221 W Appleway Ave.
The experience can border on sensory overload. It’s like Halloween and Christmas rolled into one and served with a side of Carnivale. It’s like Disney bought the entire nation of Italy and somehow managed to condense it into an Americanized theme park that fits inside one modestly sized building. It’s enjoyably chaotic, like what one might imagine a trip to the Alberto Zoppè Family Circus might be like under the influence of mild hallucinogens, but with attractive young waitresses and waiters in silly hats instead of clowns and lion tamers. It’s a visit to Coeur d’Alene’s perennially popular family Italian eatery Tomato Street, a long-time local favorite which sits amidst the glut of drive-through joints on Appleway’s fast food row.
Normally, I’m not that hot on places that use such disorderly interior motifs and wacky service tactics. I always wonder if they’re forcing such wild haberdashery to try and distract from the fact that the food itself isn’t all that great. In the past, I’ve been openly cynical about Tomato Street mainly due to my intolerance for cutesy moves like how the wait staff wears jester’s caps and tiaras and will actually sit down and join your table like a long lost pal to take your order. I’m usually turned off as well by such hackneyed décor choices like the thousands of twinkling multi-colored lights, crooked-hung posters of famous Italian people and places, cans of tomato paste, and a claustrophobia of knick knacks and other ephemera that threatens to dislodge from somewhere far above and cause a concussion.
Staff levels seem to run confusingly high, with literally dozens of hosts, servers, and bussers bouncing off each other and the walls, adding to the trapped-in-a-pinball-game vibe. Toss in to the confusion a gaggle of screaming kiddies armed with Crayolas and Play-doh and an ever-bottlenecked lobby filled with parties of nine waiting to be sat and you’ve got the formula for a place this peace-and-quiet-loving diner would most likely be inclined to avoid.
Even still, I’d heavily recommend Tomato Street to anyone; the quality of the food and service overwhelmingly trumps the mad atmosphere. I learned a few visits ago that the trick is to get a table in the small lounge area near the lobby, where one can usually sneak right in with zero wait time. It’s strictly a place for grown-ups and with a full liquor bar and a killer happy hour, it’s a place where grown-ups occasionally act like children. Also, it’s the realm of Miss Theresa, a smiling girl with a wonderfully crazy electric-shock hairdo and one of the coolest booze-slingers in town. Recently, it was a pal’s last night in town before moving away so we decided to drop into the
Realistically, it was a little early to start hitting the hard stuff, so we ordered a Diet Pepsi, an ironic choice considering the amount of intensely caloric food we were about to consume. Right away, I asked Mandy to recommend an appetizer to get things started and without hesitation she said “You’ve got to try the “Carne Bollas”, they’re delicious.” Now, I’m no expert at Italian but the loose translation “beef balls” flashed through my head along with visions of that infamous, frightening delicacy Rocky Mountain Oysters. Mandy must have sensed my worry. “They’re just meatballs baked in pizza dough and served with dipping sauces.” “OK, sounds good” I said and turned my attention to the rest of the menu.
Why I bother even looking I don’t know, because I always end up ordering my most favorite dish, the same thing I always order if it happens to appear on the menu: the rich, delectable Seafood Fettuccini. Still, there were plenty of other perfectly tempting options. I probably ought to have chosen the reasonably healthful option of a salad, maybe a Raspberry Poppy Seed Salad, with the promise of fresh strawberries, tender chicken, feta and candied walnuts. I would have been fine with a “smashed sandwich” on fresh foccacia bread or a chunk of the obscenely cheese-filled Baked Spaghetti. But, no; it’s the Seafood Fettuccini I was craving the most and it’s fairly rare I get the chance to indulge, so indulge I decided to do.
In quick succession, Mandy brought our dinner salads, our appetizer and our meals. Theresa was right; she was golden; attentive and friendly, spoiling us with piles of much-needed extra napkins, grinding fresh pepper on our salads and dropping off new Diet Pepsis before we’d even finished our old ones. Naturally, I had to raid the plates of my dining partners; The Tomato’s Calzone was massive, resembling a large pizza folded in half, stuffed to the max with meat and cheese and a chewy crust done so good it squeaked between my teeth. The other friend kindly let me try a full slice of his Formaggio Chicken pizza, which was mind-bogglingly perfect, cooked in their apple-wood-fired brick oven and loaded with 5 cheeses, garlic sauce, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes. Entire religions have been founded on lesser miracles; it was the best pizza I’ve tasted in years.
Of course, by the time I got done with nibbling on the appetizer, the salad, the garlic bread and sampling my friends’ meals, I was nearly too stuffed to dig in to my main course. Still, it was rich and buttery, not overly heavy, with tender scallops, mammoth prawns, Manilla clams, both diced and in-shell and calamari rings that were done perfectly right and not chewy. Scrumptious as usual, but I only made it about five bites in before I had to surrender and get a to-go box. Actually, it was just as terrific, maybe even better the second time around later, as a middle-of-the-night snack in the bleary glow of TV infomercials. I was so food comatose and content, I almost ordered a new Ronco Showtime Rotisserie.