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I was standing outside Hot Tomatoe in Lighthouse Point, rocking my cranky baby to sleep, when I heard gunshots -- six of 'em, fired rapidly. I didn't see who fired the gun or where the bullets went. But I also didn't hear sirens or screams, or read anything about it in the next day's newspaper, so I assumed it was somebody shooting at targets in a back yard. At the time, though, I was alarmed enough to hightail it back inside the three-month-old Italian restaurant.
Seems like the sound of gunshots is a pretty common occurrence just about anywhere you go these days, but I was surprised to hear it in Lighthouse Point. A comfortable little community sandwiched between Pompano Beach and Boca Raton, Lighthouse Point prides itself on its quiet, family-oriented neighborhoods. Which is precisely why Hot Tomatoe proprietor Elsa Addario chose a side-street setting rather than the more popular Federal Highway for her improperly spelled restaurant. (The spelling error is deliberate. "I just wanted to be different," Addario told me.)
Having moved from a larger place in Orlando, a city she didn't care for, Addario wanted to run a sedate neighborhood joint, one that caters to local families rather than crowds of tourists. She chose Lighthouse Point because it's a close-knit community and reminded her of the small Connecticut town in which she was raised. She wanted a place where customers could get to know her, and she them. With that in mind, she doesn't advertise, letting word of mouth -- and some fairly tasty eggplant Parmesan -- attract new clientele. If they can find her, that is. The restaurant is not only off the main drag, it's screened by foliage and a busy dry cleaner next door.
Gunshots notwithstanding, Addario, a first-generation Italian-American, has achieved her goal. She took over the former Heart of Europe bistro, redecorating it with friends who did everything from painting the brick walls a foamy green to designing the restaurant's logo. Curtains hang at the windows, and kids -- as well as adults who think like kids -- color the butcher paper on the tables. For those who can't draw but admire art all the same, surrealist oil paintings accent the walls. (Rotating art exhibits are accompanied by winetastings at the restaurant).
Stopping by the 15 or so tables, Addario chats with patrons, sharing with them her culinary history; she says, for instance, that her mom taught her how to cook. In return she expects customers to be forthcoming for two reasons: So she can provide off-the-menu assistance -- she's happy to make something special for finicky folks -- and fix anything that's wrong. In fact, she was quick to re-toss a caesar salad for us after we complained that the romaine tasted bland. The extra dressing, a rich but gentle blend of anchovy, garlic, egg, and Parmesan, improved the salad immensely, though nothing could help the soggy croutons, which hadn't been toasted long enough.
She also offered to compose an antipasto appetizer for the table ($5 per person). Her suggestion turned out to be a good one. Addario, who is also the chef (and, on a slow night, hostess and server, along with a small, pleasant staff), supplied us with juicy bruschetta and pungent tapenade, a black olive-anchovy mixture spread on toasted rounds of bread. She put two cheeses on the platter, chunks of a mildly nutty provolone and slices of superb homemade mozzarella, interspersed with fresh beefsteak tomatoes. Roasted red peppers were served on the side, as was a room-temperature, grilled-calamari salad bristling with tiny, delicious, just-cooked squid.
The antipasto probably would have sufficed, but we took Addario up on another option: the "zuppa di clams Aldo" appetizer with mussels mixed in. The broth was vibrant with whole cloves of garlic, but the clams and mussels were a bit gritty. We had the same problem with the linguine with white clam sauce. The linguine was pleasant enough, dressed with a somewhat bland white-wine sauce, but the clams, while supple, could have been cleaned more carefully.
Hot Tomatoe's menu isn't the biggest I've seen in an Italian restaurant, but it is possible to eke out a luxurious dinner, especially with a big bowl of pasta fagioli. The white bean-and-macaroni soup was thick, almost creamy, and very flavorful. Served after the antipasto and before the "house greens" -- chicory, red cabbage, and romaine tossed with a vibrant balsamic vinaigrette -- that accompany the entrees, the soup was a soothing in-betweener.
Pasta dishes are certainly big, and the gnocchi pomodoro was exceptional. The potato dumplings were pliable, not spongy, and covered with a chunky, tangy, tomato sauce. But chicken, veal, and fish entrees shouldn't be overlooked, especially since they come with a side of pasta. (Addario filled a special request by subbing linguine with white clam sauce for the penne or spaghetti with tomato sauce she usually serves.)
Hot Tomatoe doesn't offer a ton of main plates -- two each of chicken, veal, and fish, with no steaks or chops available -- but what it does put on the table is well prepared. Chicken Palermo consisted of pieces of boneless, white-meat poultry sauteed with onions and caper berries in a lemony sauce. Veal Marsala looked similar in preparation to the chicken, with succulent, breaded medallions of veal moistened by a mushroom-wine sauce. And snapper piccata, a sweet-fleshed fillet dipped in egg and pan-fried, was a definite treat.
So, why doesn't Hot Tomatoe serve red-meat dishes? "I serve what I like to eat," Addario explained. "And I rarely eat red meat out." Still, she might serve meat as a special from time to time, particularly if there's customer demand for it.
The otherwise light entrees leave room for the tiramisu, which includes mascarpone cheese flavored with rum -- a taste I didn't care for. What I liked better was the homemade apple tart, a flaky crust covered with simmered apples.
Despite its unusual spelling and Addario's charisma, Hot Tomatoe isn't the most exciting restaurant. It's not cutting edge or overly creative. But it's exactly what the neighborhood requires: reasonably priced, family-oriented, and unpretentious. Like Lighthouse Point itself -- without the gunshots, that is.
Hot Tomatoe. 1817 NE 25th St., Lighthouse Point, 954-785-5058. Dinner nightly from 5:30 to 10 p.m.