Long Live Bar Toma!

One day last fall, a friend called and said, “Bistro 110 is closed!”

It seemed improbable: while not the most exciting destination, it had been around for a long time and seemed reasonably crowded with Michigan Avenue shoppers. The food was solid, dependable bistro-style, but apparently it had run its course.

Tony Mantuano, long time marquee chef of Levy Restaurants and the celebrated (and Obama-anointed) Spiaggia, had other ideas for the space.

Location, Location, Location!
Given the location and fantastic foot traffic, it was the perfect place for an Italian-style eatery, one that served strong cappuccino and fresh pastries in the morning, a quick lunch, a lively dinner of small plates and wood-burning pizzas, and fresh gelato. And so was born Bar Toma (for TOny MAntuano).

On my first visit, a busy weekend lunch during the holiday season, Mantuano was on site, walking around the restaurant, expediting food, chatting with customers. It was obvious that he was in his element and proud of his new place.

Care was obvious in the food that day: Rock Shrimp Polpette ($16), juicy shellfish meatballs topped with crispy shallots and a great, spicy tomato sauce; Charred Carrots ($9), a surprising dish of tender carrots topped with Capriole goat cheese, toasted almonds and drizzled with aged balsamic; and the Bar Toma Salad ($14), a huge, tangled pile of fresh carrot and celery ribbons, radicchio, shaved fennel, cucumbers, egg whites, Toma cheese and capers topped with a sprightly vinaigrette – all hit the mark.

Now That’s a Pizza Pie!
The pizzas, fresh from the by now de rigeur wood-burning oven, are mostly fantastic, starting with a special crust that they ferment to build flavor. The Merguez pizza ($16) emerged full of flavor, dotted with spicy Pinn-Oak Farm lamb sausage, Marzano tomatoes, olives and shaved Manchego cheese. It was terrific, and we devoured every bite.

A second visit at mid-week, post-holiday dinnertime was a little less revelatory. Mantuano was not around, and to my mind the service was a little off, and the food, while tasty, was not the slam dunk of the first visit.

And am I the only one growing weary of the whole “small plate” phenomenon? The server told us that we should order everything we want at once, and it would come out, basically, whenever the kitchen felt like it. Hmmm.

Loved the Capriole Goat Cheese Pizza ($19), with the play of tangy goat cheese against toasty hazelnuts, sweet caramelized leeks and dates, fresh thyme and another drizzle of the Acetaia San Giacomo balsamico. The crust, once again, was perfect.

But the Zucchini Pizza ($17), laden with basil pesto, mozzarella, and pecorino Romano, lacked flavor, at least in the topping. A judicious sprinkle of salt, the punch of red pepper flakes or maybe fennel pollen – any of these would have helped tremendously.

The hand-rolled and stuffed fresh mozzarella, made in house, was overpowered by a fishy flavor in the smoked mozz and house-cured salmon version ($8), and the Beets and Gorgonzola ($9) – one more beet salad to join the cavalcade currently marching through Chicago – can be skipped.

The Tuscan Chicken Liver Spread ($9), served in a cute glass jar with fresh, garlicky crostini, was smooth and almost too creamy, unobjectionable to the liver-phobic. Don’t order the Romana salad ($11) expecting a classic Caesar; this has more of a white-anchovy vinaigrette, with a lemony tang that was just right with the crisp romaine, onion bread croutons and Grana Padano cheese.

Basil Gelato?
In-house gelatos ($4) ran the gamut from fun (Rice Pudding or Balsamico) to funky (Sweet Basil) and are just the right temperature and texture; the Fritella Nutella, a sort of Italian-cookie/gelato sandwich, was messy but tasty. The cannoli ($5), sadly, was a disappointment.

Was it Mantuano’s presence that brought the magic on our first visit? Or was this just a slightly off night? One thing’s for sure: whenever I next stroll the Mag Mile, my feet will carry me back to that pizza oven. I’ve got my eye on the Pork Belly Meatball or maybe the Clam Pizza…

3 ½ stars out of 5

Bar Toma
110 E. Pearson, Chicago