He made his name at Spiaggia (not to mention Terzo Piano and Kenosha, Wisconsin’s Mangia Trattoria), picked up a James Beard Award and several nominations, and cooked his way to the finals of the second season of Top Chef Masters. Now Tony Mantuano has a brand-new restaurant, Bar Toma; a contribution to the renowned Italian cookbook The Silver Spoon; and some advice for Spiaggia Executive Chef Sarah Grueneberg, who is competing on this season of Top Chef. Mantuano also has a Dec. 12 speaking gig at the Harold Washington Library along with his wife, wine expert Cathy Mantuano. The A.V. Club talked to him, before the event, about goat ravioletto and the art of pizza.
The A.V. Club: How did you get involved with The Silver Spoon project?
Tony Mantuano: The Silver Spoon approached me and asked if I’d like to contribute some recipes to the new, revised edition. I was thrilled to do it, because it’s a very impressive book.
AVC: What role do you think the book has played in shaping people’s understanding and appreciation of Italian cuisine?
TM: What they’ve done is include authentic, regional dishes that a lot of Americans may not have heard of. They’re recipes that you don’t see every day, and they delve into the culture of each region, which provides for a greater understanding of the cuisine. The recipes are well written and easy to understand.
AVC: Has the book influenced your cooking at all?
TM: I would say it’s certainly helped me when exploring cultures, regions, and lesser-known dishes. It’s helped us research dishes for menus.
AVC: What recipes do you contribute?
TM: There are recipes for goat ravioletto, diced lamb loin with while truffle, wood-roasted halibut, and grilled prime strip loin with Roman-style oxtail.
AVC: What inspired you to open Bar Toma?
TM: This is really a place that you would find in any city in Italy. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We have a great espresso bar in the front of the restaurant, which is next to a gelateria. We make all our gelatos right here. While I’m talking to you, I’m watching a master barista from Italy training our staff. We have a dedication to authenticity that’s like The Silver Spoon. We want to do things right. We’re on Chicago’s most famous piazza, with Water Tower outside—and, like any great Italian piazza, it’s a gathering spot, and a place to meet for breakfast, pizza, or late night.
AVC: How will this differ from other projects you’ve done?
TM: This one is just so easy to love because it’s so authentic. I think that it’s different, in that it’s not like a typical antipasti, main course restaurant. It’s a great space that can be used in so many different ways.
AVC: You’ve mentioned how awesome your pizza is, and called it “crisp, light, and airy” in a press release. What separates it from all of the other pizza available in Chicago?
TM: First of all, it’s not Neapolitan, and it’s not deep dish. It’s a dough that is fermented for two days, so it’s like sourdough, and that makes it easy to digest and chew. There’s a whole process to the way we designed the kitchen. We have a mixer we brought from Italy that’s different from any other mixer in Chicago; we have a refrigerator for the dough.
AVC: How did you develop the recipe?
TM: There’s this new pizza guru in Rome, Gabriele Bonci, who has a place called Pizzarium. I went to Rome to get inspired, and hadn’t even heard of this guy, but it’s the best pizza I’ve ever had, so that inspired the recipe. It’s time to move pizza forward a little bit.
AVC: What kind of toppings can we expect?
TM: There are simple things like great tomatoes and fresh basil, but also goat cheese from Indiana with leeks, hazelnuts, and dates. It’s very untraditional, but delicious.
AVC: You’ve done Top Chef Masters. Did your doing the show inspire Sarah Grueneberg to do Top Chef this season?
TM: I didn’t want to do it at all. [Laughs.] I was busy, but Sarah really encouraged me to do it. She put me through training, gave me quick fires. I said, “If I do it, you do it.”
AVC: Is there any advice you gave her before she went on?
TM: I told her one thing, which is the same thing that Rick Bayless told me: “Make sure that by the time you hit three minutes left, you’re plating.”