It’s not easy to make an airtight argument that Tony Mantuano is the American prophet for Italian food the way Rick Bayless is for Mexican. For one thing, Mario Batali keeps interrupting. But locally, at least, there’s no single chef more responsible for propagating fresh house-made pasta and real regional Italian food in this city than Mantuano. Yes, the rarefied nature of Levy Restaurants’ flagship Spiaggia keeps a majority of folks away from the high end of it, but plenty of alumni from his kitchens have gone forth across the city spreading the light.
So it’s a wonder Mantuano didn’t open Bar Toma sooner. It was four years ago that he and his wife, Cathy, published the pan-European cookbook Wine Bar Food, and you’d have thought he’d dive into low-overhead small plates before the market was completely saturated. But here he is, upping the ante right off the Mag Mile, his crew deep-frying sweetbreads, stewing tripe, and potting chicken liver at all hours, right in the heart of the city’s tourist district. There isn’t a shred of pasta to be found anywhere on the menu, though it’s difficult to point to anything else missing among the bar plates, salads, pizzas, espresso, pastries, gelati, and mozzarella bar.
The former Bistro 110 space has been remodeled to resemble a paneled and cinder-blocked basement rec room, with an angled copper bar that encourages fraternization. The idea is for guests to engage in light snacking on mostly shareable finger food, with a cocktail or glass of wine—just the sort of thing that might work in a congested shopping district full of stressed-out baggage handlers. But more than one month in, there’s evidence this huge operation may have overstretched its abilities, with particular signs that the kitchen isn’t quite yet comfortable executing the much-hyped Roman-style pizzas—some 16 of them—that are literally and figuratively at its heart. On a first trial, a relatively minimal Calabrese with bright, peppery tomato sauce and nubbins of Becker Lane sausage came out somewhat like the bready bakery sheet pizza it’s meant to emulate, but succeeded more as a sop for other sauces and bites rather than on its own merits. A second, named for Mantuano himself, was a wet, sloppy mess. It was hard to divine the motives behind this pie, vaguely Neapolitan in effect (perhaps due to an underheated oven?), with a thick puffy lip of crust surrounding an unrisen field of dough so wet with mozzarella grease it necessitated an aerial rescue of the otherwise blameless strips of crispy guanciale and pleasantly bitter rapini.
In fact, there are inconsistencies all across this omnibus, beginning with the bread-crumb-topped crock of jiggly tripe, submerged in tomato sauce that obliterated the mint and orange that might have offset the offal’s pungent puzzo di fogna, its inherent “smell of the sewer.” “Roman-style” deep-fried cod fillets are rolled in a hippie gorp of poppy, sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds that dominates the more delicate flavor and texture of the fish. Deep-fried sweetbread nuggets were wonderful; what a pity their prosciutto wrappings were lost under the batter. Almost as problematic as the pizzas, however, is a pastry case crowded with dry, dead cornetti, and a broad selection of sorbetti and gelati that are icy, overaerated, and insufficiently dense.
None of this is to say that pitfalls can’t be avoided—acceptable meals can be assembled from the catalog. A small selection (don’t overdo it) from the mozzarella bar doesn’t make a bad introduction to notably inventive snacks such as the rock shrimp polpette, snappy balls of sweet crustacean and milk-soaked bread crumbs bathed in a bright, lemony tomato sauce topped with fried shallot. A generous cross section of crumbly cinnamon-scented seared mortadella has its richness cut by a dose of pickly house-made giardiniera. A jar of radicchio marmalade and goat cheese served with crostini toasted and glistening with olive oil is the sole recipe, incidentally, to make the jump from Wine Bar Food to the menu, even though the book is for sale at the host’s stand. Simple sticks of roasted carrot, goat cheese, and crumbled almonds drizzled with balsamic and oil recall nothing so much as a carrot cake you could re-create on a diet. And say what you will about the pastries, two cigar-shaped filled-to-order cannolli, suitably not oversweetened, provide a modestly satisfying way to end things.
This is Mantuano’s most accessible effort, even though some plates are priced to reflect its address—that trio of polpette costs $15, it’s $17 for the sweetbreads, and $10 for a scrawny pair of lamb skewers. That’s a lot of coin to surrender for a couple of snacks, especially if you plan to partake of the lightly fueled cocktails or something from the surprisingly limited selection of wines by the glass. Still, there’s enough to attract the neighbors without scaring the tourists, and if the pizza and pastry situation were under control, we’d have something we could be proud show off to them.