A tempest blasted the Farmers’ Market last Tuesday, with wind and rain whipping everything in sight and temperatures dropping 30 degrees. In the aftermath, four vendors remained, happy to have survived.
“You need any really ripe tomatoes, Ari?” Wrathful Steve asked me.
He presented me with two boxes of Roma tomatoes the most scandalous shade of make-love-to-me-red lipstick a tomato has ever been.
“Someone ordered them on Saturday,” Steve lamented, “and never came back. Now they’re too old. I can’t sell them.”
There I was with this unbelievable gift, the kind of gift you have to drop everything to take care of. How best to maximize this opportunity, I wondered, this responsibility now confusing itself with my destiny?
Pressing circumstances lead to large accomplishments, or something like that, and I knew it was time to go big, which I did. I took my tomatoes to Biga Pizza, where I had an open invitation from pizzaiolo Bob Marshall to observe the making of his oven-roasted tomato sauce.
When I arrived the place was packed as usual, this time with storm-fleeing refugees. Bob was behind the counter pounding a piece of dough with his fist. Soon the dough was a spinning flying saucer. When he’d spun it into a flat, round disk, he laid the dough on the floured counter and started putting together a pizza.
Biga (pronounced bee-gah) Pizza is not, it turns out, named after the Italian/American/Jersey pronunciation of “bigger.” Biga is a sourdough starter, which Italians traditionally kept alive in their kitchens for centuries before commercial yeast became available. Biga’s biga, incidentally, was given to Bob by Bonnie Tucker, owner of Missoula’s late, great Chinook restaurant.
Of Eastern European Jewish descent, Bob grew up, gastronomically speaking, in Italy, by virtue of an extreme-Italian neighborhood upbringing in Livingston, N.J. The pizzerias his family patronized there—Calabria, Camaratas, Bonvini’s, to name a few—were full-menu Italian restaurants. After school, Bob ate at his friend Anthony Cocca’s house as often as possible.
“We had to walk around the block between courses,” Bob remembers, without a hint of remorse. Cocca’s dad, who drove a bulldozer at the local landfill, made his own wine and sausage, and his mom owned the San Marco pasta shop on Newark’s Bloomfield Avenue.
“The women in Anthony’s family did all the cooking, and the men were shunned from the kitchen. I had to fight my way in. But the women were receptive to me, humored by my curiosity,” Marshall remembers.
Bob’s grandmother, who along with the other grandparents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to understand, visited either Greece or Italy every year. She was known for her Yiddish/Mediterranean fusions, like Chicken Parmesan with Matzo meal breading.
As a young man bound for Santa Cruz, Calif., in December, 1990, our hero was, to his knowledge, the world’s only Robert Marshall. When he got stuck in a snowstorm in Missoula, he learned otherwise, and sealed his fate by purchasing a pass at the Bowl.
After studying and cooking around for years, most recently at Scotty’s Table—an incubator for many of Missoula’s hottest chefs—Marshall bought the not-quite-so-hot Fireplace pizzeria and decided to give it the Jersey try.
Though he rarely advertises it, Bob buys as many local and organic ingredients as possible, which he turns into specials like ricotta-stuffed baked squash blossoms or leek and purple pepper string bean salad, as well as standards like basil lemonade and local pesto all summer long. In the back office I sat on a stack of 50-pound bags of organic Montana wheat while Bob printed off the specials of the day, including a not-so-local but Yiddish-ish pizza topped with smoked salmon and Sicilian olive dill cream cheese and pickled onion tomato caper relish on rye dough with caraway seeds.
With no stove and only a brick oven to cook with, running a full-menu pizzeria is tough. But the challenges breed creativity, or “the art of making do,” as Bob calls it. Spinach is blanched in the oven, alongside baking pizzas and calzones and roasting tomato sauce.
That sauce caught my attention my first time at Biga, and Bob promised that when the tomatoes were ripe he’d teach me how to make it. So there I was that stormy Tuesday, with Wrathful Steve’s ripest tomatoes ever.
Bob’s hands went into the tomatoes, caressing and understanding them with his fingers.
“I love the inconsistency in shape and size. Each one tastes different. So ripe and sweet, obviously non-genetically altered, with a few worm holes indicative of being unsprayed,” he said.
Soon, roasted tomato aioli was drizzled onto fresh-baked olive tapenade crostini, followed by a salad dressed with oven-roasted tomato vinaigrette. Finally, a pizza emerged topped with Italian sausage and marjoram mascarpone cheese on “Pink vodka tomato sauce.” (For recipes, see below.)
This dazzling meal was, to be sure, more Italian than Jewish, but neither was this roasted tomato trinity fully devoid of chutzpah. “You can’t get more Yiddish than vodka,” Bob reflected, folding a piece of pizza in half, New York-style, and chomping.
How to make: Bob Marshall’s Roasted Tomato Trinity
Since nobody sent me a question this week and since I’m not excited about the prospect of making one up, I’m commandeering the Q&A space to use as a recipe box for Bob’s Roasted Tomato Trinity.
Wash 10 pounds Roma tomatoes and cut out the ends and imperfections. Roast in the oven at 400 degrees until they collapse. Let them cool then pull off the skins, squeezing them to save the juice. Add 1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup roasted garlic, 2 tablespoons sea salt, 1 tablespoon black pepper, 2 tablespoons sugar and, if possible, a splash or two of red wine. Puree, adjust the seasonings and simmer until reduced by 25 percent.
From this base you can make a whole spectrum of tomato sauces, including pasta sauce, seafood sauce or the roasted tomato trinity below.
For the roasted tomato aioli: add to a food processor or blender two egg yolks, 3/4 cup roasted tomato base (fully cooled), a pinch of salt, a pinch of pepper, 2 tablespoons roasted garlic and 1 teaspooon Dijon mustard. While processing, slowly add 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil.
For the vinaigrette: puree 1/4 cup red onion, 1 teaspoon Dijon, 2 cups roasted tomato base, 1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon minced Italian parsley and 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil.
Finally, for the Pink Vodka tomato sauce variation, sauté chopped red onion and garlic in olive oil and deglaze with vodka in a white soup bowl. Add this to the still-hot red sauce. Pour a little of this hot red sauce into 1 cup heavy cream to temper, then add the tempered cream back to the sauce, which is now pink. Adjust seasonings to taste. Enjoy.