The fresh faces of Sweet Tomato’s

General manager Jimmy Rando and his brother, head chef Anthony Rando, are excited about the many changes at Sweet Tomato’s.

If you’ve visited Sweet Tomato’s this year, you may have noticed a new energy in the elegant dining hall that overlooks Grand Avenue in the heart of the Heights. You’ll usually be greeted the second you walk in the door by the general manager, Jimmy Rando, and if you give him half a chance, he’ll enthusiastically describe all the changes that are going on since he and his brother, head chef Anthony Rando, took managerial control of the restaurant in July of 2008. If you haven’t had the chance to visit yet, don’t worry – they’ll be open straight through the winter.

James and Mary, the boys’ parents who started Sweet Tomato’s in 2003, were looking for a change in the restaurant’s direction, and Jimmy and Anthony were the obvious choice. Anthony, who attended Shelter Island High School for two years after the family moved here from Island Park in 2002, has been cooking for 10 of his 22 years — five of those years under different chefs at Sweet Tomato’s. Jimmy, too, worked at Sweet Tomato’s when it first opened, but more recently he’s exercised his talents at Marina del Rey, a high-class catering facility in the Bronx.

“Not to discredit my parents,” said Jimmy, “business wasn’t doing that well, it was a tough market out here and it needed a fresh face.” Fresh is a word you’ll hear a lot at Sweet Tomato’s – the business didn’t just get a new face, but a new menu with fresh ingredients.

They’re by far most proud of the changes they’ve made to the food. “We’ve revamped the whole menu,” said Anthony. “It’s still based in Italian, but we use local, fresh ingredients.” Anthony heads to the Southold Fish Market almost every day to pick up the food himself instead of having it delivered, so he knows it’s fresh. Shelter Island is a prime location for a restaurant, he says. “Anywhere you want to go you can get local fish.”

Jimmy added, “We use local produce from the north side, that’s very important to us.” They’re hoping to bring their food source even closer to home, as they plan to buy from an organic farm on the Island next year.

What they don’t get locally, they make on-site. “We make our gelato here, we make our bread here, we make all our deserts, hot sauces, dressings, down to the hand-cut french fries. Everything we make is fresh,” said Jimmy, adding, “I think it shows. When you take a bite of that bread, the softness tells you that that bread was made today, in-house.” Nothing is frozen — the only freezer in the kitchen is tiny, made to hold the gelato deserts.

Anthony’s love of food is obvious. “I cook the food the way I would want to eat it … I like being creative with any new dish that I do. Last night we did striped bass with sweet potato crust on it and a butternut squash risotto. It was a nice autumn dish.”

Jimmy likened Anthony’s vfood preparation to a Christmas present: “You put in the work, you put the thought into it. Then you bring it out, put it on the table, and as soon as they take a bite, ‘wow, this is amazing.’ It’s all worth it. That’s what rewards Anthony, I think.”

They added a four-course prix fixe to the menu, a customer favorite, starting at $22. For $30 it includes a small glass of wine with the first three courses. “It’s starting to take off,” said Anthony.

The two have made some physical changes to the restaurant, too. They leveled and paved the side walkway and have plans to extend the front porch. They also installed a wood fireplace “that creates that ambiance for the winter season,” says Anthony. Their plans for a wood-burning oven in the back of the restaurant, however, were shot down by the Zoning Board this summer.

The two are no strangers to renovations at Sweet Tomato’s. When their parents bought the building in 2002, they helped gut the inside entirely and renovate the interior. “A lot of blood and sweat went into this place,” says Anthony. “We have that sense that we’re a part of the restaurant. It’s our second home.”

This fall, Sweet Tomato’s still has its familiar yellow and white decor. “Any season of the year it gives you that warm feeling,” says Jimmy. The walls are still adorned with blown-up images of Shelter Island in a simpler time, portraying 19th century scenes of people playing tennis on the lawn of Manhasset House or going for a swim.

Jimmy remembers, “When I was younger, I used to hate Shelter Island. Being a bratty little kid from South Nassau, I could hop on the train and go anywhere I wanted to go. Shelter Island’s quaintness is what I used to hate about it, but now the quaintness is what I really love.”

He loves it so much, in fact, that the two are planning on staying at Sweet Tomato’s for the long hall. “We’re serious about staying here for 30 years,” said Jimmy. Plus, they’re going to be open year-round. Anthony remarked, “We’re trying to develop that consistency. We want to be that place where you know, any time of the year, we’ll be open.”

And although they want to ensure their customer base that they’re always a great, consistent choice, they’re always trying new things. “We’re always changing, we’re never satisfied,” Jimmy said. “We’re hungry,” added Anthony, laughing. 

If you’re hungry, give Sweet Tomato’s a call at 749-4114. They start serving dinner at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and lunch at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.