“If I was in Naples and I shipped in flour from Utah they might shoot me,” Cart-Driver’s Kelly Whitaker told me during a recent interview, referring to Central Milling’s 00 flour. “I’m not kidding,” he clarified. Joking or not, his point was well taken: Supporting the goods of our neighbors is more Italian than importing Italian products themselves. As I detailed in my four-star review of Cart-Driver in RiNo, this philosophy is one of the many things that make Whitaker’s Italian restaurants (he also owns Basta in Boulder) so special.
There is no more enviable example of Whitaker’s commitment to using domestic purveyors than his choice of tomatoes. The chef is one of the country’s lucky few who gets to use Bianco DiNapoli organic plum tomatoes, grown not in the shadows of Mount Vesuvius, but in Yolo County, California. Since tomato canner Rob DiNapoli and Bronx-turned-Phoenix pizzaiolo Chris Bianco first began canning 150 acres of tomatoes together in 2010, the cultish product has been sought after by some of the country’s most esteemed chefs: Nancy Silverton, Alice Waters, Michael Tusk, and Tony Gemignani, to name a few. “Our intention was to produce for Chris’ restaurants,” DiNapoli told me of their first crop. “But when it became clear that we’d have a few hundred cases extra, Chris took a used brown grocery bag and wrote a dozen restaurants and their owners and asked that I contact them about our tomatoes.”
Chefs swear by Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes because they taste good. “I took five cans of tomatoes,” Whitaker told me of a tasting he organized. “Two domestic tomatoes and three different ‘San Marzano’-style tomatoes from Italy.” He set tomatoes straight from each can, “with no salt and not cooked,” onto plates at Basta and asked his partner, a sommelier, a floor captain, and his cooks to blind-taste them. Labeled only “a,” “b,” “c,” “d,” and “e,” “every single person chose DiNapoli organic, blind,” Whitaker remembers.
Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes are hand-selected to ensure ripe shoulders, and then they’re steam-peeled and packed with just a few leaves of organic basil and Pacific sea salt, and contain none of the additives (citric acid or calcium chloride) that are used even in some of the canned tomatoes from Campania. “Why shouldn’t a tomato from Northern California be as worthy as something else in the world that might be packed with or without that same good intention,” Bianco queried in a recent phone call. “My family is Italian. I’m proud of my heritage and continue to be more inspired by Italy every day. [But] we have an incredible food history, albeit shorter, here in the States.”
Cans of Bianco’s coveted domestic tomatoes have previously been available on an allocation-only basis to select chefs—with a rogue can or two available online. However, there is good news for home cooks who are as “maniacal” (to use Bianco’s description of himself) about ingredients as the Beard-winning chef: Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes will soon be available at Front Range Whole Foods.
The grocer’s Rocky Mountain region will begin carrying 28-ounce cans of Bianco DiNapoli’s whole and crushed tomatoes by summer’s end. In the meantime, Whitaker always has a few cans on hand at Cart-Driver to sell to his guests.
Image courtesy of Dave Lepori Photography