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First Look: Bar Toma

By Anthony Todd in Food on Nov 29, 2011 3:40PM

A walk-in espresso bar. 14 homemade gelatos every day. Mozzarella tastings. Organic prosciutto. If you're not excited yet, you don't have taste buds. We're not usually this positive about new restaurants, but Tony Mantuano's Bar Toma, opening today, is going to take dining on Michigan Avenue to a whole new level.

Mantuano has already had notable Chicago successes, including Spiaggia, Cafe Spiaggia and Terzo Piano. His chefs and employees love him and he owns the president's favorite restaurant. What's left to do? Leave fine dining behind for a moment and bring the informal bar food of Italy to Chicago. Bar Toma is the embodiment in restaurant form of Mantuano's amazing book "Wine Bar Food," which focuses on authentic Italian bites and small plates.

Don't think the (relatively) low prices and informal atmosphere mean that no one is paying attention. Every ingredient, down to the many unique aged vinegars imported from Italy, has been carefully sourced. The menu treads a perfect line for unsuspecting tourists - get them in the door with promises of beautiful, wood-fired pizzas, send them out swooning over the fried sweetbreads wrapped in prosciutto that they never would have found at home.

In the morning, the espresso bar will get you caffeinated and the wide selection of homemade Italian pastries will fill your belly. At lunch, have a light cocktail - try the "Spritz," made with prosecco, orange and homemade burnt orange and cranberry bitters. For dinner, start with the heavenly marinated olives, pitted then refilled with orange segments. Continue snacking with a whole burrata, that wonderful Italian cheese drenched in olive oil and served wrapped in a leek. If you're fond of cheese, order a whole flight of mozzarellas. Finish with some gelato and drink a toast to Italy, the source of your happiness.

Our only minor gripe? The bar isn't particularly pleasant. We'd recommend sitting in the dining room or on the enclosed patio, where you can watch the kitchen and the giant pizza oven rather than the flat-screen TVs. The "exposed brick" in the bar reminds us why concrete cinder blocks and brick aren't the same thing. But the huge space (formerly Bistro 110) has so many different places to sit that you shouldn't have any trouble.

If you're interested in trying out Bar Toma, we'd suggest going soon and trying an odd time of day. The restaurant will be open for very long hours - 7 AM till midnight - but they won't be taking reservations. Frankly, we're somewhat worried that weekends will turn into an unorganized mob, but if you head in for a post-work snack, you should be just fine.

Bar Toma is located at 110 E. Pearson Street.