The Gist: Described as an Italian neighborhood pizzeria and bar by Chef Tony Mantuano with 20+ varieties of pizza, a mozzarella bar, gelato, an espresso bar, Roman-style fritti, Italian beers, aperitivi and wine.
The Why: New spot with a strong menu and positive word of mouth. While I very much disliked my experience at Spiaggia due to service issues, I loved Café Spiaggia and Mantuano’s style of Italian Cuisine. Great location just off North Michigan Avenue, small plates, and open constitutively from lunch to late night.
The Reservation: Reservations accepted but certainly not required. Showed up, was seated immediately, and watched Godfather on the Television at the bar while waiting for my friend to arrive.
The Space: A front patio with shaded seating and tables in the sun gives way to an atrium where the hostess stand resides in front of a pastry and espresso counter with a gelateria off to the left. Certainly a loud space towards the front, but substantially more peaceful towards the back where an open kitchen and tile pizza oven are flanked by two dining areas with both booths and tables. Extensive use of sturdy light woods in the tables and décor while padded seating features shades of grey and red beneath soft overhead lighting.
The Service: Competent, friendly, and knowledgeable. Offered suggestions without being overbearing and seemed to genuinely enjoy the job while assuring good pacing throughout the meal. Accommodating to requests and quick to refill water, deliver dishes, and clear emptied plates despite the restaurant being quite busy.
The Food: 4 plates, 1 pizza, 1 dessert served in four courses.
Hand Rolled & Stuffed Mozzarella with San Marzano tomatoes, basil: wanting to sample something from the Mozzarella bar but unwilling to commit the stomach space to one of the large tastings Rich and I opted for this choice based on Stephen’s recommendation and arriving only a few minutes after we placed our order the four sliced rounds could not have been better – the cheese creamy, the tomatoes bright and sweet, the basil fresh and aromatic, and a drizzle of olive oil actually adding to meld everything together while adding a glossy finish.
Baccala – House-cured cod, lemon: I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t part of the reason I decided to visit Bar Toma in the first place and served piping hot in a sealed jar it was definitely worth the price of admission. Slightly thicker than some versions of the whipped potato and salt cod amalgam I actually found this to be an interesting textural variant and while not quite as mesmerizing as the brandade at Minetta Tavern the addition of lemon was a refreshing twist, particularly when spread across the buttered and toasted baguette which was replenished with a simple request.
Crudo black bass, pistachio, satsuma mandarin, controne pepper: Another ‘fish in a jar,’ and this time served cold with crisp sesame puffs. My friend ordered this and enjoyed it but for me it was quite like eating acid and fire with a touch of crunch from the pistachios. Admittedly not one to order crudo or to prefer citrus I’m sure the dish was good for what it was since I trust my friend’s opinion, but it simply was not for me; a couple bites were plenty.
Modenese – Guanciale wrapped sweetbreads with Sage: An obvious choice from the grilled menu and an excellent one at that. Featuring three creamy sweetbreads bisected and divided amongst two skewers at the core and crispy house-cured pork jowl on the outside there really is not much to be said about this dish that you would not guess from the ingredients. Smoky and aromatic but at the same time slightly sweet I additionally loved the fact that the team opted to serve the skewers over a plate of sage and spinach, a bitter salad that wilted under the heat while soaking up much of the savory drippings.
Lorenzo – Mozzarella, Fresh tomatoes, Crispy pancetta, Basil: With so much to-do about the pizza at Bar Toma it was decided that we should go the simple route, but knowing that Mantuano cures most of his pork in house a simple Margherita seemed somewhat less inspiring than one with pancetta and to some extent this turned out to be true, even if the pizza itself was only average.
Fancying myself as a ‘crust first’ sort of pizza fan, I’ll start out by saying that from this standpoint the pie was superfluous – nicely leavened, full of flavor, thin and crisp but with a touch of chew and only slightly charred at the edges. Moving next to the house made items, the briny pork and the creamy mozzarella, they too were of good quality and amply applied yet not so heavy as to make the crust soggy or limp. Moving finally to the vegetables – this unfortunately is where the pie fell flat…very flat…with tomatoes that simply lacked sweetness and basil of questionable freshness thrown haphazardly onto one half of the pie and contributing minimal flavor. Perhaps an effect of the Midwest in the winter, but inexcusable considering what we tasted the day before at Nellcote (or in a city where I’ve had some of the best pizzas of my life.)
Amaretto Bread Pudding, Caramel Sauce, Riso Gelato: Heavily promoting the house made gelato – available in 14 flavors to-go on a cone or in a cup – there was no doubt I’d be ordering dessert before leaving Bar Toma, but with the sweets not posted online or in-store until we’d finished the plan received a substantial update the moment I saw the menu. Served as a thick rectangle swimming in bubbling caramel this bread pudding was clearly pre-made but also exemplary, a dense cake rife with boozy tones competently balanced by the intensely sweet sauce and served in a double-handled Staub baking dish the rustic presentation was also a welcome sight. Certainly not wanting to skip the gelato, an added bonus was Stephen’s willingness to replace the suggested vanilla with rice-pudding flavored gelato, an ample scoop a slight savory tone and rich cinnamon tone that for my dollar trumped local-favorite Black Dog for texture and quality.
The Verdict: Overall a hit and miss experience. On one hand I really like the layout, the fact that you can walk-in without reservations, and the style of the menu. Highs were high with the dessert, mozzarella, baccala, and sweetbreads quite impressive but the quality of vegetables on the highly-raved pizza a major failure. Service was efficient and friendly and prices are actually quite good for the quality considering the location just steps away from Chicago’s most notable shopping area. On the whole I’d consider going back to try some of the more dishes or to grab a gelato, but I’d be hesitant to recommend the pizza considering the fact that there are much better pies to be found in the Windy City.