdest restaurants in America. So why not wind up at a weird place with an even weirder prompt: tomato dishes loved by a tomato hater?
Just My Ripe: When I reached out to Linger Lodge’s owner Rita Lewis, she responded with “Come on by and try some food. What time? I’ll make you a reservation,” and that same hospitality is extended to each guest. Sitting in the epitome of southern comfort, my guests and I ordered the brunch claim to fame. What came next made me think, “Am I over this tomato trepidation?”
Sauce it Up: You will now find me on Sundays moseying along the Florida marshes, boozing on the Braden River and worshipping in my own version of church: Deluxe Bloody Mary Sunday. Lewis concocts a different version of this larger-than-life Bloody Mary weekly. Participants have sipped and snacked on anything from a 5 oz. Maine lobster tail to snow crab clusters, to garlic Teriyaki marinated steak tips to a pork tenderloin sandwich. My holier-than-thou experience included Mahi nuggets, grilled shrimp, jalapeño poppers, fried mushrooms, spicy green beans and all the fixings piled above a homemade bloody Mary mix with Deep Eddy vodka (prices may vary). Praise be for tipsy tomato juice!
8453 Cooper Creek Blvd., Bradenton; 941-926-3077; TandoorSarasota.com
Let’s Ketchup: In my Connecticut hometown, culinary culture consisted of Italian restaurants, pizza-by-the-slice shops and more pizzerias. But when my Dad took me to an Indian restaurant for the first time and I tore naan bread, covered it with a heaping scoop of a rich orange-colored goodness and bit into the unknown, my tastebuds immediately evolved. Skip forward to when I ordered Tandoor (takeout, mind you!) for the first time, and I haven’t stopped craving the chicken specials since. Fun fact: Owner Poonam Maini has been in business since 2001 and recently had a grand opening Feb. 20 at the restaurant’s new location in University Town Center.
Just My Ripe: As I start to type this sentence, I can already feel my mouth watering and will do my best to avoid any — whoops, too late — drool. The chicken makhana ($20.99) specialty is simply scrumptious. This house favorite, known to most connoisseurs as butter chicken, is marinated overnight, roasted in the Tandoor and then folded into a rich, creamy tomato sauce and topped with cilantro. The flavor profiles are unlike any other dish in this feature. If you’re like me, you’ll want to slurp up the spare sauce once the chicken is consumed. Truthfully, tomatoes never tasted so delish.
Sauce it Up: Whether you arrive for the lunch buffet or dine for dinner, I must insist you order the pretty-in-pink Punjabi Passion cocktail ($10). Generated by gin, muddled mint, cranberries and raspberries, this is the prefect refresher for anyone who thinks they can handle the heat like Ted Lasso in season one, episode three, when he asked the chef to “make it like we’re a couple members of the family.”
1255 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota; 941-413-7425; TzevaSarasota.com
Let's Ketchup: This modernized Mediterranean must-try bistro recently opened at Art Ovation Hotel Autograph Collection on Feb. 8. Talk of Tzeva took over the town and I immediately added it to my running list of dining destinations. But once I saw there was a new shakshuka submission in Sarasota, my senses sent me to Palm Avenue as quickly as traffic in the middle of February allowed me to go.
Just My Ripe: As you might have guessed, I am a sucker for shakshuka. Here you can dig into a bowl for breakfast ($12) or a sample a small plate of the extraordinary eggs poached in tomato sauce with spices for lunch or dinner ($10). But my tomato tale at Tzeva doesn’t end there. Flavorsome falafel ($9+) comes with pickled watermelon rinds, tasty tzatziki and superbly smoked tomato chutney that didn’t choose to be feverishly devoured by this writer, but was. You can also get the falafel with too-cool-for-school tomato chutney as a handheld…with fries ($12). Are tomatoes beginning to truly tempt me?
Sauce it Up: After all this tomato talk, sign me up for a glass of the Duck Horn ($14) Sauvignon Blanc. I’ve been told that any white wine pairs best with our ripe little featured stars. However, the Lord Byron’s Verse ($13) made with gin, muddled cucumber, sage lime and lemon was a close contender too.
1990 Main St., Suite 112, Sarasota; 941-953-2900; MadeRestaurant.com
Let's Ketchup: This infamous downtown Sarasota eatery serves up food and adult bevies designed for social media moments that foodie content creators dream of. From eclectic Eggs Benedicts to colossal cheesy tots to a mouthwatering Mac-N-Cheese medley, this community culinary club has proven its “upscale take on American comfort food.”
Just My Ripe: A girlfriend of mine said she was craving the BLFTA ($17), so we headed to Main Street. When the waitress came by, I said, “I’ll have what she’s having,” without knowing what the FT stood for. This handsome looking handheld consists of fried green tomatoes, butter lettuce, billionaire bacon (which on its own is a show-stopper), avocado, sun dried tomato aioli, house-made pimento cheese (that, as the kids say, "slaps"), all sandwiched between two slices of St. Armands Bakery Ciabatta bread. Whoa! My anti-tomato streak officially went on pause. But the fried green tomato train doesn’t stop chugging there. Try MADE’s BLTA salad ($17) with all the fixings of sandwich, minus the bread, with added grilled corn salsa, jalapeno jack cheese and buttermilk pimento ranch, the delectable veggie Po’ Boy ($16) or get an appetizer of the local favorite, fried green tomatoes.
Sauce it Up: Do yourself a favor and get a seat at the bar on a night where brilliant bartender Rhiannon is working and you will leave feeling lighter than when you entered. Order the smoked musket ($16) with bourbon, toasted cashew simple syrup and bitters. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the smoke-show unveiling on your table.
Cheers to growth! From hater to tolerator, I’ve tackled my tomato task.