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Ripe for the Picking

When four Park Hill families didn't like what was happening in their neighborhood, they decided to band together and do something about it.

But it wasn't crime they were fighting, or drugs, bums or slums--it was the lack of a good neighborhood restaurant. And so, after many months of backyard barbecues and dinner-party discussions, this past March the four couples opened their own restaurant right near their houses and named it the Cherry Tomato.

Of course, it helped that one of the neighbors just happens to be a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef. Tom Felese was cooking at the Hyatt Regency Denver when he and his wife, Wendy (who'd worked at Josephina's and Le Central), and their two children moved into Park Hill four years ago. They soon met Dave Nommensen and his wife, Rebecca O'Connor (who used to be the wine steward at the Normandy), along with Chris and Rayetta Webster and Emily and Mike McCort. Since all of their kids played together, the couples eventually became "really good friends," says Wendy Felese. "We started getting together on Friday nights, and the kids were all friends; all nine of the kids we have between us love each other. And we took turns cooking for these get-togethers."

But once Tom Felese took his turn in the kitchen, none of the group wanted anyone cooking but him. Back in his hometown of Ithaca, New York, Tom had worked at an Italian restaurant named Vinny's for six years, and ever since, he'd talked about opening a place of his own in the Vinny's tradition: a small mom-and-pop spot with quality food and reasonable prices. A real neighborhood joint.

Last Halloween, when Tom and the other parents were taking their kids trick-or-treating, they noticed that the building where the Bobby Dazzler bakery--and, decades ago, Park Hill Drug--had spent its final days was for sale. That's when plans for the Cherry Tomato really sprouted.

Although only the Feleses quit their day jobs, everyone pitched in. Mike McCort designed and built the glass, brick and copper bar, and he and Dave Nommensen constructed the kitchen that Tom envisioned. All four couples scrubbed and painted the high-ceilinged space, which they filled with unpretentious furniture, adding shelves of toys and books--this is a very kid-friendly place--in the back hallway. And now that the restaurant is open, they still keep their hands in. As the chef, Tom's there all the time, of course; Wendy helps with the prep work, and the other six each take a shift one night a week so that there's always an owner besides Tom on the premises. (When both halves of a couple are at the restaurant, the others watch their kids--not a bad arrangement.) And all eight of the partners proved to be formidable campaigners during their successful fight for a liquor license. After all, what's a good neighborhood Italian joint without a good, inexpensive glass of Chianti? (The wine list is well-priced, but they need to quit filling glasses to the brim and give the wine room to breathe.)

However, good food is the key, and the ultimate responsibility for that rests squarely on Tom's talented shoulders. While the enthusiastic menu descriptions occasionally overbill his fare, for the most part the dishes are as strong as Tom's neighbors think they are. And the pasta sauces, his area of expertise, can be absolutely stunning.

In fact, the only problems we encountered at the Cherry Tomato involved the non-cooked foods. The beautifully presented carpaccio ($6.95) appetizer was simply too much of a good thing: too much cracked black pepper and too much dijonnaise, which made it impossible to taste any of the meat they touched--which was most of it. The large chunks of black pepper were unpleasant to bite into, and the Dijon-enhanced mayo, while sharply flavored, was so abundant that the dish looked like some nouveau creamed chipped beef. What a shame: Unadorned, the six paper-thin rounds of raw meat were like rich velvet, really some of the best carpaccio I've found. Beside the beef were three shards of endive, half-filled with enough capers, chopped hard-boiled egg and diced red onion to garnish seven carpaccio orders. Still, the plate itself was a lovely thing to behold.

My other quibbles concerned unclear or inaccurate descriptions. The salad listed as a "classic" Caesar ($4.95)--"We mean classic!" the description reiterated--was as far away from classic as it could get and still be a salad. No egg anywhere, and one lonely anchovy perched atop a mound of romaine that had been dressed in a faintly lemony, mostly vinegary liquid that, as far as I could tell, sported none of the other traditional components such as garlic and Worcestershire. "You're right," Tom said later. "I guess we shouldn't call it classic. We didn't even think of that." He also agreed that the billing of the Cherry Tomato ($3.95) salad was misleading, since it sounded like a lot of cherry tomatoes were going to be involved, when in fact there were only two, and they were overwhelmed by the enormous pile of mixed greens and five large rings of red onion.

From then on, though, the dishes arrived as advertised. The amatriciana ($7.95) was an excellent version of a recipe native to Amatrice, Italy, in which tomatoes, onion and bacon are cooked down in oil and then tossed with bucatini pasta. Tom used prosciutto and also threw in some heat (a Roman variation) to create a sassy sauce that gave a meaty impression without actually containing much meat. We devoured our large plateful and almost regretted not doubling the order--all of the Cherry Tomato's pasta dishes are available in family-style portions for a little less than twice the price of the entree.

But we still had lots of great food to go. Pasta Felese ($8.95), Tom's signature dish, was created when Wendy turned thirty and asked him to make something out of all of her favorite foods. The result mixed ideal proportions of artichokes, peas, sun-dried tomatoes, chicken and farfelle (bow-tie pasta) in a white-wine cream sauce that was rich as hell. The combination was so addictive that we couldn't wait to dig into the leftovers (and at the Cherry Tomato, there are always leftovers) for breakfast the next morning.

We decided to test Wendy's assertion that "we love kids!" on our second visit, towing in both toddler and three-year-old, and they were treated better than we were (although my grandfather, dressed in bright-green golfing attire, got a big hug from one of the employees, who said he looked just like her father). Several other family groups were dining that night, and the steady commotion, combined with the Cherry Tomato's warm atmosphere, gave the place the feeling of a family gathering. The twelve tables in the dining room are close enough that several parties introduced themselves to others--for instance, the people next to us shared the fact that their daughter was getting married the next day, and my grandfather shared the fact that he was visiting from Florida--and by the time we left, we were wondering whose house we were going to eat at next.

But I'm only going if Tom Felese will be there to do the cooking. Again, the sauces were the stars of the meal, sparking such old favorites as chicken marsala ($11.95) and veal parmigiana ($16.95). One plate brought moist pieces of bird bathed in a sweet marsala sauce dotted with mushrooms; the other melt-in-your-mouth slivers of veal nestled in a lagoon of mozzarella-encrusted spicy red sauce. And Tom has an even more impressive way with white sauces. We swooned through a compelling carbonara ($7.95), with its prosciutto-flecked, creamy coated spaghetti, and the excellent Alfredo ($7.95), fettuccine covered in an unusually light sauce augmented by ricotta and balanced by asparagus.

Fortunately, we somehow found room for dessert. The Cherry Tomato team chooses the dozen or so offerings from a variety of local purveyors, and they choose well. The five desserts ($4 each) we sampled were all interesting and even decadent, especially the chocolate-topped caramel pie dusted with 24-carat gold and the amazingly rich yet light cheesecake.

All in all, the Cherry Tomato is ripe for the picking--but you'll have to get in line first. The tiny place is always packed, and it doesn't take reservations. "We want the neighbors to feel like this is their restaurant first," says Tom. "So it's first-come, first-served. We really have to make sure we take care of them first, and if the place is booked up two weeks in advance, they'll never be able to get in." If you call before you leave the house, though, and let them know what time you'll arrive, they'll try to have a table ready. But the Cherry Tomato is worth any wait.

After all, Park Hill waited a long time before neighbors took matters into their own hands and created a restaurant to fill the local gap. And who knows? Their success may sow seeds that take root in other needy neighborhoods.

The Cherry Tomato, 4645 East 23rd Avenue, 377-1914. Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

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