Even a winter as wimpy as this one can leave a person longing for summer, and after a few meals here I found myself dreaming about sultry afternoons in Toma's front atrium space, its garage doors rolled up to create a de facto sidewalk cafe, and me, washing down a plate of burrata with an ice-cold glass of wine and pondering how many flavors of gelato to order.
More adventurous are the trippa, earthy pieces of cow stomach in a lightly minty tomato sauce topped with a thick layer of bread crumbs, and the spicy octopus purgatorio (named either for its fiery spices or its close-to-heaven flavor, I can't decide which).
A couple of these small plates are revelations. House-made, pistachio-studded mortadella, a specialty of longtime Spiaggia sous-chef Effy Medrano (also sous-chef here), is sliced medallion-thick and finished on the grill; more meatloaf than salume in mouthfeel, the mortadella is an absolute treat. And I didn't think it was possible to like carrots as much as I like the plancha-seared carrot planks Bar Toma serves, placed alongside Capriole goat cheese and drizzled with high-quality balsamico (the same Acetaia San Giocomo vinegar that Spiaggia uses).
The backbone of Bar Toma's menu, however, is pizza. Bar Toma's dough is puffy, satisfyingly chewy and very light on the tongue — a consequence, Mantuano says, of letting the dough rise for 48 hours. "It's all about that long fermentation," he says. "It makes it easier to digest, and it doesn't feel heavy."
That dough supports a dozen and a half topping combinations, including a mozzarella, prosciutto and arugula version called Dottore. ("Our favorite toppings," the chef explains. "Just what the doctor ordered.") There also are a few pizza salads, piled high with greens and other toppings, slightly challenging to eat, but worth the effort. And there is a singular oddity called bomba, in which the dough is inflated like a balloon, topped with sliced prosciutto and plenty of grated cheese, deflated tableside and drizzled with olive oil. It's meant to be torn and eaten with your bare hands, and probably works best as a shared experience.
Desserts include a fine brioche bread pudding and lemon curd-filled doughnuts known as mamalucci, but the aforementioned house-made gelati, available in more than a dozen flavors each day (espresso, honey-orange and raspberry are outstanding), demand attention. However, fans of cannoli will adore the version served here, because the cannoli shells are baked daily, and the sweetened ricotta filling isn't piped into the shells until just before being served. That's very rare.
There are some well-chosen beers available, mostly by the bottle, and a handful of enjoyable cocktails — the Tomanata if you'd like a refreshing, ginned-up version of limonata, and Dr.'s Orders for bourbon-and-bitters types. But Cathy Mantuano's wine list is the star of the beverage program, a value-driven, all-Italian list that mostly falls into the $29-$50 range and which the staffers, particularly the bartenders, know reasonably well.
Bar Toma opens for breakfast each morning, but it's urban-Italian breakfast, meaning coffee drinks and pastries and that's about it. But throw in free WiFi service and plenty of elbow room, and there are worse ways to start one's day.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
110 E. Pearson St.; bartomachicago.com
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Small plates $6-$17; pizzas $14-$19
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Recommended weekends
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.