Review: Mad Tomato in Clayton

Mad Tomato, 8000 Carondelet Ave., Clayton, 314.932.5733, madtomatostl.com


Sam Racanelli is working the pizza oven. It’s right there, off to the side of the bar, open for all to see. If you’re sitting at the bar, preferably sipping the excellent sangria or Negroni, you should chat him up while he punches down dough balls and spreads sauce. He’s a garrulous guy, always quick with a story (one that sounds even better in his Bronx accent). Brother Vito, the one with the shaved head and hipster glasses, is in the kitchen or pacing the alley behind the restaurant on his phone. Anyone familiar with Vito from his erstwhile Big V’s Burger Joint and wildly successful Onesto Pizza and Trattoria already knows him to be just as effusive as his brother.


Welcome to Mad Tomato Italian Kitchen, Vito Racanelli’s newest culinary enterprise. Where Onesto is loud, casual and embedded in a South City neighborhood, Mad Tomato is loud, casual yet upscale, and situated in downtown Clayton with views of county government buildings. Just as at Onesto, Vito aspires to a market-inspired philosophy, a fact driven home by servers who explain that 90 percent of the ingredients used are sourced from within 100 miles of St. Louis. With around 50 seats, the dining space is a large single room; a banquette runs along one wall, light oak tables fill out the space. The ledge of the front window is laden with cookbooks, wine magazines and comic books of Vito’s favorite obsession: Star Wars. On a lovely evening, when the big double glass doors are thrown open and the dining room spills into the side patio, all is merry.


The rustic Italian menu showcases Vito’s blissfully homey fare, like Grandma’s Eggplant – a family dish that’s even more comforting than it sounds. It’s also unlike anything you’d expect. Forget about eggplant Parm; Grandma liked her eggplant peeled, thinly sliced and baked in a casserole with kalamata olives, tomato sauce and bread crumbs. The result is a hearty and filling dish (those peels end up on the antipasti menu as fried eggplant skins). But as a main, the flavors were too uniform – I wanted to taste some eggplant – and the texture was too soft to keep things interesting. Plus, at $19, it’s clear that prices at Mad Tomato aren’t entirely aligned with the casual mood.


Hunter’s Egg, from the antipasti menu, is a supremely satisfying (and deceptively simple) dish consisting of a thick polenta, cannellini beans, chopped pancetta and tomato, doused with tomato broth and topped with a single poached egg. Creamy, brothy, steamy and impossible to stop eating with chunks of grilled bread. Lots of house-made and locally cured meats make up the salumi plate, including pancetta, finocchio, prosciutto and hard salami, among others. Two excellent salads round out the starters: The spinach salad was tossed with yellow grape tomatoes and a dressing bright with lemon and delightfully noticeable anchovy, while the roasted beet was mixed with a creamy Gorgonzola dressing, greens and onion for a sharp, earthy pop of flavor.


Like that eggplant, entrées lean toward the hearty. Chicken Mattone (“brick”) had the deep flavor of a long citrus-and-Italian-spice marinade and the crackling golden skin from roasting under a heavy brick, an old Italian technique that also keeps the bird juicy. Pairing it with a creamy cauliflower-truffle oil risotto and splashing the whole thing with tomato stock elevated the dish above any mere roasted chicken. While most entrées are sufficient on their own, we added a side of yellow pattypan squash roasted with pancetta, a late summer cheer to the vegetable’s end of season. Maccheroni larghi (“wide macaroni”) wasn’t as uniformly successful. While the pork-rib ragù was a porky dream – thick, meaty, dense with flavor – the not-quite-pappardelle-width house-made noodles were overcooked, making them a gloppy, sticky mass in the bowl. Grandma would not approve.


Pizza is a mixed marriage of true Neapolitan and New York style here, successful with its hand-spread thin crust, good char bubbles and enough chewy resistance to warrant a New York nod. The Margherita would have been a good test pizza, but I was jonesing for the salsiccia, with its house-made sweet Italian sausage, green peppers, onions, basil, mozzarella and garlic. The sauce was bright and fresh, tomato-y and devoid of sweetness. My server suggested ordering the pie with an egg cracked atop it before it hit the 660-degree open oven. I did not (I reached my one-egg quota with the Hunter’s Egg antipasti). But after seeing just such a pie emerge from the oven, I suggest following his recommendation.


The wine list offers a wide-ranging tour of Italy, by the bottle or by the glass in 4-ounce and 8-ounce quartinos, a good way to pair wine with different courses when you don’t want to commit to a bottle. The bar changes up the sangria seasonally and the autumn version is redolent with fall spices. I was surprised to see a casual Italian restaurant place such an emphasis on specialty cocktails. Surprise turned to respect with the roasted Negroni, made with oak-aged Campari and garnished with a roasted orange slice.


Of course there’s cannoli and tiramisu, but the winner was a peach crostata: a fresh-fruit-stuffed tart further enhanced with a scoop of blackberry ice cream, another final nod to summer. Vito seems to be spending more and more time at his new restaurant, possibly transitioning his interest from Onesto. Nothing wrong with that. Mad Tomato may be the perfect fit.


Where
Mad Tomato, 8000 Carondelet Ave., Clayton, 314.932.5733, madtomatostl.com


When
Mon. – 11 a.m to 3 p.m., Tue. to Thu. – 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fri. – 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sat. – 5 to 10 p.m.


Don’t Miss Dish
Chicken Mattone, any pizza


Vibe
Casual, laid-back with a bit of Clayton be-seen tossed in.


Entrée Prices
$12 to $28