Mad Tomato Italian Kitchen : 8000 Carondelet Ave. : 932-5733

Mad Tomato Italian Kitchen is chef Vito Racanelli Jr.’s homage to the rustic Italian fare he grew up making and eating. The themes of simplicity and home run through the menu and the space.

    Located on the corner of Carondelet and South Meramec avenues, the restaurant is separate from the bustle of downtown Clayton, and it boasts a nice open patio area. Inside, the décor is minimal, and diners have a great view of the pizza oven. Seating is casual, a mix of booths and tables, and the chairs we sat in reminded us of really nice lawn furniture. The feel was that of sitting in a friend’s kitchen or on their back porch.

    We started with the Burata ($13) a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream. Topped with a little olive oil, sea salt and garlic and spread on crostini, it’s the ideal light appetizer. The Formaggio section of the menu offers a choice of either three cheeses ($12) or six ($16). We went for the three-cheese option and picked Pecorino, Black Pepper Rustico and Primo Sale.  Our choices ranged from crumbly and salty to mild to savory and were served with crostini and sweet pickled onions.

    We can’t go to an Italian restaurant without sampling some pasta. The Spinach Gnocchi ($16) features handmade pasta with a sauce of cream, peas, coppa, roasted ceps mushrooms and grana cheese. It’s cheesy and rich, but not terribly heavy. The gnocchi were nice and chewy and flavorful. Of course, we had to try Grandma’s Eggplant ($19) based on the name alone. We weren’t sure what to expect, and assumed it would be a variation on a traditional eggplant parmesan. It was anything but. The dish was a casserole, with eggplant, tomato sauce and kalamata olives baked together. In fact, the olives were the dominant flavor, not the eggplant. It was dense and weighty in a good way, the epitome of ‘hearty fare’ and just what you’d expect from an Italian country kitchen.

    We wrapped things up with the Cannoli ($13), which included a taste of the house-made lemoncello. The cannoli came three to a plate, and the little bits of candied orange scattered in the creamy ricotta filling were a tasty addition that added just enough sweetness to the mix. The lemoncello was a really nice way to finish, just a little pop of sweet and citrus to settle the palate.

    Mad Tomato also has a nice selection of pizzas and sides, which we didn’t quite get around to. Next time!

    Despite the home kitchen vibe at Mad Tomato, portions were modest, which we actually liked. We got enough food, but not too much, and really got to enjoy each course without having to hold back and save room. Some of the dishes are a bit pricey when compared to other casual dining restaurants, but hopefully customers will understand what goes into the fare at Mad Tomato. You’ll note we’ve made several mentions of menu items being handmade or house-made. The food you get at this restaurant is crafted by talented, experienced hands and served with care and attention. We’d bet money that Grandma’s Eggplant is based on a recipe from someone’s actual nonna. At Mad Tomato, you definitely get what you pay for: homemade goodness.  LN