Cavotta’s Wondrous Heirloom Tomatoes

It’s one of those chilly, drizzly mid-March days when, for most of us, planning for our home vegetable garden is at best in the very early stages. Perhaps a pile of well-thumbed seed catalogs graces our coffee table. The tall, trellised plants heavy with fruit are still a far-off dream.

But in the 16×32-foot heated greenhouse at Cavotta’s Garden Center & Urban Farm, directly behind the front retail building, rows and rows of seed flats are starting to show a little bit of green. Walking through the steamy greenhouse, you’ll see hints of what will soon become the largest selection of tomato starter plant varieties available to home growers in Northeast Ohio. By the time Angela Cavotta opens her legacy family business for the season, in late April, there will be almost 150 types of tomato plants potted up and ready to go in family gardens.

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Yes, you’ll find the old reliables—the Big Boys and Early Girls and Mortgage Lifters for sale at every garden center and Home Depot. But you might find yourself pondering varieties with a kaleidoscope of exotic names, such as Wapsipinicon Peach, Silvery Fir Tree, Dusky Cocktail, Pink Pong Pink, Micado Violetter, Ukrainian Purple, Crnkovic Yugoslavian, Japanese Black Trifele, Costoluto Genovese, Oaxacan Jewel, and Pineapple Hawaiian. You could travel the world in tomatoes, and you never know where you’ll end up. The exact mix changes every year. Her travel guides are the binders she assembles and places in the vegetable tent for visitors to browse to learn about the size, taste, and habits of each variety. Angela inherited the business 12 years ago from her father, Francis, (he died in 2012 at the age of 82) who inherited it from his parents. They opened it in 1930 as a landscaping business. Francis expanded it and sold some plants and produce. When Angela took it over, she started to look for new ways to grow the center.

In the last decade, she’s acquired adjoining land and built new greenhouses and hoop houses, as well as outdoor raised beds where she grows her own produce. She grew the mix of plants offered—hanging baskets, bedding flowers, decorative plants, shrubs, fruit trees, vegetables of all types. And while there are many distinctive things about Cavotta’s—the antique garden furniture and statuary scattered around the grounds, the pet goats, rabbits, and chickens that keep kids engaged while their parents shop—she was looking for something special to make her place a destination for gardeners.

“I was trying to find my niche, trying to be a little bit different from other people,” says Angela, who gets most of her seeds from grower wholesaler Ivy Garth Seeds & Plants in Chesterland. “I went online and started to look for different seed suppliers. I was looking for ones that no one else carried.”

As she started to sell the plants, as well as the tomatoes, people began to ask her for particular types—and area restaurants asked her to supply them. She’s sold to Luxe Kitchen & Lounge in Gordon Square and Collinwood’s Bistro 185. The Beach Club Bistro in Euclid has been such a loyal customer, they’ve named a dish after her.

They love her tomatoes because “They look great, they taste great,” she says. “Restaurants love to use them in pizzas and salads because of the color.”

Ah, yes, the colors. If you think tomatoes should all be red or maybe pink, you have another think coming at Cavotta’s. There are entire sections devoted entirely to white, purple, black, orange, and yellow tomatoes. Angela says the whites, with their sweet flavor, are among her favorite. She lists among her favorites “Black Russians, Indigo Rose, all the white ones—White Wonder, Snow White. Cherry Falls is a really good tomato, a large cherry. I love Green Zebra. They’re delicious.

“I’m trying to grow a market, to have something really special,” she says. “If I had just Marglobes and Big Boys, people could just go to Home Depot.”

But if you want the best selection or are looking for something particular, you’ll want to go early in the season. With so many varieties, she has only a small number of each, sometimes as few as a half dozen.

For the past two years, Angela has shared the bounty as growing season gives way to harvest season with a tomato tasting party in August. This year, she’s expanding it to a full-blown festival—the first annual Cleveland Tomato Festival, taking place on Sunday, August 19, 1–5pm at the garden center. There will be chefs creating tasting dishes from tomatoes, tomato cooking contests, tomato-based drinks, vendors, music, and, of course, the opportunity to taste some of those unusual varieties she grows.

“I will have many tomatoes for people to taste,” Angela says. “People are shocked when they taste a white tomato or a purple or black tomato. It’s something really different.”

Cavotta’s Garden Center & Urban Farm is located at 19603 Nottingham Road in Cleveland. For more information, call 440.897.1497 or visit Cavottas.com.