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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | RESTAURANT REVIEW

All Fired Up : Cafe's grill turns out light, crisp pizzas with savory toppings. There are salads and pastas too.

March 13, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Many transplanted New Englanders, myself included, swear no pizza can equal the white clam pie served at Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven. It's a masterpiece of shucked Littlenecks, garlic, Parmesan and wild oregano.

Jim and Elaine Abramsky had many dates at Pepe's when they attended college in Connecticut. Now, nearly 20 years later, they have opened a mini-mall pizzeria and Italian cafe in Valencia. Hot Tomato is the name.

The specialty at Hot Tomato is grilled pizza, using a thin whole-wheat crust cooked on a coal-fired grill. The idea of making pizzas on a grill comes from Elaine's family and these pizzas remind me more of Florence, Italy, than New Haven. They are light, cracker-crisp and dotted with well-chosen toppings such as smoked mozzarella, imported anchovies and whole Greek olives.

The Abramskys also make traditional pizzas with a yeasty, hand-tossed crust baked in a conventional pizza oven. There are calzoni, too, for which you design your own fillings. All sauces are made on the premises, as well as the meatballs, lasagna and both types of pizza dough.

They even offer their own take on white clam pie. It relies, alas, on canned clams, but if the restaurant ever finds the resources to get fresh Littlenecks, sign me up for regular trips to the Santa Clarita Valley.

What the heck, sign me up anyway. Hot Tomato's other grilled pizzas are delicious, and this is such a charming place I can't wait to go back.

It has the atmosphere of a college town cafe: Tuscan yellow walls, green Formica table tops, posters of prewar tomato crate labels. You order at the front counter from an overhead menu printed on big tomato-shaped signs--a nice touch. When the restaurant isn't too busy, an employee will bring your order to the table. Otherwise, you bus your own table, college-town fashion.

Start with Hot Tomato's irresistible spinach salad. It's a tall dish, ideal for sharing, of fresh spinach leaves, penne pasta, fresh Roma and sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese, red onions and a nice balsamic vinaigrette. The excellent Caesar salad uses crisp romaine, homemade croutons, lots of imported Parmesan and a complex, intense Caesar dressing.

Next dive into one of the grilled pizzas. Especially good are the Thai chicken, grilled vegetable and broccoli pesto models. What makes the Thai pizza work is a spicy but never-cloying peanut sauce, scented with ginger and garlic. The other toppings on this pizza are scallions, white meat chicken, crushed peanut and red chili. It's sneakily hot and impossible to resist.

The grilled vegetable pizza is topped with a medley of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions and smoked mozzarella together with a chunky fire-roasted tomato sauce. The vegetables have been cooked separately, giving them more distinctive texture, and the use of the smoked cheese is a brilliant stroke.

"Pastabilities"--the menu's pasta section--is a choice of familiar noodles such as penne, fettuccine and spaghetti with your choice of sauces. Elaine Abramsky makes her own fine pesto sauce, grainy and redolent of sweet basil. (It's what makes the broccoli pesto pizza work.) I've also had the thick, chunky arrabbiata sauce here; and it's very good, and hotter than what you get at mainstream Italian restaurants.

Other than the white clam pie, the only real letdown here is a nondescript meatball sandwich--a pair of bready meatballs sharing a French roll with marinara sauce and too much melted cheese.

The desserts compensate for any glitch. Elaine Abramsky makes great, crackling hazelnut biscotti, for starters, and terrific "magic bars"--coconut and chocolate rectangles with a buttery graham-flour crust.

If you ask her for a recommendation, you'll find she is proudest of her tiramisu cheesecake. This is a dense, chocolate and mascarpone-topped wedge that wouldn't bomb anywhere, and that includes New Haven.

BE THERE

"Hot Tomato," 23360 Valencia Blvd., Valencia. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Thur., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Dinner for two, $14-$21. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. (805) 253-4565.

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