The Tomato Head, Knoxville TN

If you’ve been following our stories here, you’ve read that my son has returned to the Atlanta area and is living with us again. When we started the blog about a year ago, my son had been with his mother in Louisville, Kentucky, for about five months. We were glad to have him back for spring break last year, and for a few months in the summer, and anticipated him returning this coming fall for high school. He decided over Christmas break, a few days before my father passed, that he wanted to stay with us, and not return to Louisville.

We were overjoyed. His mother in Kentucky was not. In her defense, my son did not handle the communication of this transition with a great deal of dignity or aplomb, but I didn’t involve myself more than necessary, frankly, because I had rather more important problems on my plate at the time than the feelings of anybody to whom I used to be married. Nevertheless, at some point, we were going to have to have a little parlay with my boy’s mother to get his clothes and belongings back, and for her to give him a bit of an earful. She had asked that we meet up in Knoxville, and I was pleased to compromise and meet her there. I wasn’t pleased to be a mute witness to what very little that the wind allowed me to catch of their discussion, but I figured the least I could do is give him a good man-to-man pep talk and take him out for a really good meal at someplace special.

The initial plan had been to go for a Knoxville-style steamed sandwich like we’d enjoyed back in the summer at Nixon’s. I selected a place near the University of Tennessee campus called Gus’s that came highly recommended, but about an hour before I was due to leave, I read that Gus’s is not middle school-age friendly. So I figured that pizza would be a good idea instead.

Marie’s loss was my gain. By that, I mean that Marie would raise an eyebrow at trying any pie in Knoxville other than her beloved Pizza Palace, but since it was just my son and I going to Tennessee, I could try someplace else. The Tomato Head, located downtown in a very neat and lively pedestrian plaza called Market Square, has been getting rave reviews from people in the area, so I chose this popular spot, and was very glad to get there just before the place filled up. We had been shopping at McKay, the fantastic bookstore on Papermill Drive, until just before six before we drove downtown, found some parking and got the last table before the line started.

I thought this place was some brand-new eatery to be attracting the young mobs that it does on Friday nights, but it’s actually been around for more than twenty years. It opened in 1990 as The Flying Tomato, a no-frills paper plate lunch place, where the owner, Mahasti Vafaie, served up specialty pizzas and salads with fresh-to-table ingredients. Vafaie, born in Iran in the sixties, was pretty far ahead of the curve; it’s only in the last decade that farmers’ market ingredients have become as common as they have in places like this. It helps that apparently, the pedestrian plaza of Market Square is occasionally the site of a farmers’ market.

Tomato Head has gone through a lot of growing pains, and has occupied several locations in the same plaza. At one point, they were forced to move when an interior wall collapsed – not the sort of thing that struggling restaurateurs ever want to consider. But enthusiasm and word of mouth has grown as the pasta dishes and pizzas have become more adventurous. Put another way, while Pizza Palace represents the absolute best of what we think of as a traditional American pizza, Tomato Head exemplifies modern styles. The pie that my son and I shared was topped with lamb sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, olives and capers, ingredients you’re not likely to find at a restaurant like the Palace that started fifty years ago. It was completely delicious. Tomato Head also serves one with smoked turkey, spinach and red onions. I decided to save that one until Marie could be in town with me, assuming I can pry her away.

I also got to enjoy a really nice appetizer of chips and hummus. The blue corn chips were as good as any I’ve had and the hummus was just wonderful. My son has not yet developed a taste for hummus, which was fine by me, as it left me with more. It also tasted amazing as a dip for the pizza crust.

Tomato Head’s pies are only served by the slice at lunch. In the evenings, you can order a 9-inch personal-sized pie or a 14-inch pie, which is better for sharing. Since my son and I had plans for another meal on the ride home, we just split a 9-inch, with two slices apiece.

Then we enjoyed a nice walk around the plaza and, a block away, we shopped at Mast General Store. With the avenue that I’m used to taking into south Knoxville closed for bridge repairs, we took a new way, did a little comic shopping, and then made our way back towards Atlanta, and that second supper that I had planned. It wasn’t the most pleasant trip to Knoxville that anybody ever made, but it turned out all right with a meal this good.


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