If you ventured east on I-64 to nearby Mt. Sterling over the past few years, you may have noticed a few local businesses beginning to pop up, enhancing the town’s distinctive charm. But in addition to some new sights, you may have also noticed a distinct smell.
When you walk towards the railroad tracks at the corner of Main and Maysville, your nose may pick up the scent of smoke from burning firewood coming from Tomatoes and Flames restaurant. It’s that fire — along with a burning passion for a good Neapolitan-style pizza — that’s helping bring people into Mt. Sterling.
“(It’s) going back to the old times when people used to walk downtown,” co-owner Patrick Lager said. “It’s really kind of bringing unity to the downtown area to just bring back that touch of community.”
This quaint pizza spot, which officially opened in April 2016, started with Mark and Wenda Hawks, a married couple who enjoyed sampling cuisines in their travels and fell in love with the flavors of wood-fire pizza.
“I was trying to keep it a simple, affordable sort of concept,” Mark said. “I figured we could pay the bills with pizza.”
But it couldn’t be just any kind of pizza. It had to be something they loved and something a little unusual — at least for Mt. Sterling.
Tomatoes and Flames offers Neapolitan-style pizzas, a more traditional, 12-inch pizza you would likely find in Italy. The Hawks made sure to do their homework, going to Napa Valley taking a cooking class to learn to make pizza dough and purchasing a Mugnaini Oven, an Italian company specializing in wood-fire ovens.
Tomatoes and Flames’ success is built on the palatable pillars of daily, made-from-scratch dough, fresh ingredients and the oven that gets fired up to 800 degrees and cooks pizzas in 90 seconds , giving the crust a hint of smoke and a bit of char that compliment whatever pizza you order.
The restaurant started offering six pies and has increased its menu to 15 varieties. Cheaper and more traditional options include the Margherita — red sauce, mozzarella, Parmesan and fresh basil — and the Pepperoni (each $9.99). Popular choices include the Chicken Pesto, Buffalo Chicken Ranch (each $11.99) and the Asian-style kick of the Sriracha Shrimp with sriracha sauce, Parmesan, mozzarella, provolone, spinach and shrimp ($14.99). Other adventurous offerings include the Spinach and Bacon ($11.99), with bacon, fresh basil, two kinds of cheese (ricotta and Parmesan) and the slightest hint of nutmeg.
Other menu items include four different types of calzones and a kids menu with smaller, six-inch pizzas. Several salads are offered including the Strawberry Spinach with a homemade bacon dressing and the Vegan Powerhouse, a plant-and-legume-lover’s delight with spring greens, cherry tomatoes, Israeli couscous, chickpeas, sunflower seeds and cucumbers drizzled with a bright lemon vinaigrette. The oven also has a sweet side with two dessert pizzas: an Apple Streusel Pizza ($6.99 small, $9.99 regular size) and a S’Mores Pizza with Nutella, gram cracker crumbs and marshmallows all fittingly fire-oven toasted ($6.99 small, $12.99 regular).
Tomatoes and Flames was already a favorite lunch spot for Lager and friend Ryan Dotson. The two Mt. Sterling pastors were friends with the Hawks and decided to act when the couple discussed selling the business.
“I kind of just joked around and said, ‘Hey Ryan, we could buy this thing together,’” Lager said. “I read this quote that said if you get this incredible opportunity and you don’t know how to do it, say ‘yes’ and learn how to do it later.”
The open layout and 33-seat capacity still lets people see and smell the oven working its magic. They have added a pair of pasta dishes and sub sandwiches (like pizza subs, chicken Parmesan and buffalo chicken subs) to the menu that will get the woodfire cooking treatment. They have also expanded the restaurant’s soup offerings, from the popular Tomato Basil Bisque and Loaded Baked Potato soups, to some of their own respective recipes for Chicken Noodle, Broccoli and Cheese. And possibly look for a Chili as the weather cools down. Lager also hinted they may add a peach cobbler to the dessert menu, cooked in the brick oven and served in a cast-iron skillet.
Tomatoes and Flames
Where: 32 S. Maysville Rd., Mt. Sterling
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday