How the Chef of Caruso’s Grocery Selects His Tomatoes

Caruso’s Grocery has been in the works for a long time. The “fun, not fussy” red sauce Italian restaurant was initially scheduled to open in early 2020 on Capitol Hill, but then the pandemic forced partners Chef Matt Adler and Neighborhood Restaurant Group to press pause. But if you peer through the windows these days, you’ll see signs that the restaurant is on track to open this spring. Adler’s in there making the big and little decisions that will make Caruso’s Grocery stand out.

Italian American restaurants are temples to tomato sauce, making Adler’s tomato selection all the more important. The canned tomatoes that make their way into sauces coating spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parm do a lot of the heavy lifting on the menu. Adler had spoon in hand yesterday as he worked his way through cans of contenders, like a sommelier sampling wines before adding them to a wine list. 

Adler has worked at Italian restaurants for most of his culinary career, but he hasn’t always been in the driver’s seat when choosing and ordering ingredients. “The chefs I’ve worked for have chosen specific [tomato] brands that all bring something different to the table,” he says. “For Caruso’s, that’s going to be such a red sauce restaurant and so tomato-forward, finding the right one is that much more important.” 

The chef went through his taste test earnestly, even though he had a hunch about which brand he’d end up picking. He ordered a selection of what’s available on the market from his purveyors and got to work looking for the ideal balance of sweetness and acidity as well as a texture that isn’t too watery.

“Cheap tomatoes have an aluminum flavor,” Adler says. “You open that can up and you can smell it off the bat. That’s super off-putting and will show up in finished dishes.”

He sampled his tomatoes at the restaurant. “In a pre-COVID world, you could go to a food show and taste 10 to 15 kinds of tomatoes and make your decision there,” he notes.

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What was your first-ever job? My summer job was as a quality control assistant in our family’s tomato cannery in Salerno in Southern Italy. What’s been your worst job interview? I applied for an internship in an investment bank while doing an exchange program at a university in Paris. I […]