King of the Calzone
By Nancy Powell
It is hard to decipher the puzzle that The Red Tomato represents. On the one hand, it’s one of those family-owned, family-operated, red-checkered tablecloth types of Italian restaurants that sit in the middle of BFE and become the preferred haunt of large families with gratuitous appetites. On the other hand, there is the kitsch factor, the page one and two of Greek and Middle Eastern entrees on the menu that play second fiddle to the pastas, calzones and pizza that bear the bulk of the restaurant’s repute, despite the fact that the owners themselves hail from Afghanistan. The Qaders took charge of a struggling restaurant and imbued it with their appreciation for good Mediterranean cuisine.
Of the pastas the Qaders serve, the Raviolis have perhaps earned the highest praise from customers. These plump, oversized medallions are feathery light, generously filled with creamy lobster and shrimp puree ($13.95) or earthy Portobello mushrooms ($10.95) and provide enough sustenance for a party of two with moderate appetites, and the Portobello ravioli, in particular, impresses. Perfectly cooked pieces of earthy, buttery and pillow-soft al dente pasta marry delightfully with a buttery cream sauce whose flavors are intensified by simple white wine.
The hidden gem on the menu is the Mantu ($6.95), Afghan minced meat dumplings served atop a garlic and herbed yogurt sauce and topped by meaty marinara and red pepper chutney. On the night I visit the Qaders they have run out of dumplings, but Mother Qader graciously offers to whip up a fresh batch for me. I am glad I take her up on her offer. The bursts of sweet, oniony flavor enhanced by its sweet, acidic and spicy elements make the 30-minute wait worthwhile. Despite this being a mostly Italian restaurant, I’d lay money down anytime for this plate of Afghan comfort food.
If Red Tomato were to survive on reputation alone, it would be on the strength of the calzone—thick, near football-sized half-circles that deliver value by weight alone. I’m not talking about cheesy, doughy fillers, but meaty, vegetable goodness interlaced with melted cheese and enclosed by a toothsome crust. Although I order the lighter vegetable calzone, I still only manage to eat a sliver. The Qaders make an 18-incher that weighs five pounds and has become the adoring subject of many a photo op. At roughly $22.95, the king could veritably satisfy a mini Sunday afternoon football party of hungry men, and then some.
The Red Tomato is a diamond in the rough that deserves more attention than it gets. Sure, the dichotomy on the menu might throw some for a loop, but the King of the Calzone does have a lot going for it—a wide open space favorable for large and boisterous families and, most importantly, service with more than just the requisite refilling of water glasses. Norconians and all those who sit beyond the borders of equine territory . . . do me a favor and get to know The Red Tomato before you completely miss it.
Red Tomato, 3370 Hamner Ave., Norco, (951) 808-8656; www.facebook.com/pages/The-Red-Tomato/173706416046533?rf=216408651724979. Open Tues-Thurs, Sun, 11am-9pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-10pm. AE, MC, V.