Tony Mantuano’s Bar Toma is the best thing to happen to the hordes of tourists wandering the Magnificent Mile since… Apple? Nike? Lake Michigan forming from the remnants of primordial seas? Something like that. Mentioning tourists as its natural audience may seem like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not; tourists, like Chicagoans, have simple wants (espresso and a cornetto, pizza, gelato) and too often those wants have been satisfied in this area by the likes of “baristas” punching buttons on an automated espresso machines, prefab slice pizza, or candy-bar-brand-name chocolate shops.
Mantuano has taken over the Bistro 110 space at 110 E. Pearson and carved it up into four or five different areas devoted to different types of service, and you could almost compare it to something like Foodlife— get your espresso here, your fried bacalao fritters there. The difference is the quality of what he’s serving— a gooey softball of imported burrata wrapped not in plastic, but in leeks; a clam pizza with dried sage grated over it tableside, baked in a wood-burning oven on a crust that spent two days retarding in a cooler; housemade basil gelato that sings of fresh herbs, topped with imported Amareno cherries. This is Spiaggia-level sourcing applied to reasonably-priced Italian snacks for the masses, and it instantly raises the bar for casual Italian food in this part of town. We attended a media preview lunch yesterday and then were given a tour of the restaurant by Mantuano; here’s our slideshow look at some of what goes into your experience in Bar Toma and the different areas within it, one day before opening, starting below.
They were still installing flatscreens in the bar as we sampled some of the menu. The focus is on noshing food, including pizzas, snacks like olives and sliced to order prosciutto (La Quercia green label), Roman style fried items, and tastings of mozzarella and burrata. Some will surely be surprised to find that this is an Italian restaurant entirely without pasta.
Andrea Bezzecchi, artisanal vinegar maker of Acetaia San Giacomo, was in the house visiting and educating staff about his products. He and Mantuano both talked about the value of adding a splash of vinegar to the food (especially the fried items, the fritti) and the difference between industrial red wine vinegar and the kind he makes— “One takes 24 hours, the other takes two years,” Bezecchi said. We would wind up tasting vinegars added to several items— a beer vinegar was a great touch on the fritti, but red wine vinegar dripped around the edge of a cocktail was less successful.
Photo: Sky Full of Bacon
“It comes in water and it goes straight into water,” Mantuano said of the imported mozzarella and burrata. What might have been a lobster tank in another restaurant here holds dozens of balls of fresh mozzarella, waiting to be plucked out, blotted dry and served with extra virgin olive oil and a little sea salt and herbs.
One of the kitchen staff shows off the unique dough machine, which rather than mixing the dough in a circular fashion like a traditional mixer, stomps up and down on it like a windup toy robot. Mantuano said they call it the “changa,” or monkey, because of the way it moves.
Brilliantly colored gelato are all made in house every day. As the basil leaves suggest, the green one is basil-flavored ice cream.
Imported amarena cherries, small, dark and intense, are the only topping normally offered for the gelato, though in our case Andrea Bezzecchi popped up to spoon a little apple-quince vinegar over the vanilla gelato… and it was wonderful.
The front part of the restaurant has the timeless look of a European cafe, with garage-style doors which can open to the sidewalk in the summer, and genuine baristas hand-making espresso and cappucino. They also gave us a sip-by-sip tour of how we would taste our espresso at different stages, which we started out by making fun of, but which proved utterly accurate (basically, your fourth sip is the perfect one, so don’t gulp espresso down). We’re sure if you ask, they’ll guide you through it too.