Credit: Matt Adler

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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.

Adler first had to decide whether to use imported or domestic canned tomatoes. He says going the international route is tricky because some brands will say they’re “packed and produced in Italy,” but the tomatoes are grown elsewhere in Europe. Land is expensive in Italy and demand is high. When tomatoes are grown elsewhere and brought to Italy, it increases the time between when the fruit was on the vine and when it was canned, thus sacrificing maximum freshness. 

“Once I really got into it, I thought now more than ever it’s important to support American farmers and producers,” Adler explains. Like almost every industry, the pandemic has pummeled agriculture and its workers. He went with the California producer he was crushing on before ruling out competitors—Stanislaus Food Products. Their slogan is “from vine to can within six hours.” Adler will use their Alta Cucina canned plum tomatoes as well as a ground tomato product once the restaurant opens.

“They’re very specific and exacting about what they want in the tomatoes,” Adler says, adding that he appreciates that Stanislaus works directly with small farmers. “They won’t put them in a can if they’re not of a certain quality. They have a great sweet flavor. The climate is great for growing tomatoes in California. It’s a really consistent product.” 

Stanislaus doesn’t just win out on taste for Adler, it’s also the sentimental choice. His father opened a red sauce Italian restaurant called Scoozi in Upstate New York when Adler was 15 years old. He worked there until the end of high school and for one additional year before enrolling in culinary school. It turns out that Scoozi also used Stanislaus tomatoes. The tomato canner has been in business since 1942. “I knew where I was going to end up, but I wanted to make sure I went through the whole process,” Adler says.

Caruso’s Grocery, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. SE