Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
403 Lafayette Center
Average Main Course: $21
Dress: To the nines? Too much. To the sevens, though, yes.
Chef/Owner: Paul Buzzetta
It’s hard not to like a place with five different preparations of veal. The lobster ravioli, though, camouflage—and in some ways, define—Sapore, the Italian café in Manchester. We’re talking credit card–size ravioli, bulging with chunks of delectable lobster, with a supple sherry-and-cream sauce spooned over. It’s luxurious, unapologetically caloric, delicious. And while being a top-tier Italian restaurant in the distant west of West County is like being among Mexico’s best downhill skiers, the attractive fare here makes it a destination worth even the hellish drive along Manchester Road.
There is, admittedly, little that’s surprising on the menu. It’s of the generic “Italian restaurant” variety, though with an emphasis on the Sicilian. No other region of Italy uses butter to such spectacular ends. Few other Italian climes employ cheese with such efficient restraint. Olive oil flows through Sicilian cooking like suds from a malfunctioning tap at a college keg-fest. The results are distinctive: robust, simple flavors.
Consider commencing things with—aside from that lobster-laden ravioli—a platter of calamari. It’s crispy, golden, and perfect; the ordinary tomato-based dipping sauce is superfluous. A more substantial Bolognese sauce adds meatiness to the dip for toasted ravioli. Mussels orreganato are typically baked, with bread crumbs. At Sapore, mussels are sautéed and presented in a white wine–and–garlic sauce spiked with lemon. It’s a lighter treatment of the bivalves that brings out their sweetness.
Sapore’s Caesar salad is successful, but little more; one is better off with the peppery greens mixed with grape tomatoes and bell peppers. A Caprese salad always tempts, even though the season’s waning. We weren’t disappointed. The tomato tasted like one. Even better, it was sliced into thick chunks, then reassembled with fat slabs of fresh, snowy mozzarella inserted in between, drizzled with a dark balsamic vinegar, an altogether delightful rendition of this salad.
Four shrimp sounds a trifle skimpy for a main course. These, though, resemble the ones shrimpers hoard for themselves. They’re enormous, juicy, and sweet. The presentation could scarcely have been simpler: a splash of olive oil, bright red pepper flakes, garlic, and a scatter of capers; a classic, spicy arrabbiata. The same crustaceans appear and are equally tasty in a grigliata, grilled with a dusting of seasoned bread crumbs, garlic, and a lemon spritz.
Pastas are rewarding here. Tubes of paccheri (think of a bigger, fatter rigatoni) are tossed with sautéed onions, slices of prosciutto, plum tomatoes, and olive oil. Spaghetti threads are woven with either a pomodoro or primavera accompaniment. If you’re reading this in an old issue at the dentist’s office next summer, with tomatoes once more in their glory, then go for the pomodoro. Otherwise, opt for the primavera, where a superb olive oil holds pasta and sliced vegetables together nicely. Farfalle bow ties go with mushrooms like angst goes with teen vampires. Here, they’re paired with porcini mushrooms, along with sautéed onions and peas in a classic Sicilian home-style dish. A seafood pasta is particularly noteworthy. Linguini is swirled with big sea scallops, shrimp, clams, and small, sweet mussels. The light smack of garlic is all the seasoning this dish gets; the seafood’s central. It’s hearty and satisfying, a fine meal for an early autumn evening.
One with fragrant porcinis with peas in a white wine sauce, the other with the same assortment of seafood as in the pasta dish—you’re not going to make a mistake with either of Sapore’s risotto dishes, the rice glossy and just al dente.
Oh, and that veal. It’s wonderful: fork-tender and delicate. Olive oil, garlic, and a dribble of lemon juice, along with fragrant, herby bread crumbs, make for a satisfying Siciliano version. A silky-smooth lemon–and–white wine sauce is ladled over the sautéed meat in a luscious piccata. The sauce changes to one of sage-flecked white wine, the veal topped with slices of prosciutto and melted cheese, for a vibrant take on saltimbocca. In every version we tried, the flavor of the veal came through, complemented but never overwhelmed by the preparation.
Desserts tend toward the tiramisu-ish. (The version here is house-made and excellent.) Your best bet, though, might be the similarly house-made cannoli.
The wine list is competent. An ’08 Villa Pozzi merlot makes the grilled veal disappear blissfully. Be sure to order it as soon as you’re seated; it needs a while to open. Amarones have long been the roulette wheel of the wine world—they hit and miss. A winner is the ’05 Sartori Amarone, maybe one of Italy’s most “serious” wines and a good buy here. For some of the lighter, cream-based pasta dishes and the piccata, go with the ’09 Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling. Its knife-blade acidity and concentrated fruit cut through the cream neatly. This is among the best Rieslings in the world and a terrific bargain. A glass of it with the crispy-fried calamari was among the best pairings we’ve had all year.
The exterior might best be described as “Standard West County Strip Mall.” At the opposite end of the strip, perhaps not incidentally, is Manee Thai, one of the area’s standout Thai eateries. Sapore’s interior is quiet, with starched linens, hefty utensils, handsome dinnerware. Tables are far enough apart; the only reason we heard the “Best ’60s TV theme song” discussion nearby was that the debaters were talking too loudly (and incidentally, Hawaii Five-0 totally kicked The Munsters’ hiney). Service is efficient, just friendly enough without becoming annoyingly familiar.
House-made bread, a solicitous chef appearing tableside, and lots of cucina familiare are evidence that Sapore’s a family-run operation. There aren’t any better Italian eateries in West County—and not many better anywhere else in St. Louis.
The Bottom Line: Family recipes of Sicilian and other Italian classics in a comfy, upscale setting.