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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

Sauces With Punch at Caldo Pomodoro

October 15, 1992|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

When a restaurant chooses a name like "Caldo Pomodoro," it offers patrons both a promise and a threat.

Downtown Carlsbad's Caldo Pomodoro makes this double offer in one breath, quite literally, since the thrust at this "Hot Tomato" is to tickle the tongue with sharp, fierce sauces made potent by garlic, red pepper, onions and herbs. This by and large is simple, everyday Italian cooking of the red sauce school, with the difference that Caldo Pomodoro insists on strong, unmistakable flavors that decline to negotiate. Subtlety is not part of this restaurant's vocabulary.

If you believe, as many of us do, that the only thing better than a fair amount of garlic is a great deal of garlic, then Caldo Pomodoro ought to be your kind of place--with the caveat that some dishes are not assembled with any special finesse or even with minimal skill. One that comes immediately to mind is the Sicilian-style eggplant Parmesan, for which the vegetable is breaded and browned, then layered with cheeses and tomato sauce and baked in a casserole. The soupy result has absolutely no appeal.

Within the genre of Southern Italian cooking, Caldo Pomodoro prepares a number of sauces, some of them meant exclusively for pasta but others for application throughout the relatively lengthy menu. The restaurant's philosophy probably is best expressed by the "hot and spicy" tomato sauce, breathtakingly bold and employed both with a basic selection of pastas, as an extra fillip for pizza or poured over shrimp or squid. There is also a relatively strong Sicilian tomato sauce; a meat sauce that includes the same basic flavors but is more rich (and very nice over a plate of mostaccioli), and a simple but feisty olive oil-garlic combination to which the kitchen will add anchovies if requested. Anyone who makes such a request, of course, knows what he's in for in advance.

Most of the sauces are typical of Sicily and Southern Italy, but that does not mean they are well-known or easily found here. One pleasant offering is a fresh tomato sauce with basil, garlic and capers, a combination that supports the restaurant's piquant tone; in the same mood, the menu offers puttanesca sauce, which gains most of its character from anchovies, garlic and black olives. For those who do want food on the mild side, Caldo Pomodoro offers pasta in mushroom sauce, or tossed with Gorgonzola cheese and broccoli, or in a cream-based version of the eternally popular fettuccine Alfredo.

The short appetizer list is fairly dull with the exception of the sauteed mushrooms and the garlic bread, a single order of which accompanies most meals gratis. This is garlic bread to the point that it is difficult to be sure when the garlic ends and the bread begins, and it would be hard to improve upon. It's hard to settle for a single order. The list also offers appetizer portions of meatballs or sausages, but these can be ordered with pasta as entrees and seem more likely in that guise. Meals include the choice of soup or salad, and salad seems likelier in this setting, given the strength of the food; the house dressing is fairly potent but once again quite good.

Among entrees, a veal parmigiana came off better than the eggplant given the same treatment; the other veal option would be the piccata, which finishes the sauteed meat with lemon, capers and garlic. Perhaps more interesting than either would be the Italian sausage, made specially for the restaurant, quite nicely flavored and cooked with peppers, onions and tomato sauce. The house meatballs, dense and heavy, pack plenty of garlic but lack finesse.

Caldo Pomodoro offers quite an extensive menu for so small an establishment. Choices extend to shrimp, squid and chicken, variously sauced and served over pasta; to such stuffed pastas as manicotti and lasagna, and to a brief list of "Cajun" dishes flavored with a spice mix. The selection of pizzas, none of which were sampled, includes traditional Italian versions as well as specialty numbers that range from the rarely encountered bianca (just a crust baked with garlic and olive oil, a winning combination) to a barbecued chicken pie.

The restaurant has a comfortable, easy-going neighborhood mood and a low-key but comfortable decor, carried out mostly in black and white but given an East Coast touch by the interior awnings, over the entry and bar, that advertise the eatery's name. The wine list offers several good choices but quickly becomes expensive relative to the menu.

Caldo Pomodoro

State at Grand, Carlsbad Calls: 720-9998

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Cost: Pastas and entrees $8.95 to $15.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $30 to $45.

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