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Friday, June 24, 2011

Tomato & Basil: Casual Italian Dining with a Chic New York Vibe

Tomato & Basil: Casual Italian Dining with a Chic New York Vibe
By Mike Lauterborn
(2-page spread in Fairfield County Life Magazine July/Aug issue)

Fairfield, CT – The self-dubbed café and pizzeria offers something for everyone: tasty fare for hungry families, libations and light appetizers for thirsty commuters and a Riviera disco vibe and bar scene for singles and couples looking for a late night diversion.

Opened just over a year ago at 1876 Black Rock Turnpike, Tomato & Basil, housed in the old Miro Farms building and tucked beside Citibank, serves up casual Italian dining but with New York-style sophistication that extends to its background beats and bar menu.

The eatery was the brainchild of 32-year-old Norwalk resident Chris Pedicini, co-owner with Eugene Kabilnitsky, 29. Pedicini, general manager Greg Vayneris, 29, and executive chef Vinnie Mascaro, 33, run the day-to-day operations while Kabilnitsky oversees financials.

Born and raised in Mt. Vernon, New York, Pedicini came from a strong Italian family. No direct family members, however, were involved in the restaurant business and it wasn’t until his time at Ithaca College and Pace University that he started to gravitate in that direction. In 1998, he began working for a family friend in an Italian restaurant in Greenwich, “starting at the bottom, from dishwasher to pizza maker then cook,” he said. “The atmosphere felt natural and comfortable. At the same time, I was taking business classes. Things really came together when I was afforded the opportunity to own and operate my own business, in 2001 -- a pizzeria in Greenwich.”

Pedicini operated that venue through 2004, noting, “It was good training, allowing me to see what worked and what didn’t, understand people’s food preferences, learn people skills, and apply my business learning and promotion strategies. Basically, it was the building block for Tomato & Basil.”

The restaurant name came easily. “Tomato and basil are the two main ingredients of Italian cuisine,” he said. “Whether it be pastas, pizzas or sauces. The name doesn’t leave room for misunderstanding as to what the place is about.”

Location was an important consideration. “We wanted to do something in Fairfield in general,” said Kabilnitsky. “One of the things that drew us to Black Rock Turnpike was traffic flow – 30,000 cars drive by daily. And there wasn’t any other place on the strip that attracted a better crowd. We noticed that there were limited eating destinations between Easton and the Post Road, too.”

Their arrival was welcome. “People told us they were fed up with what was here, and this café-style dining is what people are gravitating towards,” added Kabilnitsky.

Lunch offerings include a wide choice of salads, light sandwiches and pizzas, priced up to $10. The Vineyard salad is a favorite, featuring grilled chicken, dried cranberries, candied pecans, gorgonzola, red onions and honey balsamic over fresh field greens. The Pollo Panini includes marinated grilled chicken, provolone cheese, fresh baby arugula, fire-roasted red peppers and pesto aioli. Pizzas are thin-crust, brick oven baked Neopolitan-style, like the Margherita pizza, made with plum tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, olive oil and fresh basil.

In the Appetizers category, priced $8 to $10, T & B has 15 small plate items, ranging from traditional dishes to modern Italian. A popular dish is New York Calamari, which is flash-fried and sauced in cherry wine with garlic and hot-cherry peppers. The Mozzarella Carozza is homemade fresh fried mozzarella. A new offering, the Tuna Tartare is done Italian-style with scallions, basil, garlic and fresh Ahi tuna.

With regard to the Dinner menu, Kabilnitsky said, “It’s seasonal, changed twice a year. We go heavier in fall/winter and lighter in warmer months. We try out new entrée items as specials and see what moves.”

Typically, T & B offers 7 to 8 entrees, along with a separate list of pastas, which can be a side or main. Entrees are priced $18 to $22. Among the leaders, the Stuffed Pork Chop contains braised apples, caramelized onions and cranberries served with red mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach and a port wine demi-glace. The Chicken or Veal Picatta is sautéed with artichoke hearts in a lemon caper wine sauce and served over spaghetti. A new item, Rainbow Trout is stuffed with roasted peppers, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and smoked guajillo pepper sauce, with a cucumber and apple salad on the side.

Pastas fall in the $15 to $18 range. A front-runner is the Truffle and Bacon Mac & Cheese, which is cavatappi pasta with a rich three-cheese sauce laced with white truffle oil and smoky bacon all baked golden brown with fresh bread crumbs. Summer Tortellini is tri-colored cheese tortellini sautéed with chickpeas, oven-roasted tomatoes and fresh spinach in a light pesto plum tomato sauce. The Linguine Vongole features littleneck clams, garlic, parsley, olive oil and white wine.

Children are accommodated with their own menu, with items like chicken tenders, mozzarella and penne with butter in the $7.50 to $9 range.

Making the afterwork and late night hours come alive is Israel-born Tomer the Mixologist, who makes a mean cocktail. One concoction is the French Raspberry Martini, made with fresh raspberries, raspberry vodka, prosecco, Cointreau and fresh raspberry puree. The Espresso Martini, which is great before or after dinner, is made with fresh illy espresso, vanilla vodka, Kahlua and Mexican coffee liquore, shaken well and topped with cinnamon. Giving Latin-themed restaurants a run for their money is T & B’s sangria, made fresh to order by the glass.

“We consider ourselves beer geeks,” said Vayneris, with regard to the beer selection they also maintain. “We only have craft beers on tap. We love good beer. This includes a limited but very interesting bottle selection, like trapiste beer. We try to rotate beers seasonally – for summer, we always have an I.P.A. on tap. Never macros.” In fact, the restaurant hosts bi-monthly beer dinners, with the next one planned for the last week of August or first week of September.

The Tomato & Basil portrait would not be complete without a nod to its wine inventory. “We have 35 choices,” said Vayneris, “Among reds, a Terra Di Toscana Scopetini SanGiovese, a Les Shadoks Bordeaux and a Saperavi Merlot from Georgia. Among whites, a Castelnuovo Del Garda Custoza and Apicus Verdicchio.”

Vayneris sees all good things in the future for the restaurant, and attributes it to the solid relationship between the owners and staff, and their connection with patrons. “We’re about providing a personal experience, and making people feel welcome and part of the family,” he said. “We’ve created a loyal following and hope to serve the community for many years going forward.”

Tomato & Basil is located at 1876 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield. For more information, call 203-333-3600 or visit

Potent Fake Pot Marketed as Incense Drives Bill to Ban

Potent Fake Pot Marketed as Incense Drives Bill to Ban
By Mike Lauterborn
(appeared as front page feature in Fairfield Sun 6/23)

Fairfield, CT – Call it Reefer Madness. When an aromatic incense called K2, comprised of various herbs and botanicals designed to elevate the senses, grew in popularity, rip-off artists noticed and began to copy and capitalize on it. Available in convenience marts, food stops and smokeshops, the faux products – with provocative names like K2 Spice, K2 Krush and Kryp2nite -- contain marijuana derivatives and dangerous chemicals that can be hazardous to users, which are often teenagers that smoke this synthetic marijuana substance as a legal way to get high. Recognizing the hazards of these products and their status as a gateway to more serious drugs, a bill to ban the fake pot has been unanimously approved in both the Connecticut State House of Representatives and Senate and now awaits approval by the Governor.

First blip on the radar

Jan Laster, Regional Action Council and Health Promotion Director for RYASAP (Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership), said these synthetic marijuana products first hit her organization’s radar last fall. Housed on Fairfield Avenue at the Burroughs Community Center in Bridgeport, RYASAP is a community-driven non-profit that actively engages other organizations, public officials and community leaders around specific issues, trying to create a catalyst for change and system reform.

“At a statewide meeting of Regional Action Council directors, faux marijuana came up as being prevalent and a big problem, though predominantly in the southeast corner of the state,” Laster said. “We noted a lot of usage among members of the military in particular, given the prominence of armed forces locations in that area. The chemical compounds were not detectable through the military’s drug-screening process, so not only was it undetectable but they could obtain it legally, too. That was a concern.”

Of more concern was its accessibility to young people statewide, and how it is marketed to appeal to them. “The products have flashy names, psychedelic and colorful packaging, and often plastic pouches and different shapes,” she said.

More troubling are the potential side effects. “Psychological effects can include distorted perception, loss of coordination, problems with memory and learning, and trouble with thinking and problem solving,” said Laster. “Physical effects can include increased heart rate, immune system impairment, high blood pressure, hallucinations and paranoia.”

Laster commented that, as a parent, these effects would raise her eyebrows. “When something’s legal and available, it gives the perception that the product is safe,” she said. “Kids trying to drive or ride home, though, are putting themselves at risk and this is very concerning.”

Laster explained that the herbs are laced with synthetic cannabinoids, which are psychoactive manmade chemicals that mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the active ingredient in marijuana.

“We are making our constituencies aware of it and, as a group, we asked state senate and state legislators to create a bill,” she said. “It’s among our top concerns along with alcohol and tobacco.”

Senator Paul Doyle, a Democrat in Wethersfield, CT, who is also Senate Chair of the state legislature’s General Law Committee, initiated the bill to ban synthetic marijuana. “I didn’t know much about it at first,” he said. “The age requirement to buy it is very low and purchase is not highly policed. When the hazards were shared with me, I moved to support it. People are more aware of the dangers of marijuana. This can be even more dangerous, given its underground availability and nature.”

Laster added, “You have to stay ahead of the curve. Kids are often aware of things before adults – where to get it, how to get it. We want to raise awareness and be proactive in the community. It’s a tedious balance battling this as it puts it on kids’ radar screens, where it may not have been before.”

A gateway to more serious drug abuse

Fairfield resident Joanne White lost her son Ryan to a heroin overdose and now works to help others who have experienced this pain through an annual healing walk, website and other means. She said use of synthetic marijuana could be a stepping stone to more serious addictions.

“He experimented with beer, then went to pot,” she said. “It was an escalating disease, that progressed to Oxycontin and beyond. He experimented with 25 to 30 boys and girls. Some walked away from these experiments, while others continued to go up the ladder, like Ryan.”

White said the danger with synthetic pot is that you’re not sure what it’s being laced with and it could be lethal or laced with properties that make it more addictive. “The people making the product are looking for lifetime buyers,” she said. “The sooner they can get them hooked, the better for them. This type of pot is much stronger and harder to walk away from. Once you start medicating yourself on a daily basis, it becomes a way of life. Every addict makes a drug choice that can put them in jail or take their life. Addicts look to maintain their high. It all catches up.”

White says parents need to keep a watchful eye on their children and be on the lookout for changes. “You can’t say all kids do it when it comes to pot,” she said. “You need to look for the signs and get them help before it escalates.”

With sadness in her voice, White noted, “My son was 31 when he passed. He was a phenomenal person and graphic artist in the city, but he overdosed from heroin.”

Communication may be the best prevention

Like Laster, John Hamilton, a Fairfield-based licensed alcohol and drug counselor and CEO of the Recovery Network of Programs, a highly revered treatment agency, is concerned that drawing attention to these products may have a counterproductive effect.

“The main issues we see are binge drinking and prescription drug use,” Hamilton said. “Synthetics are not on the radar screen in this area yet. The hysteria of adults may work against the cause, sparking curiosity. At the same time, it’s an issue that can create a trend. You can get it easy and cheaply, and there’s no perception of harm, so kids will try it. It needs to be seen as bad either through legislation or high fines.”

Hamilton said it’s hard to know who will develop a problem but there are certain key influencers. “We don’t have the science and data to predict what people will become addicted to drug-wise,” he said. “But we know factors that influence vulnerability, which include depression, anxiety, ADHD and poor resilience. A major factor is stress, which actually influences hard wiring of the brain.”

In terms of parents adopting an approach with their kids, Hamilton said a ‘scared straight’ strategy may backfire and often kids will trust their friends more than adults. “Scared straight and a dollar won’t buy you a cup of coffee,” he said.

“In the bigger picture, you need to give kids hope, resilience and community support as a real protection against substance problems or addiction,” Hamilton said. “Parents have to show they have faith and confidence in their children. The child and parent need to have an honest and open line of communication. If kids are doing drugs to mood regulate or feel better, they’re in trouble. That’s the big red flag.”


K2 or Not K2, that is the question

The home website of K2,, defines the product as “a powerfully aromatic incense blend that can uplift and elevate your senses with its soothing mellow aroma.” The maker claims it contains a variety of botanicals, plant material and proprietary ingredients. If offers the product in a variety of different scents purported to help soothe the body and mind through its aromatherapeutic properties. Main ingredients the site lists include Canavalia rosea, Clematis vitalba, Nelumbo nucifera, Pedicularis grandifolia, Heimia salicifolia, Leonurus sibiricus and Ledum palustre. It is price-tagged at $20 to $30 per gram, depending on quality. The maker currently offers four brands: K2 Blonde, K2 Summit, K2 Ultra and K2 Solid Sex.

A companion website,, warns about the multitude of fake, poorly copied and potentially dangerous K2 rip-off products marketed under more than 75 provocative names, which it lists. “With no quality control over these fake and counterfeit K2 incense blends, and no way of knowing what these boiler room/garage/kitchen/basement producers are putting into these products, buyer beware!” the site states. The site also warned sellers of the faux products, who risk criminal prosecution and property seizure.

Numerous videos on YouTube show young people using imitations, like K2 Volcano. One clip shows a young couple, Jay and Rhiannon, smoking it, flashing the package and saying, “The sh** gets you f***in stoned.” Clearly, these products are not being used as incense as marketed, and contain properties that produce a high. Their long-term effects are unclear given the absence of disclosure of ingredients and regulation. It seems apparent that only a ban and pursuit of criminal action in cases where death or serious medical conditions result from product usage will curb its proliferation. 

Ludlowe Graduation Not Dampened By Rain

Ludlowe Graduation Not Dampened By Rain:
Ceremony pushed indoors, 
split between two gyms
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – All morning, ceremony organizers eyed the skies and watched the weather reports, trying to determine if the event could be held outdoors. Buckets of rain and flash flooding drove the decision to push it indoors. It was a disappointment, but would not quell the buoyant, excited feeling that carried the day.

Thursday evening, Fairfield Ludlowe High School held its Sixth Annual Commencement Exercises, celebrating the Class of 2011 and graduating 338 seniors. Twenty-nine of these students had the distinction of maintaining a grade point average of 4.0 or better for four years. Ninety-two students graduated as National Honor Society members.

The commencement was initially planned for Taft Field in the school’s stadium but pushed inside when it was clear the weather would not cooperate. An estimated 1,800 spectators were divided between two gyms. In the main gym, the graduation occurred; the secondary gym carried a live video feed of the exercises for the audience gathered there. This was the first time in the six years of graduation ceremonies that the event was held indoors.

“The weather was ridiculous today with all the rain,” said Athletic Director Dave Schultz, helping with crowd control at the entry to the main gym. “Student Activities Director Victor Mirrer should get a lot of credit for organizing the move indoors. We didn’t want to shut anyone out that would normally have been able to attend an outdoor function.”

Schultz added, “This has been a great senior class. We’re proud of them and are looking forward to hearing about their successes as they move on.”

Bob Kennedy, father of graduate Christopher, felt fortunate to be a Fairfielder. “Chris is headed to Villanova to study engineering,” he said. “We feel we’re blessed to be living in Fairfield and for his getting the quality education that got him into a top school. He’s prepared and had a great experience here, involved in baseball, football and track.”

Sitting in the stands nearby, parent Mary Cody said, “My daughter Megan is headed to the University of Scranton to major in community health. Ludlowe gave her a great internship at RYASAP in Bridgeport. She had a wonderful experience here.”

As proud as the parents were graduates’ siblings, like Caitlin Clarkson Pereira, whose sister Amanda was part of the Class of 2011. “She’s going to my alma mater Western Connecticut State University,” she said. “She was a great student, working hard in her AP classes. I can’t wait to see all the great things she’ll do in college.”

Among the grads themselves, Bobby Murphy, draped in a blue gown and cap, joked, “The friends and experiences I had here at Ludlowe shaped me into the man of character and integrity I am today. I’m going to Old Miss. Hotty toddy!”

Grad Jill Steinhauer, looking like a picture in a white gown and clutching a yellow rose, said, “I’ve made some of the best memories of my life at Ludlowe and will miss all my fellow students and teachers. St. Joe’s here I come!”

Standing in a row behind Steinhauer, grad Lucia Harold commented, “I had a great time here the last four years. I’m happy to graduate, but will really miss it.”

Addressing the gathering, Headmaster Dr. Vanessa Reale said, “Our celebration will not be dampened by the rain. The sun shines on the Class of 2011. Our students have a powerful support system. These grads will be our future professionals. Their potential has no limits. You are truly a remarkable class. Best wishes.”

As she yielded the podium to Senior Class President Zach Tobin, beach balls went flying into the air above the seated graduates. As humorous was Tobin’s speech, laced with witty observations.

“I want to thank the faculty,” he said. “Without the leather couches and ping pong tables, the senior lounge would be a dark place. Thanks to mom and dad. We would literally not be here without you. Thanks to my classmates – the bold, brave, beautiful Class of 2011. If I had to do it again, I would not change a thing.”

Tobin added, “Look at us now – taller, less awkward, and really good at ping pong. In the words of Biggie Smalls, the sky’s the limit.”