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Il Bellagio Restaurant, St. Louis
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Ossobuco Originale Con Risotto Milanese
What? Fabulous Italian fare in a formal setting and a fully copy service? Pinch us - we're dreaming.
By Dave Lowry
Photographs by Katherine Bish
Well, it’s happened to you again: You’re ready for a terrific Italian meal in a place with the clean, elegant lines of a Ferrari and the lushly appetizing promise of Monica Belluci’s lips, but, curse the luck, you’ve got to have some copies made. Creve Coeur residents formerly stymied by this frustration have been saved by the appearance of Il Bellagio (formerly called Café Bellagio), fortuitously located next door to the Kinko’s in a strip mall just west of I-270 on Olive.
The task of a place such as Il Bellagio is a tough one. The kitchens of upscale Italian eateries must be carefully balanced. Innovations are absolutely necessary to elevate a restaurant, but teeter too far from the classics and the whole thing crashes like a Wallenda family squabble. Some happily inventive touches at Bellagio, open little more than a year, already demonstrate a kitchen deft on the tightrope. Sauces in particular sparkle, giving some northern- and southern-Italian favorites a terrific shine. A smooth white wine–and–caper sauce is drizzled over a thick fillet of swordfish that’s been grilled and then baked to ensure that the meat is still juicy. The sauce, along with a sprinkling of crispy zucchini shavings, brings out all the flavor of the swordfish ($28.95). The same white wine sauce, enlivened with minced shallots and shiitake mushrooms, is perfect for the involtini di pollo Bush, a chicken breast swaddled in prosciutto, Asiago cheese and spinach, then covered in breadcrumbs and sautéed ($17.95). In most cases, a 16- ounce veal chop would become bland on the palate before it was halfway finished; here, broiled until just past pink in the center, the meat gets a subtle but delectable sauce of wild mushrooms, shallots and a Madeira reduction that keeps it fresh and inviting until the last bite ($31.95). Several steaks and veal are offered; if you’re in the mood for the latter, consider a scaloppini, lightly floured and pan sautéed, accompanied by fresh artichokes and a scattering of shrimp in a brandy reduction that adds a creamy, almost gravylike addition to the presentation ($21.95).
Pastas are uniformly excellent. Imaginative and brightly presented in bowls deep enough to keep them warm and show them off, they are not overrefined, but they have an elegance that is both attractive and satisfying. A light cream sauce studded with toasted pine nuts bathes quills of pennete and baby vegetables splashed in a hearty vegetable stock ($15.95). Linguini is tossed with a savory seafood broth, along with clams, mussels and shrimp, in a version of fruitti di mare that’s way above average ($18.95). Bombolotti is a comparatively rare pasta in St. Louis’ Italian eateries; it’s like the more common, tubelike mezza-rigatoni and excellent with chunky ingredients. Here it’s matched with one that should be mouth watering to fans of rustic Italian cuisine: guanciale, absolutely underdescribed on the menu as “Italian bacon.” It’s actually a slow dried bacon made from the hog’s jowls, meatier and much, much richer than bacon. This spectacular dish—which includes, along with the bombolotti, slices of sweet onion, Pecorino cheese and basil—is probably the single best dish at Il Bellagio ($16.95).
The Caesar salad here is credible ($7.95). Panzanella is decidedly fancier than the usual simple Tuscan version of this salad that has always been a way to use stale bread. Tangy green mesclun leaves and roasted peppers, accompanied by tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, are tossed with crusty toast, adding textures and flavors that make this more an antipasto than a salad ($6.95).
Starters include a pleasantly chewy presentation of squid rings sautéed with capers and slathered in a basil-spiked tomato sauce. The tossed-in black and green olives hoist this appetizer into the exceptional range ($9.95). Anything Amalfitani conjures up rich images of elaborate, luxurious delicacies. Even so, the cannelone Amalfitani is amazing: sheets of cannelone wrapped around a luscious purée of veal and laid out on a heady Bolognese bed, topped with béchamel sauce and then baked ($5.95). House-made ravioli are similarly pampered, stuffed with a mousse of sea bass and what tastes like shrimp, along with wild mushrooms and spinach ($8.95). Instead of an appetizer, however, think about splitting an order of pasta as a first course. They really are all worthy, and it would be a shame to eat here and not sample at least one.
Wine lists devoted primarily to Italian vintages are, like photos of Tara Reid when she’s sober, both rare and, when you do come across them, not all that interesting. At Bellagio, the juice of Italy’s grapes is featured, and the oenophile has a host of fine bargains from which to choose. An ’02 Banfi Toscana, reasonably priced at $42, is an earthy blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon that accompanies most of the pasta dishes happily. The Banfi Principessa Gavia should not be missed anytime it’s offered. An ’03 vintage here is underpriced at $30; it’s a great chance to try this product, which comes from an estate in the Piedmont that grows only one grape and makes only this wine.
The scene is stylish, with fresh flowers, starched linen tablecloths and napkins, and, overhead, swagged, rippling swaths of cloth that radiate out in a wheel pattern from the center of the main dining area. The floor-to ceiling “waterfall” wall is impressive without being ostentatious, as are the wine racks of similar dimensions that cover another wall. Outdoor seating overlooks a bubbling art moderne stone fountain—as well as the scenic parking lot. The pacing of our meal was first-rate. The staffers are convivial and adept at their tasks, friendly but not informal. A long bar up front seems a bit out of place, though it will be welcome to those waiting for tables. In a very short time, Il Bellagio has established itself as perhaps the best Italian restaurant in the county and certainly one of the best in the region—and the only one with copy services practically on-site.
IL BELLAGIO ADDRESS: 11631 Olive
LUNCH: 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Mon–Fri
DINNER: 5–10 p.m. Mon–Sat
AVERAGE MAIN COURSE: $22.53
DRESS: As if you were going to dinner for the first time with your prospective in-laws—the really, really wealthy prospective in-laws
RESERVATIONS: Absolutely, though in a pinch you can take your chances and go early in the evening
BOTTOM LINE: Some of the most imaginative and best Italian fare to be had, in a setting that’s beautiful inside and strictly strip mall outside