One of the things that surprised us (and other food writers from around town), when we previewed Tony Mantuano’s popular new Bar Toma near the Magnificent Mile last month, was the crust on the pizza. The woodburning oven looked set to make the kind of Neapolitan pizza that Chicagoans have grown familiar with from places like Spacca Napoli, Coalfire, etc. But the crust instead was taller and crustier, with large bubbles like good sourdough bread. And when we asked Tony Mantuano about it, he explained that the aim was to replicate pizza not from Naples but from Rome, which typically has a thicker, breadier crust. To that end, he didn’t use the soft, high-heat-activated “00” flour typical of Neapolitan pizza makers, but standard bread flour, mixed with a little rye, and allowed to rise overnight. Specifically, he said, the model for Bar Toma’s pizza was his favorite pizza place in Rome, a shop called Pizzarium located not far from the Vatican. Well, we just happened to be going to Rome in the next couple of weeks after the preview, and while there, we made sure to grab dinner at Pizzarium one night. Does Bar Toma compare to its Roman inspiration? Our report, and slideshow, follows below.
Pizzarium is the brainchild of Gabriele Bonci, and what sets it apart from nearly all other pizzas in Rome is Bonci’s commitment to using a slow-rising sourdough starter to produce his trademark crusty, deeply flavorful crust.
We had assumed heading there that Pizzarium was a sitdown restaurant. Turns out that, like bakeries all over Rome, it serves pizza al taglio, sheet pizza, for takeout (or an extremely limited, as in two or three at most, number of standup seats). The location in a modest strip mall in a modernish neighborhood hardly screams “best pizza in Rome.” Fortunately it was a pleasant night, especially for December, and we dined al sidewalko.
There is a menu on the wall, but your real menu is the array of pizzas spread out before you. You point at what looks good and the lady at left cuts you a strip of it with scissors. Surprisingly, the oven is not a woodburning one but a high-tech setup with several ovens capable of reaching comparable temperatures stacked like apartments in a highrise. (Recently-closed Sapore di Napoli in Chicago had something similar.)
Roman pizza is a little taller and fluffier than Neapolitan pizza, but Pizzarium’s is taller and crustier than any we saw elsewhere (and you see pizza everywhere in Rome).
Many of the toppings are not things Americans would expect to find on pizza, even California pizza. This assortment included sauteed greens (they couldn’t come up with an English word for the specific kind), potato, and chicken.
We saw the resemblance to Bar Toma’s pizza in the crust; it also reminded us of Great Lake, which likewise uses an old-fashioned, slow-rising starter. Where we saw the biggest difference was in what went on the pizza. Pizzarium—and Roman pizza in general—often impressed the most when it was at its absolute simplest, as in this simple tomato bread with the lightest scattering of spices—plus a few burnt spots for extra flavor.
Bar Toma sometimes makes pizzas as simple as that, but in general its pizzas are more like composed dishes with a protein, a sauce, and some cheese. Remembering a Bar Toma pizza with sharp cheese and some dried herb grated over it tableside after eating Pizzarium’s tomato bread, we felt like the emperor in Amadeus who tells Mozart his composition had too many notes. Bar Toma’s pizza was good, but Pizzarium’s was thrilling in its utter simplicity.
In the end, we didn’t see Bar Toma as imitating Pizzarium so much as simply drawing inspiration before going its own way. There is a resemblance in the way the crust is formed, to be sure, but there was a depth to Pizzarium’s sourdough starter that Bar Toma doesn’t have yet. But with time and practice, it may get closer— after all, Pizzarium wasn’t built in a day.