Doing Nonna Proud: Mad Tomato
A crazy-good trattoria from Vito Racanelli
Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
Lunch Tue–Fri, dinner Tue–Sat
Average Main Course: $18
Reservations: 50 seats = a big yes
Dress: It’s a trattoria. Dress accordingly.
Chef: Vito Racanelli Jr.
For most people we know, including restaurateurs, “Grandma food” is a high recommendation, no matter the location of Grandma’s home base. The nonnas of Vito Racanelli Jr. lived in southern Italy—one in Liguria, the other in Calabria—and never visited St. Louis, but they apparently fed the lad rather well, considering how well we dined at Mad Tomato. Sitting on a leafy corner in downtown Clayton, the small operation is Racanelli’s companion piece to Onesto Pizza & Trattoria in South City. He reports that much of Mad Tomato’s menu reflects the fare of his childhood.
The interior is coolly modern. Food photos and Italian street scenes brighten things, though the concrete floor guarantees it will be noisy when crowded. During the week, a portion of proceeds from the “you dine, we donate” table goes to benefit a local charity.
First-course options abound, from olives to swordfish carpaccio. (It’s not all from the grannies.) A spinach salad with a lemon-anchovy dressing is excellent, the greens good, the dressing fabulous. Even the tomato was better than expected so early in the season. Eggplant skins are thin slices of marinated eggplant, redolent of vinegar, garlic, and oregano, a most pleasant, slightly tangy nibble.
There aren’t many tripe lovers in the U.S., which makes it a rarity on restaurant menus. Vito’s rich, delicious trippa Napoletana appetizer is baked with a rich tomato sauce, chunks of onion, and black olives, all in a small casserole topped with crunchy breadcrumbs.
An open oven bakes pizza far closer to what’s seen in Italy than to its American offspring, with simpler ingredients—and no Provel cheese. Our pomodoro pizza displayed tomato sauce, chilis, cloves of roasted garlic, and ricotta cheese, though it was missing the pancetta.
Grandma did indeed make a pork-rib ragu, the most satisfying dish we sampled. It arrived on house-made fettuccine with a little pecorino cheese. Not a light summer meal, perhaps, but excellent in its porkiness. The same pasta also comes with a rabbit ragu, served with diced roasted carrot and fresh fava beans.
Grandma’s eggplant, sliced but unbreaded and sautéed in olive oil, was baked in a tomato sauce. It’s hearty and flavorful enough to satisfy a nonvegetarian, garlic dancing the tarantella with the eggplant and tomato. We’re not sure whether Grandma made lamb meatballs, but she surely didn’t pep them up with goat cheese and shreds of Swiss chard, as Racanelli does. Two golf ball–size meatballs top roasted fingerling potatoes, artichokes, and black olives, all in the pan juices of the lamb.
Desserts go beyond the usual, although the cannoli is quite tasty. We were taken with the house-made pistachio ice cream, loaded with pistachios and a hit of salt to set off the nuts.
The wine list is primarily Italian, with a sufficient number of by-the-glass offerings. There’s also a sangria of the day, which when we visited was a fruity strawberry-rhubarb, as well as a house-made limoncello and a celestial strawberry liquore. Quite an end to a meal.
Service varies—it’s pleasant, but occasionally shows signs of rookies learning the ropes. And oh yes, portion sizes are more manageable than at many local Italian spots.
The Bottom Line: Creativity and follow-through that won’t break the bank.