January 28, 2013 |

2010 January: Sweet & Intense

By Melanie Wolkoff Wachsman

A first generation Italian-American, John Picarazzi, grew up in a traditional Italian family where he often enjoyed fresh sun-dried tomatoes. Picarazzi’s relatives brought the custom over from Italy where Italians often dried fresh tomatoes on tile roofs to preserve them throughout winter when tomatoes are out of season. The concentrated tomato flavor memory carried with Picarazzi into adulthood. “I particularly remember my Uncle Armando’s dried, fresh tomatoes from his backyard garden that he cured in jars with extra virgin olive oil,” he says.

In 1996 when Picarazzi, along with Steve Koch, opened Pizza Mondo in Bend, Oregon, there was no doubt that sun-dried tomatoes would appear on the menu. “I felt strongly about utilizing them,” says Picarazzi.

After experimenting with different ingredient combinations and flavor profiles Picarazzi found that the sweet flavor and chewy texture of sun-dried tomatoes paired best with slightly acidic ingredients like Kalamata olives and artichoke hearts. Enter the Mount Olympus pizza, which is topped with tomato sauce, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives, garlic, feta, mozzarella, Parmesan, roasted red onion, basil and oregano. “It was one of our first specialty pizzas and became a bestselling pie,” says Picarazzi, who estimates an 18-inch pie has a $5 to $6 food cost.

Picarazzi also features sun-dried tomatoes on the pesto portabella pizza, which displays grilled portabella mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, garlic, mozzarella and Parmesan atop basil pesto tomato sauce. Picarazzi estimates an 18-inch pie has a $6 to $7 food cost, and he notes that customers frequently request sun-dried tomatoes as a build-your-own pizza topping.

Now considered a gourmet ingredient, sundried tomatoes weren’t always so popular. David Bernard, owner of Sono Italiano Corp., a sun-dried tomato manufacturer based in Arlington, Texas, recalled hearing food trade show attendees say they “never saw peppers look like that before” during the 1980s. It was in the early ‘90s, Bernard says, that sun-dried tomatoes appeal grew. They evolved from a whole product into a halved, then julienned product. “The julienned product blew the industry wide open since it saved prep time and widened the use of the product,” says Bernard.

Now sun-dried tomatoes are also available chopped, making it versatile for breads and dough. “There’s such a wide range of uses for sun-dried tomatoes. It enhances the flavor in cooking all the way from breads to pasta sauce,” Bernard adds.

Daniel Richer, chef/owner of Arturo’s Osteria and Pizzeria in Maplewood, New Jersey, enjoys sun-dried tomatoes for their year-round availability, long shelve-life and intense, natural tomato flavor. He purchases packaged sun-dried tomatoes and reconstitutes them for 30 minutes in warm water. Then he seasons them with kosher salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil. “At first they look like shriveled raisins,” he says. “Depending on the dish, sun-dried tomatoes take on different flavors.”

Richer places them in grilled chicken penne, where he sautés the tomatoes in extra virgin olive oil. “Sautéing them turns the oil reddish/orange and really brings out the tomato’s bold flavor. It’s a super popular dish,” he says.

He creates a sun-dried tomato pesto by grinding up reconstituted sun-dried tomatoes with garlic, basil and water in a food processor. Then he thins it with olive oil and adds salt and pepper. “You can use the sun-dried tomato pesto in so many ways,” says Richer. He spreads it across sandwiches and pizza crust or tosses it with pasta. The sun-dried tomato pesto enhances a salad built with mixed greens, toasted pine nuts, gorgonzola and house balsamic vinaigrette. “The sun-dried tomatoes have a lot of acidity. That acidity picks up the salad’s flavors by cutting through the murky gorgonzola and nutty pine nuts to really brighten the salad,” he says.

Darren Carbary, co-owner of Serioz Denver Style Pizzeria in Denver, and a franchisee owner of Pasquini’s Pizzeria, a fi ve-unit Denver-based operation, has utilized packaged sun-dried tomatoes since opening. “Sun-dried tomatoes are a highpriced item, but the cost averages out since you don’t need to use much — just enough to bring out the taste and flavor of the other ingredients,” he says.

Sun-dried tomatoes turn up in Carbary’s chicken pesto calzone, which is also filled with artichoke hearts, housemade pesto, fresh mozzarella and chicken. “It’s our No. 1 selling calzone,” says Carbary, who estimates the calzone has a $3.25 food cost. Similar ingredients emerge on the top-selling chicken pesto pizza, which Carbary estimates has a $2.50 food cost. “Sun-dried tomatoes really give a dish pizzazz, and they are a no-brainer to work with,” he says.

Although, Picarazzi cautions that sun-dried tomatoes char quickly in hot commercial ovens if placed last on a raw pizza. “We lay our sundried tomatoes down prior to most of our other ingredients,” he says.

With its bold flavor, ease of use and long shelf life, sun-dried tomatoes continue to be a favorite ingredient among operators. “Sun-dried tomatoes have greatly contributed to our success. We feel passionately about the ingredient,” says Picarazzi.

Sun-dried Tomato Snapshot

Sun-dried tomatoes are made from sun drying, oven drying or dehydration. They are sold drypacked in cellophane or oil-packed. To use oil-packed, simply drain the tomatoes. Recover unused tomatoes with oil. Reconstitute dry-packed tomatoes in water, broth, wine or oil. Don’t over soak or they will become mushy and flavorless. Once reconstituted, use within several days or pack in olive oil and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Place unopened product in cool, dry storage.

Chicken Pesto Pizza
Yield: One 16-inch pizza

2 pound dough ball
3-4 ounces pesto
1½ ounces sun-dried tomatoes
6 ounces mozzarella
4 ounces artichoke hearts
6 ounces fresh, Roma tomatoes, sliced
4 ounces of Italian spiced marinated chicken breast, cubed
2 ounces roasted red peppers

Roll out dough. Coat pizza with pesto. Layer sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, artichoke hearts, tomato and chicken. Top with peppers. Bake for 10 minutes in a 400 F oven. Recipe courtesy of Darren Carbary, co-owner, Serioz Denver Style Pizzeria, Denver

Melanie Wolkoff Wachsman is a freelance writer in Louisville, Kentucky. She covers food, business and lifestyle trends.