If you’re going to Bar Toma thinking it’s the poor man’s Spiaggia (Tony Mantuano’s landmark Italian restaurant four blocks away): Stop. If you’re thinking Bar Toma is the expanded Purple Pig (the energetic wine bar seven blocks away, in which Mantuano is a partner): Stop. If you’re thinking Bar Toma is a cavernous restaurant across the street from Water Tower Place that should, with Tony Mantuano as its chef and namesake, be at least an improvement on its forerunner, Bistro 110: Okay, go.
Go for coffee. The place opens at 7am; it makes a good cappuccino. Go for dessert: About a half-dozen freshly churned flavors of gelato are displayed in the case up front, and the filled-to-order cannoli is poised to be the nearby Ghirardelli store’s downfall. Go for a drink: The place stays open until midnight (2am on weekends), and the cocktails, though Mag Mile–priced at $12 for what I’d really like to pay only $7, are understated and refreshing (fans of hard-to-find Sanbitter will like the gin-based Rosso 75); and aside from, again, price, there’s little to argue with regarding the well-edited selection of all-Italian wines.
In all of these scenarios, you are already for whatever reason in the vicinity of the Water Tower. This is the key attribute of Bar Toma: its location. And when it’s in a location this prime, and when it’s serving relatively inexpensive pizzas, it has to do a lot of volume. So it shouldn’t have surprised me that Bar Toma is absolutely enormous. Yet somehow I couldn’t get over how poorly designed this giant space was, and no matter where I was seated, I felt I was being hidden in a back room. The overly bright lighting doesn’t help, nor did I get much added warmth from fellow patrons: On two of my three visits (admittedly, at off hours), the place was mostly empty.
So the space isn’t especially pleasant. But that’s only part of what gives Bar Toma its corporate atmosphere. Most of the damage is done by the disaffected, aloof service. During one meal, our waiter repeatedly disappeared for long stretches, then returned to ask how everything was. We kept saying everything was fine, until I realized he had no idea we were waiting on the pizza we’d ordered from him an hour earlier. Hey, it happens. Even in a well-run restaurant. But in a poorly run one, it happens and the pizza still shows up on your bill.
Fortunately, that pizza had tangy Capriole goat cheese, and leeks, and fat dates and toasted hazelnuts. The crust—sturdy in structure, golden-brown in color—was good. Which is a whole lot better than it was on my visit the previous week, when another really well-conceived set of toppings (sweet fennel, golden raisins and Becker Lane sausage) was supported by a crust that was salty but flavorless, burned—and not in a hip “charred” way—and dry.
Though the pizza changed dramatically, all my visits were otherwise fairly similar. There were good things, like the plump, tender shrimp meatballs called polpettes. There were bad things, like a salad in which the edges of the chopped leaves were oxidized and yellow-brown and had been sent out sans dressing. But most of all there were “just okay” things, like a mellow-flavored but oily chicken-liver spread, and interesting but bitter-tasting seed-crusted fried cod, and mammaluchi—yet another word for doughnuts—that were still wet and raw on the inside.
And then there was burrata, the ubiquitous ball of oozing mozzarella. On the dozens of menus in which I’ve seen it, I’ve never seen it for $27. For that price, Bar Toma’s should have been the best burrata I’ve had. And yet, though it was a good-quality cheese drizzled with good-quality olive oil, it was served so cold that it muted most of the flavor—and much of my confidence in Bar Toma.
Turn to the next page for "flash reviews" of three more new pizzerias.
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Three more new slices
Gratto Pizzeria N Deli
(1341 N Damen Ave, 733-904-7455) Neapolitan style. Quality, fresh ingredients. Thin-crust, wet center. (Pictured left)
(614 W Diversey Pkwy, 773-327-8500) Chipotle-style. Made-to-order with ingredients that often taste like nothing. (Pictured center)
(120 S Halsted St, 312-226-6664) Domino’s style. Except instead of tasting like cardboard, tastes greasy and doughy. (Pictured right)