Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Trip to St. Louis

Over Christmas we visited with family in the St. Louis area.  This meant lots of eating and a chance to show my wife my old stomping grounds.  I am pleased to report that some things that should never change haven’t and some things that perhaps needed to change have.  My next few entries will be about the eating portions of our trip, minus a few events reserved for the book. 

First up…Rigazzi's on the Hill

I am no fan of Italian-American restaurants.  Over-sweetened, thick tomato sauce, garlic bread, cheap wine, cheaper beer, wilted salads, rubbery bread, over-sauced pastas – you know the stereotype and there are plenty of places that fulfill it.  On the other hand, some of these places really aren’t too bad.  Rigazzi’s is one. 

Open since 1957 in the Hill neighborhood of St. Louis, Rigazzi’s looks like a movie set, replete with red and white checkered tablecloths, hanging stained glass and globe chandeliers over each table, and every square inch of wall space covered in newspaper articles, sports memorabilia and celebrity pictures.  I even sat next to a giant, fiberglass Al Capone.  
We ate lunch here one day before Christmas and found it extremely quiet, though I know it is bustling in the evening.  Service was lightning fast, so fast in fact that I am sure much was prepared and waiting for us.  The first dish was a St. Louis standard – toasted ravioli.  Rigazzi’s version of this local classic is one of the better.  The breading was minimal and most of the flavor came from the actual ravioli.  They were relatively small and completely full with a meat mixture.  The marinara sauce it was served with was pretty good, not too sweet and with a little meat.  This was accompanied by a salad that was predominately white with iceberg lettuce.  Nuff said.

Our entrees were simple - spaghetti and meatballs and a deep fried piece of catfish with a side of another St. Louis standard – mostaccioli.  The catfish was the size of a plate, battered with cornmeal and was quite good.  The spaghetti and meatballs were completely over-sauced (see stereotype) but delicious.  The meatballs were smooth, soft and fine with the mildest of herbs and spices.  The great quantity of sauce was mild, containing small pieces of meat, and not at all overly sweet.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the sauce.  I just wish there weren’t so much of it.  Though it did give me an excuse to consume most of the rather weak baguette we were served.  Now the mostaccioli… to most of the world mostaccioli is a pasta shape  – tubular, smooth and about 2 inches long.  In St. Louis it is a specific dish – mostaccioli sauced by a heavy, tomato paste-dominated sauce and baked.  It is the butt of jokes by non-St. Louisans and more than one person has commented that you know you are from St. Louis if your wedding featured the dish (along with toasted ravioli).  Rigazzi’s version was a pleasant surprise.  The sauce appeared to be the same meat sauce as the spaghetti and meatballs and the toasted ravioli’s dipping sauce.  It was not a goopy, sweat mess, but a respectable sauce resembling a simple bolognese.  Nor was Rigazzi’s version baked.  Most interesting, it didn’t even feature mostaccioli, but instead used penne rigate, mostaccioli’s ridged cousin.  This shape held the sauce much better than the traditional version would.              

For dessert we shared a Black and White – vanilla and chocolate hazelnut gelatos.  The serving was just right to share.  While the vanilla was lacking, the baccio, chocolate hazelnut was flavorful, but light as chocolates go.   

Rigazzi’s proved a casual, quiet lunch spot with dependable if not spectacular food.  And their versions of St. Louis standards are actually better than most I have had.  Service was kind, helpful but rushed, but prices were excellent, as lunch barely topped $30.  If you are new to St. Louis or just visiting, Rigazzi’s will be a good introduction to a few required local favorites. 
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