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Tomato revolution

It takes a lot to get local restauranteur Frank Amendola down. He spins everything with his Brooklyn charm and infectious optimism and every glass in his Mississippi Belle restaurant is half full.

But lately, the vegetable market has been getting to him. Amendola is cooking with the most expensive produce he's ever bought.

"Forget about it," Amendola said last week, when asked about the rising cost of tomatoes. "I used to pay $15 a crate, now I'm paying $55 (for cherry tomatoes)."

His salads are worth it, he said, and despite the exorbitant prices, he will continue to buy the now-luxurious red fruit.

He worries about the cost of canned plum tomatoes, the base for so many of his sauces. If the fresh tomato prices are up now, he said, it stands to reason that the canned beauties will be next.

The rising cost is due to a sharp drop in supply. Mother Nature has been hard on tomato-growing areas this fall. Florida, where many tomato producers are located, was ravaged by four hurricanes this summer. And in California, weather also hurt production. The California Tomato Commission released this statement Oct. 28: "Adverse weather has impacted the harvest in California and other major production regions. As a result, supplies have tightened and will continue lighter than usual for the next few weeks."

An industry publication, The Produce News, reported that a pest has infested crops in Baja California, Mexico, which may cut production there from 30 to 40 percent.

In Hastings, that means higher prices at grocery stores and restaurants.

At Quizno's sandwich shop, there is a more immediate concern. Tomatoes are integral to the sandwiches served up daily. While some places might be able to scale back tomato use, the sandwich-shop owners are at the mercy of the customers.

Quizno's owner Jacque Walsh said a 25-pound case of tomatoes was $65 this week. Normally, the case, which yields about 75 tomatoes, would cost about $20. Tomato-loving customers may pay more.

"If people want extra tomatoes, there is an extra charge," she said. "Typically, we would never charge for extra veggies."

"When it's skyrocketing high, we have to do that."

Walsh said the tomato shortage is expected to continue through the New Year.

"They say the worst is yet to come."

Fruit versus vegetable

But really, what are they -- a fruit or a vegetable? They are sold alongside vegetables at the supermarket. They are used like a vegetable on sandwiches and salads. But they hang from the vine, encase seeds and, well, they're plump.

This question is not new. In 1887, the U.S. Supreme Court said the legal definition of a tomato is a vegetable. (There were different import tariffs applied to vegetables and fruits.) Its decision still stands today.

But it is with the courts that definition of a tomato as a vegetable. A fruit is defined as the edible reproductive body of a seed plant, according to Webster. And a tomato, according to the same source, is the fruit or berry of the tomato plant.