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Mad Tomato Underscores Italian Cuisine With Focus on Fresh Ingredients

The new Clayton eatery is Chef Vito Racanelli Jr.'s second restaurant in St. Louis.

 Craig Stenson said the "eco-thrifty" mindset that he and Chef Vito Racanelli Jr. bring to their restaurants is better for customers, the environment and the local economy. It also makes for better food.

Their second venture is Mad Tomato, 8000 Carondelet Ave. in Clayton. The restaurant emphasizing rustic southern Italian cuisine opens May 11. An opening party and ribbon-cutting happened Thursday.

"It's sustainable," said Stenson, co-owner of the restaurant.

Racanelli uses fresh local ingredients that have been raised organically. That's important because they last longer, Stenson said. He illustrates the concept this way: Basil bought from a local farmer stays fresh for a week or two, whereas that purchased at a store might stay fresh only for three days*.

The two have focused on fresh from the beginning. With their South City restaurant, Onesto, the two went to local farmers' markets and paid cash for ingredients. By the end of Onesto's first year, farmers' goods were being delivered to the restaurant, Stenson said. By the end of the second, farmers were arriving to pick up the previous week's check and drop off a new batch of ingredients.

Racanelli gets much of his produce from Bluford, IL-based Double Star Farms. From a single pig purchased from another local farm, Stenson said, the chef will make headcheese, bacon, pork chops and sausage.

The primary reason the two came to Clayton: The owner of the building on Carondelet loves Racanelli's food and asked them to open a restaurant in the city, Stenson said.

Steve Lichtenfeld, a Ward 3 representative on the Clayton Board of Aldermen, has applauded the quality of food at Onesto at city meetings. He said Mad Tomato's prices will make it affordable for families.

"I think they have a unique Italian style," Lichtenfeld said. "It's more family oriented."

Half of the proceeds from Thursday's opening party benefited St. Louis-based Operation Food Search, which provides food to families in need.

The organization has seen a 30 percent increase in customer visits since the start of the economic downturn in late 2008, executive director Sunny Schaefer said. Also telling: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that 438,000 people in the 30-county area served by Operation Food Search live below the poverty line, she said.

Amy Peck Abraham is volunteer fundraiser at-large for the organization. She organized Thursday's collaboration with Mad Tomato and has developed similar efforts with other Clayton restaurants such as .

"This is really about educating people about the organization," she said. Operation Food Search can use just $1 from a fundraiser to purchase the equivalent of 17 cans of food—in addition to help pay for the gas that fuels delivery trucks and the energy that cools the food. That's compared to the one can of food that a person without the organization's taxing status, nonprofit status and bulk-rate availability can buy.

WHAT Mad Tomato restaurant WHEN 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays. The restaurant opens May 11. WHERE 8000 Carondelet Ave. in Clayton
Joe Katrosh May 02, 2011 at 01:48 PM
"Basil bought from a local farmer stays fresh for a week or two, whereas that purchased at a store might stay fresh only for three." Unless you meant "three days", this doesn't make any sense.
Nate Birt (Editor) May 02, 2011 at 04:50 PM
You're exactly right, Joe. Thank you for catching the fact that I failed to include a very important word. I've updated this article to reflect the fact that Stenson said store-bought basil might only last for three days—not three weeks. I've marked the update with an *.

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