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Keeping It Fresh

by Carol DeFrank

JOE GATES, owner of Il Pomodoro, describes his restaurant as an ‘every-occasion’ place to enjoy a meal, rather than just a eatery for special occasions.

The former owner of Pasta & Pizza, Gates got his start in the business at the age of 14, when he was hired as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant.

Being the youngest of seven children and growing up with an Italian mother, he learned to appreciate homemade food, and learned how to stretch a dollar. He graduated from restaurant management school at the University of Houston. His formal education combined with his informal experience laid a good foundation for his chosen career.

Patrons at Il Pomodoro can choose from more than 40 menu items, plus appetizers, pizzas and desserts. While Gates doesn’t personally cook every meal, each recipe is his own creation.

Gates adds variety to the menu by offering several daily specials. “We also use our specials to measure the popularity of a particular dish. If it’s requested over and over, then I consider putting it on the menu.” Specials can be anything from fresh fish or steak to short ribs or specialty chicken dishes.

Either Gates or his wife Hillary is always at the restaurant. “We do whatever needs to be done. We’ve hosted, waited tables and filled in for employees who called in sick.”

He’s proud of his local following. “We want our customers to come in once or twice a week, not every month or so. We serve high quality food at reasonable prices in a family atmosphere. We’re not a ‘scoop-and-serve’ restaurant. All of the food at Il Pomodoro is made to order. I feel that quality is compromised with store bought or processed foods. Plus, I like control over the ingredients. And I don’t understand why everything has to be sweet. Some restaurants put sugar in their pasta and pizza sauces. I use carrots as a sweetening agent. It does the job and it’s a lot healthier.”

How did you come up with the name il Pomodoro?

Pomodoro means tomato, which is the base for most of my entrees. It seemed appropriate.

Why did you pick this specific location?

There aren’t too many restaurants in this area, plus there are enough housing communities and commercial entities to support us. When I noticed the building going up, I liked the looks of it. I talked to the builder and discovered that he used to be a customer at my old establishment. He was excited about the possibility of having me as a tenant. We negotiated and the rest is history. My sister Barbara’s background is in design, so she helped with the interior. It’s funky. The walls are round and painted red and purple.

What’s your favorite dish?

It’s one that you won’t find on the menu. I made it up. It’s a white pizza, stretched extra thin. I take enough dough to make a 10-inch pizza and stretch it to 14 inches. I smother it with spinach and artichoke hearts and cook it until it’s very well done, almost burnt.

What are some of your specialty dishes?

There are several entrees that are popular. We sell a lot of Calamari Fritti and Mozzarella di Casa appetizers. The Veal Cardinale, Chicken Rollatini alla Toscana, Lasagna, Tortellini Michaelangelo and Cavatelli Arrabbiata are just a few. As for pizza, the Margherita is very popular.

What do you do different from most restaurants in the area?

We make everything fresh, including our mozzarella sticks, sausage, garlic buns, meatballs, sauces and pizza dough. We use high quality ingredients including top of the line cheeses. Customers appreciate the taste; they can tell the difference.

What are some of the pitfalls of owning a restaurant?

The biggest problem is supply prices. They’re constantly increasing. The cost of flour has gone through the roof. All of our cooking equipment runs on propane, and that cost has doubled. Restaurants operate on a small margin to begin with. Any downturn in the economy affects us in a lot of different ways.

How do you keep costs down so that you can be competitive?

We use our time and employees efficiently. When we’re slow, everyone does prep work. That’s when we make our buns and cheese sticks.

Have you ever thought of writing a cook book?

I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t written one. However, I have shared recipes with various charitable clubs and organizations who were putting a book together as a fund raiser.

You said your restaurant was like the bar in the TV show, Cheers. Why?

We have a lot of regular customers. We don’t depend on tourists. Our customers like the camaraderie here. And yes, everyone knows their names. People feel comfortable enough to come in by themselves because they enjoy the family atmosphere. When our staff spots regular customers, they greet them by name, and are pouring their drinks before they even ask for them.

What makes your pizza better than others?

Lots of restaurants use store-bought dough, form it with a press, and then cook it on screens in conveyor ovens. We make our own dough, stretch it and form it ourselves, then cook our pizzas on bricks. The heat from the bricks pulls out moisture and makes the crust nice and crispy. We use fresh ingredients, nothing that’s canned. Even our olives are hand sliced. And we use filtered water because the water down here is very hard and filled with minerals.

Il Pomodoro is located at 9681 Gladiolus Drive in Fort Myers. They are open 11am-2pm Monday-Friday, and 4:30-9pm Monday-Saturday. Reservations are recommended. Call 985-0080 for information. •

from the September-October 2008 issue

"I don't understand why everything has to be sweet. Some restaurants put sugar in their pasta and pizza sauces. I use carrots as a sweetening agent. It does the job and it's a lot healthier."

Joe Gates
"We make our own dough, stretch it and form it ourselves, then cook our pizzas on bricks. The heat from the bricks pulls out moisture and makes the crust nice and crispy."