From Al Pacino's Barber to Mel Brooks

Who would have thought that my search for the world's best tomatoes would lead me into a friendship and partnership with Al Pacinos barber? The master of fruit and coif in question is Nick Soccodato, retired hair stylist to the stars and owner of San Marzano Imports of Howell, N.J. Soccadato, who ran Nicks Hair Stylists in Greenwich Village for many, many years, invited me to his home to discuss how to get into the olive oil and tomato importing business. The San Marzano tomato is considered by many to be the most desirable tomato in the world. Take a look the next time you visit the grocery store and youll find many a canned tomato with a label that says something like San Marzano style, but even if it says San Marzano tomatoes, that doesnt necessarily mean the product is truly from the small town of San Marzano. Some "San Marzano" tomatoes are grown in nearby areas or from San Marzano tomato seeds, but as any aficionado will tell you, it's not just the seed that makes the tomato. Its the climate, the volcanic soil courtesy of nearby Mount Vesuvius, and a number of other factors that make this the king of tomatoes. Because he has his finger on the pulse of the restaurant world, I asked Nick if he thought I should go check Raos, renowned in New York Citys Harlem and known not only for their great, home-style cooking, but also for their reputation of being tough to get into. Faggettaboutit, replied Nick, You wont get in -- its like getting an audience with the Pope! But as a wise man once said, If you dont knock on doors, they wont open for you, so on my way back home to Warrensburg, I drove to 114th street and First Avenue in Harlem and moseyed into Raos to try my luck. Indeed, Raos was packed -- or as packed as a restaurant with just 10 tables can be -- but we walked into the bar where a very nice gentleman named Merrill moved over a couple of stools to give us room to sit. Now if you've read what I've read about Raos, that doesnt happen too often, so I bought Merrill a drink to keep luck on my good side. Merrill thanked me for the drink and asked, Howd you know it was my birthday?" Before I could even think what to answer, he continued, "Im 78 years old. My cousin had a table for four here tonight and one of his guests couldnt make it, so he invited me to fill the slot. Boy, is my wife pissed! She has never been here either and she really wanted to come. Is this your first time too? I explained that it was and that we didnt have a reservation. The bartender informed us of the one-year waiting list, but I didn't give up hope. So while this was all going on, who should walk in but Mel Brooks! I spotted him in the corner of my eye and wondered, Whats he hanging around the bar for? Well it turns out that hes Merrills cousin and the provider of Merrills seat for the evening. I was still debating embarrassing myself by asking Brooks a "two-thousand-year-old man" question when I saw Frank Pellegrino -- owner of Raos and Chief Frank Cubitoso on The Sopranos -- walking up. I met him outside, whispered something in his ear, and within minutes, not only did we have a table for two but Mr. Pellegrino was giving me lessons on how to run a neighborhood restaurant the way he runs Raos! My local customers are my most valued asset, Pellegrino told me. They are the bread and butter of Raos. Over the next hour I got a great lesson from a great man about loyalty, passion, and love for your clients. Remember, Pellegrino said, You are not doing your customers a favor by feeding them good food -- they are doing you a favor by coming! And that, my friends, is my new motto. If Pellegrinos food was to be as valuable as his advice, I figured Id better make sure I had enough cash on me, so I high-tailed it into the mens room to count my bankroll in the stall. Just as I was running out of fingers and toes, someone started shaking the stalls door to try and get in. Having seen the movie The Godfather and thinking it may be someone looking for a gun they had stashed, I stuck the roll of ones back into my pocket and opened the door. It was Mel Brooks again. This was my Larry David moment! But before I started dropping names like a klutz at a genealogy convention, we were talking about tomatoes. Rao's is known for its pasta sauce, but my own Marinara sauce is no slouch. Its simple to make yourself and so much better for you than anything that comes out of a jar. All you need is a little time, the best ingredients (remember those San Marzano tomatoes?), and a whole lotta love. I promise -- whomever you are cooking for will love you right back. Marinara Sauce alla Sapienza Makes about two quarts so you've got enough to share 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic (diced)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup of fresh basil leaves
2 (28-ounce) cans whole San Marzano tomatoes (crushed by hand or blended with a food mill or food processor) Get a heavy aluminum saucepot. (Aluminum and copper distribute heat more evenly than stainless steel, so you should always use aluminum and copper pots when cooking sauces, soups, and other liquids you don't want burnt on the bottom because of poor heat distribution. Old-fashioned terra cotta pots are great too, but they're hard to come by and thats a whole other article!) Put the olive oil and diced garlic in the pot and cook over a medium flame until the garlic just begins to turn golden brown. Add your tomatoes, salt, pepper, and fresh basil leaves. (You can substitute good-quality dried basil -- a pinch -- when fresh basil is not available) Cook sauce over a low heat. Dont let it boil -- just simmer! Keep stirring with a wooden spoon and cook for about 15 minutes. Some people cook the sauce longer for a thicker sauce, but when using the right tomatoes, you get great results much faster and your guests will think youve spent hours. Serve over your favorite pasta. Now, please, dont let me see you in Price Chopper buying jarred sauce.

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