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Photographs by Jennifer Silverberg
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With all of St. Louis’ French heritage, one would think we’d be more famous for our bistros. But we’re not. Fifty years ago, when part of the city’s personality became defined by our restaurants, those on St. Louis’ Hill shone especially bright: Angelo’s and Oldani’s, then Giovanni’s, Dominic’s, and Gian-Peppe’s. And the moment that Tony’s downtown began acquiring coveted Five Diamond and five-star ratings (see the Q&A with owner Vince Bommarito Sr.), Italian cuisine and St. Louis were forever intertwined.
Though the kings of The Hill still hold court today, many princes have bullied their way onto the scene. We bring you some of SLM’s favorite traditional haunts, as well as a group we classify as “modern Italian”—restaurants that have twisted and twirled (as it were) the classic genre by offering more (and more regional) dishes, less pasta, and local ingredients, plus using modern cooking techniques. Regardless of your style preference, something on our menu is sure to appeal.
Gian-Tony’s is so low-profile, you’d think no one knew about it. Not true: Without reservations, weekends can be impossible. Customers often dress far more casually than the waiters and knock back their dinners in what’s clearly a converted and expanded house on The Hill. Unfortunately, the meticulously prepared stuffed artichoke is only available as an occasional special; knowing patrons leap at the opportunity and rejoice that the involtini are a fixture of the everyday menu. 5356 Daggett, 314-772-4893, gian-tonys.com.
At Trattoria Marcella, osso buco is prepared using pork shanks instead of veal. You realize that choice is a good one when a dining companion can’t resist and takes the first bite. Fork-tender pork gets top billing, but it’s the layers of sweetness from butternut-squash polenta and vincotto (unfermented grape must) that will inspire the most joyful noise from you and your companion. 3600 Watson, 314-352-7706, trattoriamarcella.com.
Peppe’s Apt. 2
Like many of our choices, Peppe’s Apt. 2 can be madhouse-busy, especially on weekends, so plan on a reservation at this amusingly bechandeliered storefront spot. Peppe Profeta began on The Hill with Gian-Peppe’s, and forever quipping that “classic never goes out of style,” he is doing just that style of food here. There’s an admirable Bolognese sauce, chunky with meat and scarcely a touch of tomato, and the ebullient Peppe’s favorite dish, pasta carbonara. (Call for menu information, as the website is lacking.) 800 S. Geyer, 314-909-1375, peppesapt2.com.
Tucci & Fresta’s Trattoria and Bar
It’s a paradox that works: casual and value-packed, yet diners tend to dress up a bit. There’s a live piano (a throwback to crooners in tuxedos), yet the vibe is 2012. You’ll find Italian basics done well, yet unexpectedly edgy specials, with no skimping on pricey ingredients like prosciutto and crabmeat. Then there’s boniface J. Kim Tucci, directing the whole show. No contradictions here: The man’s as genuine as Parmigiano-Reggiano. 15 N. Central, 314-725-6588, tucciandfrestas.com.
Finding Roberto’s Trattoria in an unassuming strip mall is a surprise, but the location is forgotten once you’re inside. This is classic St. Louis Italian: creamy pastas, veal variations, comfort food for generations, with servers that say, “The usual, then, Mrs. Schmidt?” And it’s environmentally friendly: Think of the gas you save by not driving any farther. 145 Concord Plaza, 314-842-9998, robertosstl.com.
Sapore Italian Café
This hidden jewel is a treasure of Italian specialties. Presentations range from the simple—shrimp grilled with bread crumbs and olive oil—to the luxurious lobster-loaded ravioli, with paprika and cream sauce. The real draw here is the veal, from a splendidly thick chop to a beautiful piccata dressed with a lemon–white wine sauce. Intimate yet proper (no mean feat), Sapore remains (albeit quietly) among the area’s best Italian eateries. 403 Lafayette Center, Manchester, 636-256-3949, saporeitaliancafe.com.
Branica of Kirkwood
We liked Sam Kacar’s original location well enough, we suppose, but the elevated patio at Branica of Kirkwood is positively lovely. It’s among the best alfresco dining around. (And patio tables can be reserved.) Inside, it’s luxurious and classy, yet relaxed. Prices are reasonable. It might be time to actually order that fish special (it’s $19.95) or that beef filet, wrapped in crusty mozzarella, for a few dollars more. But let’s be honest: We adore this place most for those incredible cannoli, dipped in pistachio crumbles and drizzled with chocolate—especially when served on that patio. 451 S. Kirkwood, 314-909-7575, trattoriabranica.com.
Paul Manno’s Café
It only takes a moment after you’ve found yourself immersed in a cozy and dimly lit booth—within eyeshot of a classic shot of the Rat Pack—to see that life is indeed a beautiful thing. And while the menu has more well-executed standards than Sinatra’s Capitol Records catalog, we can’t get enough of Grandma’s Pasta: campanelle shells, cannellini beans, salsiccia, and red pepper tossed in Bolognese sauce lightened with a splash of white wine. The restaurant gets our vote for “Best Italian Without a Website.” 75 Forum Shopping Center, Chesterfield, 314-878-1274.
Frank Papa’s Ristorante
Another of the family-owned Italian restaurants that should make St. Louis proud, Frank Papa’s Ristorante keeps its loyal clientele happy with consistent renditions of pasta that are both imaginative and traditional, as well as protein-based options. But the don’t-miss items are the flash-fried escarole and the wild game used in pasta preparations. Even the secondary dining room, conveniently located in the restaurant’s wine cellar, is unexpectedly cozy. 2241 S. Brentwood, 314-961-3344, frankpapas.com.
Many think of The Hill as a neighborhood of restaurants, whereas Anthonino’s tends to feel like The Hill’s neighborhood restaurant, a meeting place for an after-work drink or dinner with the family. Grab a seat on the patio, a shapely glass of Peroni, and the marinated artichoke hearts, cradled in a thin crust of breading and dusted with Parmesan cheese. On The Hill and beyond, it’s the best take on the dish we’ve found. 2225 Macklind, 314-773-4455, anthoninos.com.
The sprawling wine list is excellent. So is the chicken parmigiana. Tomato- and anchovy-topped bruschetta is as good as the spicy cioppino—maybe better. The meatball sandwich is a splendid lunch; the tender, crisp veal Milanese is a demonstration of how this dish is correctly presented. Napoli’s among the top patio dining destinations around: If your car’s worthy, the valet will park your ride in plain view. Or use the lot by the St. Louis County jail and enjoy a stroll into the heart of Clayton. 7754 Forsyth, 314-863-5731, cafenapoli.com.
Many St. Louisans forget that it was Jim Fiala who gave the region its first taste of rustic Northern Italian cuisine (in small-plates portions, no less) when he opened Acero in early 2007. Five years later, it continues to draw raves, thanks to the consistency of longtime chef Adam Gnau and the four-course, pick-your-own meal that continues to be one of the truly outstanding—and underrated—deals in the city at $30. 7266 Manchester, 314-644-1790, fialafood.com.
Can it be almost 30 years since Bar Italia took St. Louis beyond meatballs and veal chops? Then, 13 years ago, the tiny bistro with the wheezing gelato machine crossed the street and mushroomed into a fixture of the St. Louis dining scene, where it’s settled into an elegant middle age. Aromatic pastas, perfect green salad, good bread, and that heavenly lemon tart show that you can go home again. 13 Maryland Plaza, 314-361-7010, baritaliastl.com.
The ultimate dining-room view and magnificent pool stretching toward the Arch afford Cielo a sumptuous feel matched by a sleek, soaring interior. Crispy, wild mushroom–stuffed arancini and grilled octopus with lime-basil dressing prepare diners for dishes like seared salmon on a cake of angel hair. The secret here is to arrange to have the chef’s five-course tasting served in a separate, fireside area that’ll make you feel as special as the occasion del giorno. 999 N. Second, 314-881-2105, cielostlouis.com.
For some, pizza done in the style of the old Talayna’s—including the Provel, mozzarella, or four-cheese options—trumps the pasta (all of it fresh) at Frontenac Grill. But this is no pizza joint. Rather, it’s an upscale spot that draws locals from its high-rent neighborhood—and beyond, too, when the weekend music brings out the dancing crowd. And for those dancers too smart to prance on an empty stomach, non–pizza fanciers can investigate their favorite Italian and American entrées. 731 S. Lindbergh, 314-569-4115, frontenacgrill.com.
Maybe it’s the ravioli, stuffed with rabbit and spinach and smacked with sage, or the salty tang of guanciale added to a bucatini all’Amatriciana. But it seems there’s always a twist here, a new take. Meaty lasagna (usually available) appeals to the traditionalist. Go, though, for adventurous fare like a warm goat cheese–and–roasted garlic caprini, or a pistachio-encrusted trout with citrus butter. A place that’s often overlooked, it is small, smart, and romantic. 7624 Wydown, 314-727-7901, ifratellini.com.
This is The Hill’s Ground Zero for “New Italian.” While the white tablecloths, chandeliers, and candles play along, the flashes of originality make this a standout. House-made spinach gnocchi with tomatoes poached in olive oil, as well as risotto with veal and chanterelles, demonstrate this kitchen’s confident flair. Osso buco with saffron-fragrant risotto and the sautéed calf liver with an herb-flecked polenta are among the best Italian meals on this—or any other—hill. 1933 Edwards, 314-773-2223, lorenzostrattoria.com.
Italian isn’t always diners’ first thought for vegetarian options, but the numerous veggie-centric choices at LoRusso’s make it stand out. There are plenty of other good reasons it does, too: a convivial atmosphere, plenty of repeat customers (but not so many that the newcomer feels neglected), and a polished veteran wait staff. The menu ranges from the expected to the newish—we’re suckers for the pork osso buco. 3121 Watson, 314-647-6222, lorussos.com.
Few chefs let their true personality flow so seamlessly into their restaurants as Vito Racanelli Jr., whose restaurant is decorated with equal parts family memories, Italian flair, and Star Wars. And while that combination might seem awkward on paper, one look sells it when you catch a glimpse of his infectious smile as he glances at his daughter, the “Mad Tomato,” making pizza with her uncle, Sam Racanelli. From what they’re cooking to the chefs cooking it, this is a family affair at its core, which only adds to the appeal. 8000 Carondelet, 314-932-5733, madtomatostl.com.
Onesto Pizza & Trattoria
An order of bocce ball–size arancini or that first slice from one of Onesto’s exceptional East Coast pizzas should be enough to ensure the restaurant a place in any roundup of the best St. Louis Italian food. But Onesto’s landed on the Modern Italian list for a very traditional reason: It’s helping to bring family-style dining—large salads and pastas to share with friends and loved ones—back into our dining vernacular. To that, we can simply say, Grazie. 5401 Finkman, 314-802-8883, onestopizza.com.
Stellina Pasta Café
Nobody could have guessed what it would become when Jamey Tochtrop first turned his organic pasta-making business into a casual lunch-and-dinner café, serving simple pastas and great sandwiches to his South City neighborhood. For five years, the restaurant’s grown, demonstrating how to operate a neighborhood restaurant: Slowly add table service, then expand, then add to the hyperseasonal menu. Stellina is a textbook case of how a simple café can develop into a great restaurant. 3342 Watson, 314-256-1600, stellinapasta.com.
Warm wood interiors, a glowing bar, and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on downtown Clayton might distract—but not for long. The upscale Italian offerings seize your attention. A tuna Bolognese on rigatoni and mascarpone-whipped potatoes with the bistecca are two dishes that are typical of the creative fare here. An entire lobster’s meat is folded into risotto. Meatballs of veal, lamb, and ground pork are remarkable. But the singular hit here is a spectacular lobster BLT on flatbread. 16 N. Central, 314-932-1040, boccibar.com.
Sugo’s Spaghetteria and Babbo’s Spaghetteria
Every neighborhood needs a family-friendly, midweek Italian eatery. And although the beautiful, Italian-themed interior of Sugo’s hints at the surrounding wealth of Frontenac, the menu of Neapolitan pizza and substantially sized pastas does not, with few items topping $10. Take the spaghetti and meatballs. For the price of a Hamilton, you’ll get two fist-size meatballs that beg to be shared—or packed into a to-go box for a hearty lunch the next day. 10419 Clayton, 314-569-0400, sugoscucina.com; 17402 Chesterfield Airport Rd., Chesterfield, 636-536-0000, babbosspaghetteria.com.
If Michael Del Pietro were a DJ, he’d play the Top 40. At his newest restaurant, Tavolo V (Italian for “table of five”), many of the popular dishes from his family’s other restaurants appear on the menu—from Sugo’s famous lasagna to various signature pizzas to Mama Rose’s spinach cakes. He has all that, plus a liberal amount of no-miss, Delmar Loop–friendly vegetarian items. At this rate, we might find him singing and dancing as well. 6118 Delmar, 314-721-4333, tavolov.com.
Il Bel Lago
Ol’ Blue Eyes would have adored the linguine with seafood. Dino would favor the beef filet with a Barolo reduction. It’s Italian Old-School. Stuck incongruously in a strip mall, the interior transports. A smooth-cool bar, an impressive wall fountain, and luxuriously set tables create the perfect atmosphere. Dishes like a prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast are delightfully rich. The panzanella salad shouldn’t be missed. It’s all pricey, true. But Peter Lawford’s picking up the check, so mangia, baby. 11631 Olive, 314-994-1080, ilbellagosaintlouis.com.
Good Eats & Vibes
Every weekend, Bartolino’s Osteria and Bartolino’s South host crooners like Gene Lynn and Charles Hilliard. On Sunday, make it a Saracino family trifecta by visiting its third award-winning restaurant, Chris’ Pancake & Dining. bartolinosrestaurants.com.
Extreme Value: Where to Find Delicious Italian on the Cheap
Weeknight Date Night:
Ricardo’s Italian Café
This is the least expensive place in town for a small salad, pasta, and a glass of respectable wine. 1931 Park, 314-421-4833, ricardositaliancafe.com.
Maggiano’s Little Italy
The chain has brisk service, large portions, and plenty of doggie bags. 2 The Boulevard–St. Louis, 314-824-2402, maggianos.com.
P’sghetti’s Pasta and Sandwiches and Filomena’s Italian Kitchen
By the Numbers: The Pasta House Company
- Year founded: 1974
- 199,000 pounds of grated parmesan per year
- 200,000 orders of pasta con broccoli sold per year
- 2 million orders of Pasta House salad sold annually (that's six tractor-trailer loads per week)
- 25 current locations
- $150,000 charitable donations per year
- 400,000 orders of spaghetti bolognese sold per year
- 1,000 off-site catering jobs per year on average
- 250 tons of pasta used per year
- Most popular promotion: Reading, wRiting, and Ravioli, which involves 4,000 teachers at 400 schools. Students read and then write book reports for free meals at Pasta House; teachers receive discounts, too. Now in its 24th year, the promotion has generated 7 million book reports.
On the Radar
Projected Opening: Late August
The local fooderati have been agog since they heard of this bit of wizardry from Gerard Craft: a family-friendly, Italian-themed restaurant with fresh pasta and best-quality ingredients. Then Eater magazine named it among “The 25 Most Anticipated Restaurant Openings of 2012,” and the rest of the nation was so advised. 7734 Forsyth, pastariastl.com.
Marcella’s Mia Sorella
Projected Opening: Mid-August
After 17 years at Trattoria Marcella, owners Steve and Jamie Komorek decided to parlay its stellar reputation and open a place in the suburbs. The litany of specials at the Tratt became the backbone of a brand-new menu at the sister restaurant. 11464 Clayton.
Cini Italian Chow
Frank and Carmelo Gabriele are planning to create a fast-casual restaurant concept based on a variety of mini arancinis. The first two units are slated for midtown (in the fall) and the Ladue Colonial Marketplace (in early 2013).
Round-Up: Our Favorite Italian Sandwich Joints
Adriana’s Amighetti’s Di Gregorio’s Market Eovaldi’s Deli Gioia’s Deli Joe Fassi's J. Viviano & Sons LeGrand’s Market and Deli Salume Beddu Southwest Market Cuisine Stellina Pasta Café Urzi’s Italian Market Viviano’s Festa Italiano Vivola Express
Round 'Em Up: Where to Find the City's Best Meatballs
As a dish, you know your time has come when Ramones drummer Marky Ramone steps off the stage and into a food truck to spoon tomato sauce over a checkered paper tray filled with meatballs. Truth is, the meatball never fell out of vogue, especially in St. Louis.
It’s hard to beat the meatballs at Anthonino’s Taverna (anthoninos.com) or Sugo’s Spaghetteria (sugoscucina.com). Both feature what would normally be considered “large” meatballs—were it not for Mama’s Challenge at Mama’s on The Hill (mamasonthehill.com), featuring a single meatball so comically huge that the house will pick up the check and present you with a T-shirt if you can finish it.
Or elevate pasta night at home with restaurant-quality meatballs from the frozen cases at Manzo Sausage Kitchen & Market (manzosausage.com) or J. Viviano & Sons (shopviviano.com). Manzo’s meatballs offer notes of Parmesan and oregano, and tend to be larger than Viviano’s.
Prefer a meatball sandwich? Head to Eovaldi’s Deli (delionthehill.com), which goes light on the red sauce and cheese to keep the focus on the halved meatballs. Looking for something different? Try the lamb meatball panini at Mad Tomato (madtomatostl.com), dressed with roasted red peppers and caramelized onions.
The most inspired use of meatballs is found at PW Pizza (pwpizza.com), home of the Big Balls pizza, a pie that overflows with enough halved meatballs, onion, and peppers to make folding a slice next to impossible. To prevent runaways, keep a knife and fork nearby. —A.M.V.
Viva Value! The Best $10 Pasta in Town
You don’t have to be on a budget to appreciate the appeal of a reasonable—and delicious—bowl of pasta. Like knowing how to deftly twirl pasta without the aid of a spoon, finding great noodles without breaking the bank is a skill we think everyone should have. —A.M.V.
Pasta takes on a dizzying array of shapes, few as elegant as the interwoven arms of gemelli, connected by a thin loop where the noodle bends back upon itself. Here, geometry makes the perfect implement for carrying Acero’s delicate sauces and pairing with tender sections of chicken and mushroom. 7266 Manchester, 314-644-1790, fialafood.com.
Mangia shows that sometimes the simplest plate of pasta is also the finest. Expect a nest of tightly wound, house-made vermicelli noodles that are addictively chewy. Tossed with G.O.C. (garlic, olive oil, and pecorino cheese), this pasta is a steal. 3145 S. Grand, 314-664-8585, dineatmangia.com.
Cunetto House of Pasta
Bucatini con Salsa al Bolognese
Generations have waited their turns in line to partake of massive—and affordable—plates of pasta at Cunetto’s. You’ll find us with bread in one hand, fork in the other, diving into bucatini—thick spaghetti with a hollow center, swimming in a sweet, creamy tomato ragu. 5453 Magnolia, 314-781-1135, cunetto.com.
Linguine con le Vongole
Roberto’s has long had South County twirling pasta from this “lunch-sized” (loosely translated—it’s huge, yet still not full-sized) plate of thick noodles, tender clam meat, and roughly chopped parsley resting in a sauce of clam liquor, olive oil, and white wine. 145 Concord Plaza,
Though Joe Sanfilippo will soon offer his signature spicy vodka cream sauce at local supermarkets, we’ll keep returning for the original: a rigatoni-and-tomato dish that has made this downtown eatery famous from Broadway to its second home in Chesterfield Valley. J.F. Sanfilippo’s, 705 N. Broadway, 314-621-7213, jfsanfilippos.com; Filippo’s Italian Kitchen & Bar, 120 Chesterfield Valley Dr., 636-536-6833, filipposstl.com.
Chances are, the best toasted ravioli in town (the very one featured in SLM’s A-List) can be found in your neighborhood, as all five of the Lombardo family’s restaurants offer them. The meat is seasoned, the shapes are irregular, and there’s just enough dough: They’re clearly homemade…as is the chunky marinara. 314-621-0666, lombardosrestaurants.com.
Restaurants That Set the Table for St. Louis Italian and the Five Men Who Made Them Succeed
Charlie Gitto’s Downtown
Charlie Gitto Sr.
“I took a chance opening downtown in the ’70s,” says Charlie Gitto Sr., owner of Charlie Gitto’s flagship location. “I was the only place around, except for the go-go places.” Slowly, conventioneers and tourists—to say nothing of baseball players and coaches—discovered the place. These days, he works fewer hours. “My wife of 59 years worked with me here and always supported me,” he says. “Now, I leave work early to go home and take care of her.” 207 N. Sixth, 314-436-2828, charliegittosdowntown.com.
Vince Bommarito Sr.
After his father died, Vince Bommarito Sr., was given the keys to the family restaurant. He was only 17 years old. Today, he’s 81—and still working. So after all those years in the restaurant business, did his devoted and long-suffering wife ever ask him to hang it up? “Never,” he says. “Nor has she said it’s a shame we couldn’t go to that wedding, or that we had to miss that trip or that party or graduation. Never, ever, in 56 years of marriage.” 410 Market, 314-231-7007, tonysstlouis.com.
How does a fine-dining restaurant weather the economic storm? “It really became hard—for all of us—when the convention business slowed,” says Dominic Galati. “And it’s hard to change the tradition in a place like Dominic’s, but you cannot survive with old ideas. We were able to see into the future 13 years ago, when we opened Dominic’s Trattoria, which is less formal, and more recently with Gio’s downtown, which we call ‘polished casual.’ We’ve kept Dominic’s current by relaxing the dress code and with events like Opera Night.” 5101 Wilson, 314-771-1632, dominicsrestaurant.com.
Kemoll’s has been in business for 85 years. Owner Mark Cusumano knows that doesn’t happen without a lot of planning: “We serve roughly 8,000 items a week in basically a few hours a day, so once in a while you drop the ball, but to stay around that long, you don’t drop it too often. Four of our waiters have been with us more than 25 years, and of our 90 employees, there’s not one I wish was working somewhere else.” His grandmother worked in Kemoll’s kitchen day and night until she died at age 80. “Most people just don’t want to give up most of their lives to be in this business,” the grandson says, “but it was she who set the tone.” One Metropolitan Square, 211 N. Broadway, 40th Floor, 314-421-0555, kemolls.com.
Giovanni’s on the Hill
More than a dozen local restaurants can be traced to the Gabriele family. The recipe for success? “Dedication, honesty, enthusiasm, and loyalty to the customer,” says Giovanni Gabriele. Customers often order the Pappardelle alla Bella Oprah, a dish that Gabriele created for Ms. Winfrey in 2004, and the bowtie pasta with salmon in cream sauce, as served to President Ronald Reagan in 1981, during his inaugural year. 5201 Shaw, 314-772-5958, giovannisonthehill.com.
By Bill Burge, Dave Lowry, George Mahe, Ann Lemons Pollack, and Andrew Mark Veety; Edited by George Mahe