St. Louis Has an Italian Heart

By William Sertl

Published on July 11, 2001

When I was growing up in a German-American family in St. Louis in the 1950s and '60s, the city was still, to some extent, Anheuser-Busch country—a town where people entertained in their ratskeller (a home basement fixed up with tables and a bar), and where lieder societies met regularly to sing traditional German songs; Stuttgart was (and is) one of our sister cities. But when we went out to eat in St. Louis, we seldom headed to a German restaurant. Instead, we'd go to the Hill—a one-square-mile Italian stronghold just west of Downtown and the Gateway Arch. For me, this was always an exotic journey filled with sights and sounds that seemed to belong to another country. Many of the houses were wood-frame ''shotguns''—so narrow, the saying went, that if you fired a gun through the front door, the bullet would travel through the hallway and out the back. In several of the yards, plaster Madonnas smiled serenely at the street.

The first Italians to move here en masse were Lombard villagers from the region around Milan. Fleeing poverty and overpopulation, they arrived in the 1880s to work in St. Louis's clay mines and brick factories, settling on the nearby Hill—higher ground than the rest of the city, but nothing a San Franciscan would notice. At the turn of the century, Sicilians came to work in the same factories and were soon sharing the Hill with their northern cousins.

For years, each group viewed the other with a wary eye. Cultural differences—dialect, food—divided them. ''In Italy, we'd call this a bad marriage,'' one old-timer told me. Then came Prohibition, which helped unite the Hill faster than Garibaldi ever could have: Sicilians made moonshine in their basements and Lombards sold it, and each side had a vested interest in protecting the other. St. Ambrose, the parish church, was also crucial in reconciling the two factions—worshiping together, they gradually developed mutual trust—as were the schools, which Americanized the children, smoothing away their differences. Today, the old animosities have all but disappeared.

The first restaurants on the Hill began as taverns catering to workers and evolved over the years into establishments with tablecloths and full menus. Today they mostly fall into two categories: big, expensive places, with multitudes of chandeliers and good but unimaginative food; and huge, hundred-things-on-the-menu eateries that are one cut above House O' Pasta. Both serve generic Italian—or, more accurately, Italian-American—cooking. Peruse their menus and you'll find the standards: spaghetti carbonara, cannelloni, scampi, plenty of veal dishes, and, usually, ''toasted'' ravioli—a definitive St. Louis Italian specialty said to have been born by accident about fifty years ago at a restaurant on the Hill when a piece of the stuffed pasta fell into a pot of hot fat. (The city's most famous Italian restaurant, Tony's, is one place that doesn't belong in either category—but it's downtown, not on the Hill.)

Of all the places to eat in the neighborhood, two—Gian Peppe's and Gian-Tony's—stand out. Peppe Profeta, a youthful-looking chef from the Sicilian capital of Palermo, remembers his early restaurant days here in the 1970s with dismay: ''I wanted to strangle people who didn't know how to appreciate real Italian food,'' he says. The menu at Gian Peppe's, a small room with elegantly set tables, includes dishes like cernia alla livornese (red snapper in tomato sauce with onions and olives) and pollo jonge (a French-style chicken dish named for his father's heavily accented pronunciation of ''Dijon''). Says Profeta, whose mother, Gabriella, cooks alongside him: ''Keep it simple, keep it fresh. That's the Italian way.''

Tony Catarinicchia, who left Palermo more than 25 years ago, has a similar approach. ''Good Italian food doesn't need too many ingredients and should never be oversauced,'' he says. Catarinicchia, in chef's whites edged with the colors of the Italian flag, draws crowds of locals to his restaurant, a series of comfortable rooms with white tablecloths and a long list of dishes including fried arti-chokes, pennette all'arrabbiata, and seafood ravioli. Catarinicchia's Alfredo-style fettuccine is the best I've ever had. Also terrific is his eggplant parmesan—which he makes in the summertime with ingredients picked from the restaurant's garden.

Food shops dot the Hill, and among the finest is Volpi Italian Foods, producer of some of the best salami and prosciutto in America. The store looks like it's right out of an old Philadelphia or Brooklyn neighborhood: Above the meat cases are vintage photographs, one of a delivery truck in the '40s and another of company founder John Volpi. Pudgy sausages hang from the rafters, and the countertops are crammed with impulse buys—-Italian licorice, chocolate-covered coffee beans, packages of dried porcini. On this Saturday morning, take-a-number shoppers are loading up on salami, coppa, and pancetta. Overseeing the whole operation is Armando Pasetti, an outgoing Lombard who is John Volpi's nephew and who took over the company after his uncle's death in 1957. He remembers Volpi's passion for cooking: ''I learned by watching him,'' Pasetti says, ''but I'm no chef.'' I've heard otherwise, and Pasetti's daughter Lorenza, the company's general manager, rolls her eyes at every one of her father's denials. About his braised rabbit, he says, ''It's nothing. A little garlic, a little olive oil.'' Later, Lorenza hands me a clandestine copy of the recipe. ''It's delicious,'' she whispers. When I make it in my own kitchen, the rabbit is moist and tender, each piece permeated with the earthy flavors of porcini, garlic, and balsamic vinegar.

Half a block down the street from Volpi's is Missouri Baking Co., a simple storefront that stands in stark contrast to the chain bakeries found in just about every shopping mall in America today. (The company still uses black rotary phones.) Here, old-fashioned bakery shelves are stocked with biscotti, raisin-filled pan tranvai, cuccidati (iced cookies with figs, raisins, pine nuts, chocolate chips, and orange rind), and hazelnut croccante (crunchy cookies). Mimi Lordo, who owns the bakery with her brother Chris Gambaro, leads me into a back room—four times the size of the shop—filled with 50-year-old mixing machines covered by a patina of flour. ''Nearly everything we do is by hand,'' she says, showing me a boxful of yellowed recipe cards dating back to the 1920s, when her grandfather and great-uncles opened the bakery. Lordo's father, Ben, and her 83-year-old Uncle Lino are dressed in Bermuda shorts, white aprons, and sporty baker's caps. They could almost be ready for a day on the links—but they are in fact kneading hard enough to create a pale cloud of flour dust in the air around them. Since they passed the bakery on to the younger generation, they've both worked here for free—as does Mimi's Aunt Nini, who offers me a ''pull'' from a loaf of shampa, a round bread with puzzling, sausagelike protrusions. (This odd shape, Nini tells me, allowed farmhands to grab a quick lunch in the fields.) Mimi says her father also makes the best risotto on the Hill, adding, sotto voce, as if something illegal were involved, ''He uses cognac.'' He also uses cream. The result is an over-the-top rich, deeply comforting dish.

Sister Felicetta Cola is an 85-year-old native of Vicenza and former schoolteacher who really knows her pasta. For decades, she rose before dawn at the Sacred Heart Villa convent and preschool to roll out dough, leaving it to rest during her morning prayers; these days, she's sometimes in a wheelchair, but still makes pasta every day with the help of a volunteer or two. ''God bless you,'' she says as I enter her basement kitchen. Kindness radiates from her smiling face, which is framed by a starched white wimple. As we talk, she briskly cuts fettuccine, one of five pastas sold under the Sacred Heart Villa label. For years Sister Felicetta made pasta for the sisters, or to sell in cellophane bags at Sacred Heart's Christmas bazaar or in a few local markets. Then, three years ago, a graphic artist bought a bag and was so taken with the pasta that he offered to design a logo for it at no charge. The Sacred Heart Villa brand, labeled with a stylized silhouette of a nun on a red, white, and green background, was born. Business is booming: Last year, the convent sold about five thousand bags of the pasta. Sister Felicetta, in fact, is too busy to chat much. As I leave, she cautions, ''Remember, I'm a nun, not a baker. Don't give anybody the wrong idea.''

Good home cooks can be tricky to find on the Hill, but the neighborhood is so small that if you ask around enough, the same names keep cropping up. That's how I find myself in front of the Italia America Bocce Club, waiting next to a statue of the Roman goddess Diana. ''Hi, I'm Aldo,'' says the man who pops out to greet me—Aldo Della Croce, who volunteers as chief cook for the club's many banquets. ''Come on in. Lunch will be ready soon.''

On the large butcher-block table in the club kitchen are bowls of basil, parsley, tomatoes, and onions, most of it from his nearby garden. A pot of water is boiling away, ready for the pasta. I protest that this is all too much trouble, but Della Croce, who recently made risotto for 250 guests, insists that his preparation is ''simple, simple, simple''. To call the dish uncomplicated is like, well, calling the pope Catholic. It is also tantalizingly delicious, each strand of pasta sticky with an almost invisible coating of tomato sauce laced with herbs and garlic. This is fast food I want every day. Della Croce left his home near Lucca—he's one of the few Tuscans on the Hill—more than forty years ago, a fact that his boyish face and still-melodic accent belies. And he can do more than cook. The statue in front of the club, I learn, is his. After coming to St. Louis, he started Figure Craft, a megabusiness that turns out thousands of pieces of lawn accoutrements each year, many of them bound for Italian neighborhoods near New York City. ''With art, you can either do it or you can't,'' says Della Croce. ''You don't teach it.''

Monsignor Salvatore Polizzi, a first-rate home cook of Sicilian origin, also has his own style in the kitchen—which he describes as ''peasant to the core''. A former associate pastor at St. Ambrose, he is still known as Father Sal, and is one of the Hill's heroes: Years ago, he galvanized the community to wage a series of successful battles against developers and corporate polluters, ultimately helping preserve the pride and old-world character of the Hill. Father Sal, who still projects a fiesty, youthful vigor, left St. Ambrose in 1981 to become pastor at St. Roch, a church in west St. Louis a few miles from the Hill. Just as he did at St. Ambrose, he cooks for himself, the other resident priest, and their housekeeper, making what he calls cucina casalinga (home cooking), which translates into rustic favorites like sausage baked with tomatoes and white and sweet potatoes and a tasty soup of pasta and tenerumi, which are the leaves of cucuzza, a kind of Sicilian zucchini he grows in his garden.

St. Louis has changed considerably in the 30 years since I left the city—but the Hill seems to have remained relatively unchanged. Fewer people live there today than did 40 years ago, but about 75 percent of the residents are still of Italian ancestry. Despite the fact that many of the city's once-thriving neighborhoods have crumbled and half the population of the city proper has emigrated to the outskirts, the Hill has somehow stayed strong and vital. ''It's tough,'' says Mimi Lordo, ''but here on the Hill we have the most important things in life right at hand: family, community, and church.'' I'd add food to that list.

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