I had a pleasant New Jersey flashback this morning when opening cans of plum tomatoes. The brand, Sinatra, was new to me, but importer on the label was very familiar: Orlando Food Group of Maywood, N.J.
I had a few dealings with them, as its owners were a part of at least three restaurants under my watch — Simon’s in Westwood, N.J. (good), Simon’s in Saddle River, N.J. (a bust that nobody knew about) and A Mano in Ridgewood, N.J. (remarkable), which directly benefited from Orlando products and experienced a great resurgence before I moved back upstate.
When the restaurant opened three years ago, it was a triumph of culinary artistry and Italian craftsmanship — rustic pizzas served in a soaring 100-seat space, complete with a loft and glass elevator. But after an early surge of curiosity, the generations raised on pizza from the recently closed Lenny’s across the street shrugged, pronouncing the pies too small and the crust too soggy. Roberto Caporuscio, the founding pizzaiolo, left within a year, later finding a more receptive audience in Manhattan’s West Village — his Keste Pizzeria is entrenched in the city’s recurring best pizza debate — and A Mano floundered, serving up careless pies. But as Caporuscio’s young protégés got some seasoning, A Mano got its groove back, and the guest chefs who jet over every few months have added to an edible legacy.
A Mano took the Orlando Food Group’s Caputo flour, San Marzano tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil and buffalo mozzarella that Orlando imported and turned them into the most interesting pizzas I’ve enjoyed. Baked at 1,000 degrees for about 60 seconds, they featured blistered crusts, bubbly cheese and the most elegant simple sauce I’ve ever had — hand-crushed tomatoes and sea salt.
My favorite may have been the mast’ Nicola, because it came together with the humblest of ingredients — dough, Pecorino Romano cheese, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a few basil leaves, which would crisp up in the dry, 1,000-degree heat. No sauce necessary.
We’re using those Sinatra-brand tomatoes today for our basic pasta sauce that ultimately will be a part of lasagna with two kinds of sauces, ground beef and a few kinds of cheese.
SAC TOMATO SAUCE
This recipe easily can be multiplied — in fact, we always do — but increase the cooking time appropriately.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 onion, chopped
- Salt to taste
- 1/2 cup red wine or grape juice
- 1 No. 10 can peeled plum tomatoes (or four large household cans), crushed by hand or in a food mill
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated
In a large pot over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil until it shimmers. Add onions and pinch of salt and cook until onions are soft but not browned.
When onions are cooked, increase heat to high and add wine or grape juice. Cook until nearly evaporated.
Add tomatoes, bay leaves and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Simmer, stirring every 5-10 minutes, about 90 minutes or until reduced by about 25 percent.
Remove bay leaves and discard. Add Parmesan cheese and stir. Taste, adding salt if necessary.
Yield: Enough to generously sauce 1 1/2 pounds pasta.