The "Hunter's Egg," one of the antipasti listed on the menu at the four-month-old Clayton restaurant Mad Tomato, is a dish worth discussing even as you eat it. It's an egg, poached in tomato broth and then served in that broth over thick polenta, with tomato, al dente white beans and chopped pancetta. It could easily be a satisfying main dish for one. It is rich, yes, with the egg yolk and the creamy polenta, but the brightness of good tomatoes keeps it in check. You might tell your tablemates this is the sort of dish you'll crave on the first cold morning of the coming autumn.
Whether your tablemates will hear you rhapsodize is another matter.
Mad Tomato is the latest venture from Vito Racanelli Jr. of Big V's Burger Joint and Onesto Pizza & Trattoria. It occupies a single large room, furnished with a banquette along one wall and the bar and a wood-fired oven for pizzas and a few other dishes along the other, with dining tables in between. Framed photographs of food and Italian scenes decorate the wall above the banquette, and red chairs give a splash of color to the room.
The space feels weirdly unfinished, though: A few feet shy of the back wall, the dining room simply stops, giving way to a dim, empty and unsightly space used as a servers' station and not much else. If you're seated near the back, the clamor of doors opening and closing is annoying. In general the restaurant's acoustics are terrible: Not only is it loud; sometimes conversations from another table sound clearer than your own.
Though the food at Mad Tomato is more upscale than what Racanelli offers at Onesto — to say nothing of his late (and much missed) burger joint — it doesn't pretend to be fancy. The aesthetic is rustic: Pastas are served in casserole dishes, entrées presented on small cast-iron skillets. Indeed, you could build a casual grazing meal out of the selections of housemade and locally cured meats, local and domestic cheeses and, say, an order of olives.
The "Hunter's Egg" was the most impressive of the antipasti I tried. Tuna crudo — a mound of chopped tuna topped with a quivering quail egg and a sprout salad and dressed with an artichoke emulsion and an olive mostarda — was essentially good, the fish impeccably fresh and lightly sweet, the quail egg providing a silken texture, but the composition was busy. Neither the artichoke emulsion nor the olive mostarda added a distinct quality.
The list of antipasti includes salads. I tend not to dwell on salads in these reviews, because they so seldom merit elaboration. But the spinach salad here is an example of how to do a simple salad very well. The kitchen tosses fresh spinach leaves in a lemon-anchovy dressing and tops it with a couple of slivers of Grana Padano cheese. The balance of earthy, tart and umami is perfect.
Pizza hews toward the Neapolitan style: thin of crust and cooked in a wood-burning oven. (The temperature readout, visible from the bar, showed just north of 600 degrees.) The crust is speckled with char but retains a distinct character and a light chew. Of the five varieties available, I went with the "Salsiccia": sweet Italian sausage made in-house, onions, garlic and green bell peppers with fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce. The sauce is very good, with the sharp, verdant note of fresh tomatoes.
Though I suppose you could follow the Italian tradition of ordering both a pasta course and a meat course, know that the pasta dishes here are substantial. Maccheroni larghi with a pork-rib ragu seems to distill the essence of an entire pig into one thick, meaty sauce. A (thankfully restrained) dash of truffle oil and pecorino cheese cranks up the palate-coating savoriness to a perfect pitch.
The entrées are à la carte dishes. A selection of side dishes (polenta with a fried egg, roasted beets and greens) is offered, but every entrée I ate struck me as a complete dish in and of itself. The roasted red snapper was a beautiful piece of fish, its flesh tender throughout, the texture tending toward meaty but the flavor light. This is served in a sauce of white wine, lemon, tomato and capers, the only drawback of which is that you'll have to ask for bread to soak it up.
Plump lamb meatballs are also served (with potatoes and zucchini) in a tomato-based sauce. The distinct flavor of the meat is so strong, though, that the sauce is a mere accent. (A sandwich made with these same lamb meatballs would do gangbusters.) The "Grilled Pizzaiola" is a rustic take on the grilled steak, a grass-fed sirloin with peppers and nebrodini bianco (a meaty, seldom-seen mushroom) in a sauce of red wine, tomato and oregano. The sauce both softens the meat's mineral edge and adds a lively note to what could have been a straightforwardly beefy dish.
Appropriately, the wine list features only Italian wines, mostly priced from $30 to $60. For by-the-glass wine, the restaurant offers either four-ounce pours or eight-ounce quartinos. This gives you the freedom to sample a wine — say, the 2006 Riofava Barolo, at $12 for four ounces, $20 for eight — that you otherwise might not. (Then again, if you knew bottle retails for about $30, you might pass.)
Service still seems to be finding its feet. On each of my four visits, the restaurant was very crowded and the front of the house seemed understaffed. This led to gaps in the placing and receiving drink orders, and an odd rhythm in the arrival of dishes: a wait for the first course, and then the salads and second courses in rapid succession.
The service kinks will likely get sorted out in time, and maybe the acoustics too. In the meantime I'll just think of the din as everyone talking about how good the food is.