Interview with Joe Cannistraci
of Enoteca La Storia
Creating a Tomato Community and Culture
There’s no doubt about it, Joe Cannistraci is passionate about tomatoes. You could even say tomato sauce runs in his veins. Born in New York and raised in the Garden State of New Jersey, Cannistraci first started growing tomatoes with his Sicilian grandfather in his large backyard garden. And while life may have taken him in other directions for a time, he eventually found his way back to the garden and his love for tomatoes. Now as co-owner of Enoteca La Storia, a popular Italian restaurant and wine bar in downtown Los Gatos, Cannistraci not only features tomatoes on the menu, but actually grows thousands of pounds of them in his own yard, many of which are used in the restaurant. It was Cannistraci’s enthusiasm for growing his abundant and sustainable bounty of tomatoes that led him to connect with the World Tomato Society, where he’s helped to select many of the agricultural products for the marketplace based on his own growing experience. We spoke with Cannistraci to learn more about how he became so enamored with the tomato and learn some of the secrets of his growing success.
World Tomato Society: For you, what are some of the biggest rewards and challenges of growing tomatoes?
Joe Cannistraci: Tomatoes are an intoxicating plant, there’s nothing like growing them. You know, I’ve had excitement growing other stuff. You grow watermelon—the kids love it. I grew a pomegranate tree and had great success with that. But the thing about tomatoes is that they’re so productive, so colorful, and every year things change so much, each plant produces different fruit. In my urban farm here, I grow about 90 plants, and by the end of the season, I know each plant so intimately, I know every tomato on it. You watch the development of these things, and it’s got a high excitement level. There are only a few other things in life that I enjoy as much as gardening, and in particular, growing tomato plants. Once you get past a certain point where the level of commitment is defined, then it’s unstoppable, you can’t change.
The rewards are sensory. I’m a serial entrepreneur, I’ve built businesses up, sold them, and I just love growing things, whether it’s a small business or a plant. But the risk factor with plants is mitigated. Of course, you have some risk, but it’s a lot easier. And most importantly, I love the process of what the plant wants and tinkering with how I feed it and how it responds in terms of fruit production. You could have a situation where you have a heat wave and the plant’s going to want certain things; otherwise it’s going to jettison flowers. And particularly it wants calcium. Understanding weather patterns helps. I have a product I use, and its calcium mixed with plant pulp, so when you put that treatment on, the plant recognizes the plant pulp and it has a higher absorption rate of the calcium. And so, you’ll have maybe a 100-degree heat wave, and where normally your plant would start throwing flowers, it will hold on to them and actually turn into fruit. Something like that where you see a challenge coming for the plant, and you’re able to resolve it and see good results, it’s one of those simple things in life that brings unadulterated happiness that’s not associated with the pursuit of status or career or money or anything else. It’s just the simple joys of life that define it. For me, I can’t stop growing stuff. If I knew what I know now . . .
WTS: Considering you were born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey with Sicilian roots, how important was food to your family and how did that shape where you are today?
JC: Growing tomatoes started with my Sicilian maternal grandfather—all four of my grandparents emigrated from Sicily just after WWI—and I grew up in the same home as my maternal grandparents. I was very close with my maternal grandfather, and during the ’40s he built a house in Howell Township, New Jersey, which is in an interesting area. It’s very close to Asbury Park, and the house itself was 100 yards from Highway 9, which is a road that was made famous in Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”: “Sprung from cages out on Highway 9.” And when I was a little kid I used to go out to Highway 9, right there where he and his buddies were dragging muscle cars down the highway, which was fairly rural back then. My grandfather and I would grow tomatoes in this yard of the house he built, and I would take them out to a little stand and sell them there on Highway 9. And that’s where gardening really got into me. Then I went off and got into a career in construction, and lived in an urban area—you know in the New York Metropolitan area there’s not a lot of gardening that happened. But I always remembered it, and then when I had the opportunity to do it again, I just took to it with a passion. It brought a lot back of that simple enjoyment.
My maternal grandparents came from a very small town that is in the mountains inside of a national park in Sicily, and it has a population of about 3,000 people. It sits at around 3,500 feet and is surrounded by 6,500-foot mountains, and it’s in the middle of nowhere. I still have cousins there that I go and visit, and the lifestyle there is just so gentle, and just a slow and beautiful lifestyle where everybody appreciates each other in a different way. My grandfather had to leave because he was poor, and he was also chasing his wife, my grandmother, who left there with her family, who all got visas. He stowed away on a boat to chase her down. But knowing him and having gone to that village and understanding this simple appreciation for life, I mean it doesn’t happen in America, people don’t operate like that here. There’s a whole different set of goals and motives. If you can find those moments in life where everything all of a sudden just reduces down to simplicity, and that to me, is what I find in growing tomatoes. Then you try to get your simple joy to increase exponentially, and you end up sleeping hard.
WTS: How important are tomatoes to all of the connections in your life and creating the community you live and work in?
JC: I just love it. And the pleasure of being able to bring produce from two blocks from my restaurant and provide it to people, there’s nothing like it. To be able to pick produce and put it on a plate two hours later, it’s really rewarding. With all of things happening with fuel and shipping, it feels good to just be able to not add to that. It’s been fun and I’ve got a little bit of a cult following with my tomatoes. People come from all over the Bay Area to eat them.
I’m over here growing tomatoes, and there are a lot of people, in particular Cynthia Sandberg with Love Apple Farm, and she’s a very serious tomato person. I live in a house where you can see my yard, and people start talking about it, saying, “This guy’s growing tomatoes,” and then I was selling tomato plants, and it got to be too much growing all the plants and selling them. So, I contacted Cynthia to see if I could sell her plants, and she was receptive and appreciative. And then I got introduced to the World Tomato Society and people like Gary Ibsen, whose seeds I have bought since I started the whole project. He’s got the greatest and is just a legendary tomato guy. And when he came through the front door here and sat down and had my tomatoes, he was very complimentary to the quality and how I was doing it on the menu. For me it was hugely rewarding to get that kind of feedback from him. And all of a sudden everything started to come together. Helen Pastorino, cofounder of the World Tomato Society, and Cynthia, we all started spending time together, talking about tomatoes, and so I’ve been developing the agricultural marketplace for the World Tomato Society site. And I’m really excited to do it because there’s a whole movement in agriculture with a strong focus on microbiology.
WTS: How important is microbiology for growing tomatoes?
JC: I can tell you, from the small gardener to big agriculture, microbiology is the future. It just works better than chemicals; plants respond to it, it’s better for the soil. It’s very similar to probiotics in your stomach. You digest food better with probiotics; it’s a symbiotic relationship. And there is microbiology that exists around roots that do everything from fix the nitrogen to help uptake and fight disease. It’s tricky though because there are a lot of factors. You have to filter your water. The chloramine that’s put into city water just kills any type of microbiology that’s going on. It’s complicated.
In the first three years that I was growing tomatoes, I was harvesting about 1,200 pounds and I was in a constant fight with disease. Most heirloom tomatoes are non-native, so they just don’t have standard resistance to local diseases. For instance, in Central California, there are a lot of live oaks that produce all sorts of wild molds and fungus, and this is not friendly to tomato plants. This stuff gets airborne and spores land on your plants, and if your plant doesn’t have a good immune system, it doesn’t bode too well. So, I was fighting that and I had been instructed to start brewing compost tea and doing things that would help the microbiological environment in the soil. But I was told, don’t do it unless you filter your water because the chloramine will kill it all. And I fought this tooth and nail. I said I am not feeding my plants filtered water—I don’t even have a filter for my house, and I’m going to give my kids tap while I give my plants filtered water? But eventually it became such a challenge to trim leaves and spray neem oil and do all these disease-fighting things. And ultimately the environment in the soil wasn’t strong enough.
So finally, right before the beginning of the season before I started planting, I built this whole thing with a water tank and an entire house filtration system on my irrigation, and a pump to pull it from the tank and distribute it to the system with an open-source irrigation control that I can control from my phone. I also added some of the products that we’re selling on the World Tomato Society website, and started brewing compost teas. And that year I went from a 1,200-pound to a 2,400-pound harvest, and I started late with some of that stuff. So now I use this very specific combination and I get bigger tomatoes that aren’t watered down. Watering is tricky because you want to keep your water going until the flowers on the top of your plants set to fruit because once you cut your water, the plant gets angry and starts throwing the flowers. But once your plant gets up there and the flowers are setting fruit, then you can slowly back off your water, and what it gives you is a smaller, more concentrated tomato with incredible flavor. The difference between a store-bought tomato that has absolutely no flavor and a tomato that you grow on the vine is like apples and bowling balls, they’re not even the same family.
I also do my farming in containers. I use smart pots, which is an easy way for people to control the soil and what goes in it, especially in an urban area where you have a tiny patio or a deck.
WTS: What’s next on the horizon for you?
JC: We’re opening a new Enoteca in downtown San Jose, right by the SAP Center where the San Jose Sharks play. It’s in a 65,000-square-foot, stand-alone historic building that was an Italian bakery from 1925 to the 1970s, and I’m excited. Downtown San Jose is the heart of the Silicon Valley, but it’s been a neglected city for a long time. And you see people moving down here and they’re working for the tech industry. They moved to San Francisco to be in an urban environment, but as they get into their late 20s, meet somebody and have a kid, then they leave there and come to the South Bay, where it’s sunny and you can buy a home. And now there’s a residential boom. Right now, I’m in negotiations with the parks department about doing an urban farming demonstration garden in Guadalupe Park that sits between my building and the SAP Center. The whole point there is how can you help reduce the carbon footprint of your city by growing produce? If you can incrementally impact how much produce is shipped—five tomato plants doesn’t do too much, but when you can get 60,000 out of a million people growing five tomato plants, now you have something that can effect change. Once it becomes a movement, a lot can happen. And I’ll also have a place that can help supply tomatoes to my place in Los Gatos, where people are buying every single one of the tomatoes that I grow—I don’t have a single one left at the end. And I can also make a contribution to the local community.
I love the hospitality industry and I have a great group of people working for me that love wine and food, and that affords me the time to do these projects. But I could definitely do more farming. In fact, if I knew what I know now, I think in my 30s I would have made a career change to be a sustainable farmer somewhere. Get a piece of land, some chickens, and grow stuff, and be happy as a clam without having to deal with all of the politics and societal standards.
Food, when you grow it yourself, has a different sense of reward when you eat it. When you can put flavor into your food and you grew it yourself, what’s better than that? You feel like you earned it.
WTS: What are some of your favorite tomatoes and your favorite dishes that you enjoy creating with them?
JC: At Enoteca we have several dishes, but here’s one. There’s a particular strain of San Marzano tomato called the San Marzano Redorta. San Marzanos are the tomato of choice for sauce. This is a strain that’s cultivated in the North of Italy in Bergamo, which is up by the Alps, way up there. And for whatever reason, these things grow really, really big and long. But the size doesn’t affect the flavor; the flavor is by far one of the best tomatoes in the world. It has a rich—and not overtly so—but an earthy flavor to it, a deep, rich savory flavor when you eat it raw. They’re great to make a sauce out of, but to eat them raw is an unbelievable thing. The flavor is so profound and strong.
What I do with them is I cut them into little medallions on the bias. And there’s a particular type of salami, there are a couple different producers, but I like the Creminelli, and it’s a salami made with Barolo, a wine made with the Nebbiolo grape. And the Creminelli salami has almost the same diameter as the San Marzano Redorta, so what I do is I alternate the medallions of the tomato with the salami, so each time you pick up the tomato with a piece of salami. And from there, you chiffonade some basil, sprinkle it over the top, extra-virgin olive oil—the best quality you can find—drizzle it over the top, add salt and pepper. It’s Italian food in its optimal form with simplicity. That is the thing about Italian food, it’s all about restraint and what not to do or how not to project yourself onto the ingredients, how to marry them and just facilitate them talking with each other as opposed to being an alchemist and projecting your ideas onto the food. And that dish represents that concept in its entirety, and it’s my favorite thing. You get a nice light Nebbiolo d’Alba and have it with that.
The one yellow tomato that I grow is a Russian tomato called an Azoychka, which I got from Gary Ibsen at TomatoFest. It’s a medium-sized yellow tomato with unbelievably gentle flavors to it. And we buy Sicilian tuna from an importer, which is caught and packaged in Sicily, and there’s no other tuna that come in a can like this on the entire planet earth. We get the tuna and make it Mediterranean style with lemon, caper, Italian herbs, fresh basil, and then we score the top of the tomato. Then we stuff the top of the tomato with the tuna and we cover the whole thing with olive oil, and people go berserk over this. I’ve tried it with Italian tomatoes, but nothing works quite like the lighter tomato.
A little bit of the right wine, and some fresh tomatoes, and what more do you want? I’d rather have that than a Tesla.