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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.

Start with an 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 Caesar dressing.

Next dive into one of the grilled pizzas. Especially good are the Thai chicken, grilled vegetable and broccoli pesto models.

"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.

For dessert, Elaine Abramsky makes great, crackling hazelnut biscotti, and if you ask her for a recommendation, you'll find she is proudest of her tiramisu cheesecake.

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. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. (805) 253-4565.

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