by Leigh M Hansen
110 E. Pearson St.
Chicago, IL 60611
Throughout Bar Toma‘s media event, Tony Mantuano came off shockingly calm considering that the opening of his casual, 250 seat restaurant was just around the corner. The energy in this completely renovated space was infectious. In one section of the restaurant, Cathy Mantuano-wine director and wife- was leading a tasting and informational session about the wines featured at Bar Toma. In another area, Chef di Cucina Erik Freeberg was training the lunch crew behind the pizza bar. All the while, we gorged ourselves on a tasting menu showcasing some of this multifaceted Italian bar’s many stations.
With the help of a few key members of his staff, Chef Mantuano gave us a visual and tasting tour of the many features of his very comprehensive new concept.
We began by sampling some cocktails crafted by beverage manager Mike Weiler, starting with a Spritz made with prosecco, bitters and orange. Mantuano explained that the light taste of bitters (made in house) stands up well to the richer, more robust dishes on the menu. I sipped on the drink throughout the first half of the meal and found it to compliment perfectly any of the Roman Style Fritti as well as the Tuscan Chicken Liver Spread, which came layered with chopped egg and topped with caperberries. Like pretty much anything on this carefully composed menu, the plates from the Fritti section could have easily come off the streets of Italy. My pick from this section would have to be the sage and prosciutto wrapped sweetbreads.
The other drink we sampled from Mike’s arsenal of cocktails (since the house infused Grappa Ruta was not quite ready at the time) was a Tomanata made with genever gin, sage and honey lemonade. I carried this particular drink with me all the way through the pizza portion of the tour! Speaking of things I consumed alongside the Tomanata, the Bar Toma and the Christina salads were both very hearty and tasty. Of the two, the Christina resonated most with me due to its slightly less conventional ingredients. This salad is the brainchild of Spiaggia’s Assistant General Manager Christina Bishop who, when asked what she would put on a salad, came up with orange supremes, olives, frisée, avocado, smoked garlic, shrimp, hearts of palm and lemon. I’d say it was a hit!
I can’t move on to the pizza without first mentioning the cheese selection at Bar Toma. We had a whole Burrata, which they sprinkle tableside with extra virgin olive oil, Sicilian sea salt and fettunta as well as seared Toma cheese. It is also noteworthy that Bar Toma gets some of their cheese locally from the Mancuso Cheese Company out of Joliet, Illinois.
Sitting at the pizza bar was a great experience. The pizzas come fresh out of the 800 degree oven and are served with great pride by the staff. I was told that in order to avoid any taste contamination the servers must carry as many pizza cutters as there are pizzas going to any given table. This is partly to avoid complications with allergies, but they’re also that serious about their pizza… and it’s not hard to see why. It’s difficult to pick favorites, but I’ll go with the Capriole Goat Cheese Pizza with Piemontese hazelnuts, leeks, thyme, dates, Acetaia San Giacomo balsamico or the Clam Pizza with littlenecks, garlic, oregano shaken directly from the bouquet, chiles and pecorino. I would be remiss not to mention the house specialty, the Bomba! which puffs up into a doughy pillow that cradles prosciutto from La Quercia and parmesan cheese.
The final stop of the tour was the espresso bar which opens daily at 7am. The espresso bar is an inviting area wherein customers can grab a coffee and pastry on the way to work or choose to sit at a table and read the paper and watch the news. Steve Paluck, the key barista at Bar Toma can claim to be the first person to be trained one on one by a master barista from Illy in Italy.
Whether you want to stop in for a coffee and house made pastry before work or a housemade gelato and coffee throughout the day, I guarantee the temptation to try something from the bar menu or to consume an entire pizza by yourself will be too much to resist. In no time you’ll join me in my claim that I’ve eaten my way through the entire menu!