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Review: John Mineo's Italian Restaurant

Old-school Italian—and all its civility—goes West County.

Photography by Kevin A. Roberts

13490 Clayton
Town & Country
Lunch Mon through Fri, dinner Tue through Sat

Average Main Course:  $24
Reservations:  Yes, the tie-and-jacket set makes reservations.
Dress: We opt for shirt, tie, jacket, or a tasteful dress or skirt—accessorized, as always, by self-respect.
Chef: John Mineo Jr.

It’s fun to find restaurants where they don’t seem to belong. Chandeliers, linen tablecloths, the tinkle of crystal, the heft of substantial cutlery, and oil paintings that your Aunt Dorothy would have con-
sidered “elegant”—these hallmarks, along with traditional fare like veal saltimbocca and chicken involtini, belong on The Hill. Or perhaps downtown. But in Town & Country?

Outside, John Mineo’s is in a pleasant strip mall characteristic of that tree-lined gentility that makes so much of Clayton Road look like it runs through Easthampton, England. As for the inside, few restaurants are so successful in conjuring an atmosphere of urban OSI (old-school Italian).

The menu matches the ambience, with a glorious catalog of Italian classics. If you’re looking for avanti—edgy, innovative cuisine—then you’ll be disappointed. This is unapologetically Italianissimo. Frank Sinatra would have adored it. A black suit and tie meets you at the entrance and leads you past a tiny but well-stocked bar. Refreshing signs of formality are all around: Nobody’s wearing jeans. Kids are talking to the adults, not conversing with their thumbs. You get the idea.

Salads are light, dressing restrained. The house salad is fine, with greens tossed in a spritely vinaigrette. Balsamic vinegar dresses Bibb lettuce. Appetizers tend toward the substantial and complex. A goofily named Shrimp Fantasia has the little fellows butterflied and tossed with herbed bread crumbs, then hitting the pan with a garlic-butter sauce. Shrimp DeGoghne is wonderful, though also oddly named. It’s obviously “De Jonghe,” from the now-gone Chicago hotel restaurant that invented the dish. It’s Mineo’s best starter, shrimp crusted with garlic-laced bread crumbs baked and covered with an aromatic sherry-tomato sauce. Speaking of sherry, appetizer mussels are steamed in it, rather than the usual white wine.

Judging from the versions offered—eight—veal has won the popularity contest here. The lightest is a tender joy, thin cutlets sautéed and drizzled with lemon butter, accompanied by artichokes and mushroom slices. At the other end is the Veal Gourmet, an extravagant presentation of veal cutlets wrapped around crab and shrimp, ladled with a cream sauce. It packs enough calories to give Jenny Craig nightmares, but if you want to splurge, this dish is how it’s done.

A filet mignon is the sole steak available; beef tenderloin has more dress changes than a drag-queen pageant. The best iteration is lightly breaded, then sautéed in a garlicky red-wine syrup and a scatter of wild mushrooms.

Chicken comes in expected forms like involtini and picante. The star is the portobello chicken, which trades veal for poultry, though the concept is the same. Chicken breast is pounded to a tender thinness and laid on a bed of creamy risotto rice, then topped with portobello, fragrant fontina, and a first-rate Marsala sauce. Glossy brown and spiked with sage and thyme, this sauce has a winey aroma and full flavor that would make even the hometown paper’s opinion pages tasty.

Pastas are charmingly familiar, well-cooked, and satisfying. A spicy tomato arrabbiata covers capellini. Shrimp, mussels, and clams are tossed with a light curry cream sauce and ribbons of fettu-
ccine. We were tempted by the tagliatelle ortolana, but the season wasn’t right; this dish demands vegetables picked so fresh that they’re still sun-warm. Mineo’s patio, festooned with tiny lights, is a grand spot for dining alfresco. During the winter, though, pasta at a place like this is to be judged by only one presentation: lasagna. “Mamma’s” version is completely successful. The dominant taste is that same sherry-tomato sauce that appears in other dishes here—and for good reason. It lends a complexity of flavor to the lasagna, the ground beef and noodles layered with that grand sauce. A generous chunk of this casserole arrives just hot enough to eat, so the palate’s happy, not seared.

Few local restaurants, incidentally, make such a big deal of tableside preparations. Appetizers and several main courses are mixed and heated on portable stoves. It is an enjoyable show and infuses the restaurant with a perfume that does much for one’s appetite.

Let’s face it: There’s only one dessert to order when cannoli are offered. With sweet ricotta stuffed in a crusty tube, the version here is big enough for two. But consider the signature dolce, the Brown Squirrel, a martini glass filled with vanilla gelato that’s spun in a blender with crème de cacao and amaretto. Next time this magazine does a “Best Desserts” issue and forgets this one, write us a scathing letter. It’s great.

A wine list gets the job done. A 2007 Freemark Abbey cabernet pairs well with the lasagna. The veal gets along fine with several serviceable chardonnays. Still, this is the time and place to consider uncorking Chianti. The restaurant offers a number of good ones—you can’t go wrong with the Tuscany Classico Riserva, a particularly good ’07 Santa Margherita.

Dinner here included a few stumbles. We overheard news of the night’s special, osso buco, from the neighboring table’s waiter; ours didn’t mention it. The risotto was fine with a fork, but a place like this should provide a proper spoon. Bread is utterly ordinary, unworthy of the setting. But Mineo’s does effortlessly hit its stride in a variety of small ways. The service is charming, personal, deft. It’s obviously a family business here.

Yes, there are times when you want the molecular gastronomy adventure of nitrogen-infused imbrecciata. There are also those nights when a slab of Mamma’s lasagna and a glass of spicy, tannic Chianti are in order. On those nights, try John Mineo’s. Even if it is—improbably—in a West County strip mall.

The Bottom Line:  Formal atmosphere, iconic Italian fare, family-run—it is as familiar in St. Louis as bocce on The Hill.

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