Sleek as a new Ferrari but way more affordable, the year-old Red Tomato Artisanal Pizza in East Norwich is now running on more than just its well-crafted pies. Lately, Naples-born owner Lello Messina, a partner at Messina Market next door, has been ingeniously maximizing his restaurant's wood-burning oven to bake bread, roast eggplant and turn out pasta dishes. Small wonder the place is usually hopping with a family crowd.
Tomato basil soup, made in the kitchen of Messina Market, trumpets the vibrancy of its ingredients. Better yet, Italian wedding soup is a happy union of robust chicken broth, al dente pastina and loads of plush, cleverly seasoned mini meatballs -- a veritable meal in a bowl.
Marble-sized meatballs, in profusion, come together with a bright Neapolitan tomato sauce and a melt of fresh mozzarella to make a primo sandwich on house-baked ciabatta, done with pizza dough. The same bread is the base of an Italian BLT -- prosciutto, arugula and Roma tomatoes. It's good, if a tad dry; doesn't every BLT deserve a little mayo? A tuna and avocado salad -- Italian canned tuna and fresh sliced avocado served over mixed greens -- pairs well with its citrusy lemon vinaigrette.
Here, pasta dishes are assembled each morning, placed in cast iron skillets and popped into the wood oven when ordered. There's a hearty fusilli with a meaty, slightly creamy Bolognese sauce. And, also, light, lovely gnocchi -- potato-semolina dumplings -- with Neapolitan tomato sauce, Parmesan and mozzarella. While it may look slightly burned on top, that wood-oven char imparts a lovely smokiness. Paccheri -- a thick, somewhat doughy Neapolitan rigatoni -- joins roasted eggplant, sauce and cheese in savory harmony. Infused with the woodsy flavor from the oven is a pasta-free entree of juicy white meat grilled chicken Margherita, mixed with sauce and cheese.
If there's a downside to Red Tomato, it's that pre-assembling everything leaves no room for customization. But it's this method of production, along with the repetition of ingredients, that keeps entree prices below $10.
Conclude with a sweet campfire-flavored Nutella and marshmallow-topped pizza. Or a slice of airy-rich ricotta cheesecake, baked next door by folks who understand how satisfying it is to eat well without spending lots.