Bar Toma brings the experience of a neighborhood Italian eatery here to Chicago. What’s the best way to dig in as if we were in Italy?
We have a pizza with fresh spinach on it, it’s piled with spinach before it comes out of the oven. In Italy they always drink beer with pizza, they don’t drink wine with it, and Peroni to me is the perfect beer for that. And in Italy there is always a toast. When you clink glasses you always have to make sure you look into the other person’s eyes, if not…
If not, we’ll have bad luck?
It’s worse than that. You don’t want to know the consequences! Just clink and look into their eyes. Just ask an Italian what it means if you go to Italy, I’m too embarrassed to tell you!
Do you live around here?
We live in Old Town. It’s exciting because there’s a lot going on in Old Town like the new grocery store opening up called Plum Market. I can walk everywhere so that’s also really nice. I walk all of the time. I walk to Spiaggia, I walk here.
When did you discover you wanted to become a chef?
When I was going to college I was a music major and cooking in restaurants just to get some spending money. Quickly I realized I liked that a lot more than playing the trombone.
So initially you wanted to be a famous trombone player?
I did! [Laughs] There’s not many of them.
Do you still play?
No, not at all. I made the right choice!
Spiaggia is about to celebrate it’s 30th anniversary. Have the years flown by?
It honestly feels like just yesterday. I mean, it’s really unbelievable. The fact that we’re coming up on that and the fact that we’ve raised a lot of money for different charities over the years is really what I’m most proud of. We have a restaurant in Kenosha, Wisconsin called Mangia and this Friday is the 25th anniversary. We’re celebrating by having a fundraiser for Leukemia and Lymphoma to honor my [late] father. I’ve had to close it off at like 500 reservations! Seeing so many people who want to come out and show their support and celebrate, that kind of stuff really means the most to me.
Kenosha, Wisconsin is also your hometown. What intially brought you to Chicago?
I just felt that I wanted something more. I was living in Milwaukee, working in kitchens there and I started applying to a lot of different restaurants around Chicago. When I met the founder of our company Larry Levy he was developing a restaurant on the corner of Oak and Michigan Avenue and was looking for an Italian chef. After I cooked for him he had said the job was mine but that they weren’t going to be ready to open for another year so he goes, “Why don’t you go to Italy for the year in the meantime?” and I was like, “Ah, okay. Twist my arm!” I really have to thank my wife Cathy because she was a server at a restaurant back then and she would wait on Larry Levy everyday so she made the introduction.
What’s the key to creating a marriage that lasts throughout so many career and lifestyle changes?
Dedication to working on it, finding the time and just really liking each other. This is such a crazy industry, as are most industries. There’s not so much a traditional 9-to-5 job anymore these days so you just have to find somebody who understands both ways what that other person is going through.
Your wife Cathy is also an author and wine expert. How was the experience of co-writing two cookbooks together?
That was the most painful thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. If there was one thing that almost came between us, it was writing two cookbooks! [Laughs] I mean, we’re different personalities. I’ll cook and say, “Looks good,” then add a little bit of this or a little bit of that and, “Now it’s brown, it’s beautiful,” but she’s like, “No! I need exact measurements,” but I don’t cook like that. And a lot of chefs don’t cook like that. So that would keep us, let’s say, “discussing” things until the wee hours of the night.
Who ended up winning those battles?
She did. She had the publisher on her side. I can’t compete with that!
Being President Obama’s favorite chef must give you some serious bragging rights among your chef buddies.
The thing is the Obamas have been coming to Spiaggia long before he was even a Senator. They are such nice people. We were lucky enough to recently have cooked a steak dinner for the First Lady during the NATO Summit. It was the First Lady and 11 other [NATO leader’s] spouses inside of the Art Institute. That was a huge thrill.
Do you ever get intimidated when serving such high-profile guests?
It is a little nerve-wracking but it depends on the celebrity. You would think someone like Lady Gaga would be intimidating like that, right? But when I walked to her table she jumped out of her seat and gave me a huge hug and was just so nice. She was with her boyfriend [Taylor Kinney] and again he was so nice. She loves pasta and anyone who was on “Top Chef” so she was really excited about the fact that I was on “Top Chef Masters” and Sarah [Grueneberg] was on “Top Chef Texas”. She was just really, really fun. So that helps, you know? You’re not nervous because they were just so much fun.
Who are some up-and-coming chefs we should keep our eye on?
One of the best things about being at this point in my career is that there are so many great young people that I get to work with like Sarah Grueneberg who was on “Top Chef Texas” and is the executive chef of Spiaggia. Erik Freeberg is the executive chef here at Bar Toma and has been running this place for the last year and a half since we’ve opened. He is someone who has just really worked his butt off and now he’s got his chance. It’s those people who are really working and are putting the fame and the celebrity of being a chef as second. Cooking has got to be your passion. I mean, imagine that!
What is the last dish you had in Chicago that really impressed you?
Oh wow, let’s see. I love those pork rinds at The Publican, have you ever had those? Oh my God! They sound like a really heavy, obnoxious thing but they are as light as air, almost like Cheetos. They are the best, they really impressed me. I don’t know how they do it either! They’re really that good.
You made it all the way to the Champions’ Round on “Top Chef Masters”. Did you get any advice from anyone who had been on the show?
Before I went on I talked to Rick Bayless and said, “Rick, give me one thing I should remember.” The one thing he said was, “Once you start a dish, never change it,” because every time someone started something and changed it to another thing, they always lost. They always were eliminated. But in the end it’s still okay because we were playing for charity. I went on the show just wanting to expose the rest of America to what we’re doing here in Chicago.
Where is your favorite place to travel?
The thing that Cathy and I love to do more than anything else is visit our son in New York City or travel to Italy. Our son goes to school in New York, he’s a sophomore in creative writing and he wants to write a novel. We love going to New York and one thing I think New York has that Chicago doesn’t is great sushi places so we’ll often eat sushi in New York.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
My father passed away about three years ago so having a drink with him is one thing that I really miss. We used to have a glass of wine together or enjoy a martini. I remember one time we were in the Southwest when he discovered margaritas for the first time. He was like, “Why didn’t I think of this before?” He loved them! [Laughs] There were many occasions where we would have a drink together so if I could relive that, that would be great.
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