110 E Pearson St Chicago, IL 60611 (map); 312-266-3110; bartomachicago.com
Pizza Style: Neapolitan-ish, but really its own style
The Skinny: Remarkably light yet crisp and chewy crust is its own delicious beast in the pizza world and the toppings I sampled were top-notch
Price: Pizzas range from $14 to $19
Beyond being widely recognized as one of the true masters of Italian cuisine in the United States, Tony Mantuano is quite the pizza man. Regular readers will remember that I raved about his pizzas at Terzo Piano and I was also a fan of his pies at Cafe Spiaggia. But at each of those restaurants, pizza is far from the focus of the menus. With Mantuano's latest venture, Bar Toma, pizza is the one of the main attractions.
Bar Toma opened its doors late last year, replacing Bistro 110, the longstanding decidedly mediocre tourist-laden dining spot that survived because of the phenomenal location steps from the Magnificent Mile. I don't say that to knock whoever was doing the cooking at Bistro 110 (Mantuano actually helped open the place 25 years ago), but rather to make the point that between the location and his name, Chef Mantuano could have come up with a menu in his sleep that would have made for a resounding success. Fortunately for pizza lovers (not to mention cheese lovers, gelato lovers, and coffee lovers), this is a restaurant full of seriously delicious food.
I almost never order pepperoni pizza for the simple reason that most pepperoni sucks. But when I looked at the description of the Smoke and Cure pizza and saw the phrase "Vermont artisanal pepperoni," I decided to give it a shot. I adore sausage and generally think it is the ultimate pizza topping, but these thick-cut chunks of chewy, spicy, fatty pork were absolutely delicious.
Along with the meat, the pizza came with mozzarella, tomato sauce, some Parmesan, and thin slices of smoked garlic that offered a subtle twist that I thought worked well. Everything about this combination worked well together. The creamy mozzarella was bolstered by a generous dose of Parmesan. The smoked garlic, a topping I'd never encountered, worked really well. That said, the tomato sauce was virtually non-existent, which was unfortunate for two reasons. First, the bright sauce seemingly made from quality tomatoes and little else, was good, and second, more was needed to balance out the strong flavors elsewhere on the pie. Also, for some pizzas, the standard practice at the restaurant is for a server to come to the table with what is basically a small bush of dried oregano and shake it over the pizza. It's a fun, showy bit that certainly beats a shaker of the stuff, both in presentation and quality. Sadly, the Smoke and Cure does not get that treatment and this pizza would have benefited from some herbage. But while this pizza could easily have been a bit better, it was still pretty great, which is ultimately a testament to the quality of ingredients and the outstanding crust.
Chef Mantuano put a ton of work into developing his dough recipe before ultimately settling on a high gluten General Mills wheat flour that he mixes with dark rye flour and wheat germ. I'm not sure that it makes a difference, but the mixer imported from Italy has two arms to knead the dough instead of a single hook (check out a picture here). After a 48-hour ferment, the dough is ready to spend a couple of minutes in the wood-burning oven, where it turns into what might be the lightest chewy and crispy crust I've had.
The Capriole Goat Cheese pizza tasted even better than the Smoke and Cure, but ultimately left me unsatisfied. Confused? Allow me to explain. The toppings on this pizza, the goat cheese, along with hazelnuts imported from Piedmont, leeks, thyme, and dates, were really exceptional. From the sweet dates to the tangy soft goat cheese to the crunchy nuts, this pizza offered a medley of flavors and textures that I loved.
But without a melted cheese or a sauce of any sort, there was nothing that brought the components together as a cohesive whole. Thinking about this pizza had me revisiting a two-year-old discussion on this site when I reviewed C-House, another instance where a brilliant celebrity chef pushed the edge of pizzadom. At the end of the day, as good as this pie was, it didn't give me the kind of soul-satisfying feeling that pizza can. But maybe I'm just nuts. Has anyone else ever eaten a great flatbread with toppings that failed to scratch that pizza itch?
Bar Toma's name has a fun double-meaning. Not only is Toma a combination of the first two letters of Tony Mantuano's first and last name, but it's also the name of one of the chef's favorite cheeses, one that is prominently featured on the menu (though not on any pizzas). Beyond the name of the place, Mantuano's fingerprints are all over the restaurant and the results are every bit as delicious as you'd expect. And now that he has three restaurants that serve three very different kinds of pizza that range from good to great, he's forced his way into the conversation about the best pizzaiolo in town.