For most people, just the words "Italian food" conjure images of tomato sauce and pasta.

In New Jersey, we're lucky enough to have multiple options for quality dining establishments run by Italian-Americans with generations worth of hereditary knowledge of the cuisine. Then there are those fine, flavorful Jersey tomatoes, famous around the world.

But for those cooks in the know, breaking down a Jersey tomato into a five-hour sauce is a no-no.

"To me, that's almost blasphemy," says Robert Bell, executive chef of the group that runs Gourmet Italian Cuisine, The Carriage House catering hall and Luscious and Sweet Gourmet Bakery, all in Galloway Township. "A good Jersey tomato you just eat like an apple, in my opinion."

Or at least make it the feature ingredient in a salad, such as a Capri salad with fresh mozzarella and basil, he advises.

Bell has "crisscrossed the country" in a long culinary career that includes a stint working for restaurateurs Dan and Sandi Anderson as executive chef of Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro in Somers Point. He took the job overseeing the 100 or so weddings held at the Carriage house each year, plus the restaurant and bakery, because of the challenge of offering all kinds of gourmet cuisine, not just Italian comfort food.

One time, when he was catering an event for a New Jersey native out in California, he "thought it would be cute" to get Jersey tomatoes for the Capri salad. He looked into cold shipping and overnight courier services before he realized the tomatoes just don't travel well and the distinct-yet-delicate flavor would be lost. He ended up using regular beefsteak tomatoes, but the experience made him nostalgic for home.

Now that he's back in his home state, he's excited this year's crop finally is available at the farmers markets he uses exclusively for his fresh produce.

That is a small miracle in itself, given Gourmet Italian Restaurant and Carriage House are pretty much staples in the family-rich community of Galloway.

"I grew up in this area and we always used to eat at Gourmet Italian. It started as like, a pizza place and just grew with the families here (to include more elegant facilities and the Carriage House and bakery)," says Assistant General Manager Kyle Cook, of Mays Landing, adding he never dreamed he'd grow up and one day work there, but he's glad he does. "People see Gourmet Italian, but it's not just Italian, it's all good food. We really have something for everybody, it's a big variety."

Popular dishes include chicken parmesan, sure, but also Mediterranean beef tenderloins in mushroom sauce or ginger salmon.

In the traditional, age-old discussion on how long it takes to make a good tomato sauce, Gourmet falls somewhere in the middle, its chefs say. Theirs takes about five hours, start to finish, with the first hour mostly consumed by caramelizing the onions and browning the garlic in olive oil before the tomatoes ever reach the pan.

The whole point is to let the natural sugars in the tomatoes break down so they cut their own acidity, which takes a good four hours over low heat.

"Good tomatoes have their own sugar, you shouldn't have to add any," says Bell. "If you want, you can go with a sweeter onion, like a Vidalia, especially when they're caramelized."

If you want to make a good base for vodka or marinara sauce, use Roma tomatoes, suggests Chef Juan Santiago, who's been cooking up popular staples such as Gourmet's pollo di vodka for the past 20 years or so. Roma tomatoes are heartier and less acidic, and are sustainable year round so your flavors are consistent, he says.

Whether he's making that single order that at least one person at every table in the restaurant seems to order or preparing 100 orders for a gathering in the party room at Gourmet Italian or a wedding at Carriage House, Santiago takes his time to do it right.

"We're old school here, we come down on the side of low and slow," says Bell, the more talkative of the two chefs who also rely on sous chef Kenneth Trout.

That's where the gourmet aspect comes in. If you've ever taken home a rosa sauce-topped pasta dish only to be disappointed when the tomato part separates from the cream upon reheating, you've seen the difference gourmet cooking techniques make, Santiago says.

First, you should use clarified butter instead of oil, which will separate from the tomatoes and cream. Santiago and Bell estimate it takes about 12 ounces of whole butter to cull 8 ounces of clarified butter. Just put it in a pot over low heat until it begins to separate, pushing the water to the bottom of the pot while the milk floats to the top and the clarified butter remains in the middle.

And to make all the parts of that delicate vodka sauce blend together like a real gourmet, you have to plan ahead. You don't just throw a stick of butter into tomatoes sauce and start pouring cream overtop. Santiago takes the time to reduce about 16 ounces of heavy cream, to 8 ounces over low heat. If you don't use it right away, you can refrigerate it and you've got creme fraiche.

Another delicate part of the dish is the crab, which should be taken out of the fridge about 30 minutes before cooking and sauteed in a little garlic and olive oil just long enough to take the chill off. Don't agitate the pan or press down when making crab cakes, says Bell, or you'll ruin the "golden nuggets" of lump crab meat.

"I always tell my cooks, 'Would you use a hammer on a gold nugget? Don't break up my golden nuggets of crab'," he jokes.

By the time you're ready to mix the sauce, all the ingredients should be measured out and in the state they need to be for cooking. That's called mis en place in the culinary world, and it's essential to pulling off a gourmet dish like pollo di vodka with crab with apparent ease.

The dish has earned a high popularity rating with diners in the area, who regularly take advantage of Gourmet's delivery service to enjoy fine restaurant fare in the comfort of home.

"People rave about it," Cook says. "There's not anybody who doesn't like it."

Contact Felicia Compian:

609-272-7209

Pollo Di Vodka

Ingredients:

•2 tablespoons olive oil

•1 cup flour

•1/2 teaspoon salt

•1/2 teaspoon pepper

•4 8-ounce boneless chicken breasts

•4 ounces vodka

•16 ounces of rosa sauce (see recipe)

•8 ounces jumbo lump crab meat

•24 ounces cooked penne pasta

•Salt and pepper, to taste

•1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley

•Parmesan cheese, to taste (optional)

Directions:

Preheat oil in a skillet about 5 minutes. In a separate bowl, place flour and measured salt and pepper. Dredge chicken breasts in seasoned flour on both sides and saute in preheated pan for approximately 10 minutes on each side. Add vodka and reduce to half the amount of liquid. Add prepared rosa sauce and cook till heated through.

Saute crab meat in oil, just enough to take the chill out. Do not agitate the pan or break up the crab lumps.

Meanwhile cook penne pasta according to box directions. Top with chicken and vodka sauce, then place crab overtop. Season with salt and pepper, chopped parsley and grated parmesan cheese, to taste.

Servings: 4

Rosa Sauce

Ingredients:

•8 tablespoons clarified butter

•8 ounces heavy cream (already reduced)

•16 ounces tomato sauce

•8 ounces grated parmesan cheese

Directions:

In a sauce pan, melt butter, add cream, red sauce and Parmesan cheese. Cook till heated through.