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 www.TomatoandBasilCT.com