The Last of the New Jersey Tomatoes

It’s been a rough month. In one small bright spot, there is the fact that, right now, in November, after the hurricane, after the first snow, you can eat a better-tasting tomato than you have eaten all year. (Thanks, global warming.) Over in Park Slope, Scalino on 7th Avenue and 10 Street is still serving up a “Jersey Tomato Salad,” but not for long. Go today or within the next week, because the guy who runs the place told me that’s as long as he’ll have this particularly fantastic batch of tomatoes he gets from a farmer he knows who probably likes Bruce Springsteen.

Or, the Smithereens. (Lord knows, we’ve all been seeing enough of Bruce lately, right? Not that those pictures of him and Obama and Jay-Z didn’t make me smile, but still.) The Smithereens are criminally underrated. Their album Especially For You, from 1986, is just chock full of hits, nothing but, front-to-back. Pat DiNizio is as Jersey as Jersey guys get. Bad hair and slouchy posture and all.

The tomatoes are big and round and red and sliced into plump wedges and dressed with arugula leaves and olive oil and dice-sized cubes of a dry, salty blue cheese. Also order some other things. I highly recommend the shrimp with arugula and cannellini beans and cherry tomatos — but that’s basically a salad, too. So if you’re going by yourself, you might want to get something else, to avoid redundancy. (Oh, and going to this restaurant by oneself is a very pleasant experience. It’s that kind of place:pretty, casual, big windows that let in a lot of light, and the people there are really nice. It’s not usually too crowded, at least at lunch time, so you can sit for a while and read a book — have you read Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds? It’s dynamite — and drink a glass of wine. Or, if you try the Cuvee de Pena, two glasses.)

I had an excellent cauliflower puree soup the other day; it tasted just like cauliflower and the chopped basil and bay leaves that were in it, and the flakes of black pepper the waiter ground into it, and olive oil. There’s no cream in the cauliflower puree, thankfully. While I am the type of glutton who might pour a little extra olive oil into soup, I am not the type of glutton who likes to feel that he’s just drank a big bowl of cream lightly flavored by a vegetable. Also, if they have it, definitely get the sauteed mushrooms. I had sauteed mushrooms there a while ago that blew my mind. Oyster mushrooms, served with seared sliced garlic and big springs of thyme and very little else. Everyone says mushrooms taste “earthy” and “like the forest,” but it’s true, that’s how good mushrooms taste. So yeah, the oyster mushrooms tasted like a clean, earthy forest. Not like oysters. The calamari is served pretty much the same way. Also delicious. But less like the forest, and I suppose, more like oysters. But only a bit. You know what calamari tastes like.

Since I’ve been going to this place for lunch lately, I’ve been sticking with the lighter side of the menu (and then pouring extra olive oil on top of everything and all over myself and eating sticks of butter right out of the wrapper). I have not had a single less-than-great thing in my visits. There is no salt on the tables, which is always kind of a snobby statement like, “You can not be trusted with salt. Our chef will season your dish to perfection, you would only screw it up given the chance.” I applaud the confidence.

This past summer, as the guy who runs Scalino — a really nice guy from Pittsburgh who looks a bit like Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and calls you “brother” and says thing like, “Yeah, it’s good for ya’,” when he refills your water glass — as he will tell you, it was one of the best summers for tomatoes we’ve ever had. And he’s been amazed by the longevity of the crop, too. (He is a guy who likes to talk about his food with you if you express interest.) It really feels like some kind of miracle to get to be eating them in November, after the storms, and after what happened to New Jersey. It’s like drinking orange juice on a vacation to Florida over Christmas break. Or maybe just like travelling back in time to September, when we were still all complaining about the heat and the draught that killed all our corn but for some reason left us with these big, ripe, red gifts from God New Jersey. But without the sweat, or the mosquitos. Remember when all we had to complain about was mosquitoes?