If there's any doubt that Vito Rancanelli, Jr. is using fresh, local food at Mad Tomato, his new venture in Clayton, just spend a few minutes in the dining room at lunchtime. First, a farmer with a young daughter arrives, carrying a case of fresh asparagus. Rancanelli sits the case on the bar and snaps a spear in half with a hearty pop. Its fresh, verdant aroma fills the nearby air as he eats the raw spear, declares it worthy, and sends the farmer and child off with their payment and pizzas.
Thirty minutes later, Racanelli and a farmer from Hinkebein Hills Farm walk through the dining room, carrying a large box of pork.
The farmers had to dodge the suited-up business dude who kept blocking the door while talking on his cell phone. But it's good for him to see who's producing his food, and maybe realize that this restaurant isn't a place to shovel down some quick chow while devouring today's Wall Street Journal.
Mad Tomato brings an interesting juxtaposition to Clayton. Style-wise, it fits into the neighborhood with a bright, sleek interior that mixes red metal seats with a rustic wood bar back. The lights are low, but at lunch the two big windows overlooking Carondelet and Meramec fill the space with natural light. A large, tree-shaded patio filled with planters of herbs offers al fresco dining without having to yell over the throb of traffic.
Otherwise, the restaurant has the relaxed, interesting and fun feel that reflects Racanelli's personality. The solo businessmen, eating lunch and reading their papers, don't seem to notice the thump of Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" on the sound system. It's subversive enough to be missed by those who might be offended, and enjoyed by those who like the irony.
The lunch menu's fairly small, sticking with a handful of pizze, panini, and a small list of entrees that includes meal-sized salads, pastas, and steak and fish. Pizzas are Neapolitan, with hand-tossed dough baked crisp in a wood-fired oven. The Pomodoro is topped with a sweet tomato sauce spiked with chiles and whole roasted garlic cloves among curls of pancetta, dollops of ricotta, and whole basil leaves. It's fresh and hearty.
With no description on the menu, it's safe to assume the house salad will morph depending on what's seasonally available. Today it featured fresh mixed greens topped with surprisingly ripe tomato wedges, big crumbles of soft, mild cheese, and delicate strands of balsamic-infused onions. The tartness of the onion continues through the red wine vinaigrette.
The current fettuccini selection epitomizes all that's good about springtime eating. An oblong bowl of noodles is topped with a modest shaving of grana, crunchy bright green spring peas, and an egg so perfectly poached it looks like a big dollop of cream sitting atop the pasta. These soft flavors are boosted by small wilted basil leaves and the unexpected but welcome briny bite of kalamata olives. The dish is held together with a generous dose of fruity olive oil. The contrasting flavors make this one of the more interesting pasta dishes we've recently tried, but the tastes don't overwhelm one another.
Sally Sciaroni, pastry chef at Racanelli's Onesto Pizza and Trattoria, is sending her work to Mad Tomato with a dessert menu full of Italian classics. The pistachio tart is more like a dense, dark chocolate cake studded with chopped pistachios and topped with salted, caramelized clusters of the nuts. There's a swirl of chocolate sauce for dipping, and sugared citrus peel make the perfect bright palate-cleanser to contrast the earthy richness of the tart.
Mad Tomato's an ideal antidote to the rushed pace of Clayton, with food meant to be savored, an atmosphere filled with entertaining accents, and a friendly staff. It's worth turning off the phone's ringer and putting down the newspaper to revel into the joyful experience Vito Rancanelli has brought into the middle of Power Playerland.