Inside the St. Louis Downtown Airport, travelers excitedly bustle about on their way to distant destinations or emerge from vacations rested and ready to return home. The constant stream of action is all part of the experience for diners at Crusoe’s on the Runway, which combines the spectacle of air travel with hearty American meals. Whether they’re traveling or just stopping by for a bite, diners fill their bellies as they overlook two of the three runways from the airport’s east ramp. St. Louis–style pizza, steaks, and pastas satiate hunger pangs, along with comfort food such as Mom’s meatloaf and country-fried steak. As they watch Airbus A320 jetliners and lightweight Boeing 757 aircrafts launch into the sky and gently touch down on the runway from their tables, guests can hold up score cards to judge the pilots’ form.
Oprah Winfrey. Frank Sinatra. Bill Clinton. Besides being household names, these American icons all have something else in common––they've all had the honor of dining on Chef Giovanni Gabriele's authentic, award-winning cuisine. While his passion for cooking was born in his native Sicily, it was Giovanni's other great love––his wife, Fina––that eventually led him to St. Louis, where he opened his restaurant in 1973. Just six years later, he found himself cooking for President Reagan at Reagan’s inaugural dinner, and the dish he made––a creamy bow-tie pasta topped with salmon and parmigiano––was renamed farfalline del Presidente Reagan in the commander in chief's honor. Today, it remains one of the most popular items on Giovanni's menu, alongside a host of other Italian pastas named for the celebrities who supped upon them.
But you don't have to be a celebrity or a politician to get the star treatment at Giovanni's. The restaurant has earned an AAA Four Diamond Award for 22 years running, in part due to the careful attention lavished upon each and every guest. Today, nearly 40 years after its inception, Giovanni's son Frank runs the kitchen, blending its iconic sauces and forming the housemade crepes, but Giovanni still commands the show, supervising in the kitchen, greeting patrons tableside, and mining the pepper and salt from nearby mountains himself.
Onesto is Italian for "honest," so it's no surprise the owners of Onesto Pizza & Trattoria strive for transparency when it comes to their food. They proudly showcase the list of more than 10 local farms from which they gather their menu's organic and seasonal fruit and antibiotic- and hormone-free meat. They even reveal the secrets behind their wild-mushroom- and Gulf-shrimp-topped pizzas by letting diners watch as each pie is hand-tossed. Pasta, from the housemade fettuccine to the macaroni and cheese served with lobster in a cast-iron skillet, joins elaborate seasonal entrees such as pan-seared wild striped bass, accompanied by a pumpernickel-crusted saffron risotto cake and sautéed spinach and apples in a lemongrass-butter broth. In addition to sourcing its ingredients locally, Onesto strives to reduce its carbon footprint by recycling, serving to-go orders in compostable containers, and asking diners to take off their carbon shoes at the door so as not to leave a footprint.
The gourmet ingredients and eco-friendly attitude seem to overshadow the restaurant's decor, which the Riverfront Times describes as "unassuming … with no obvious flash or flair." But subdued is sometimes best, as the paper named Onesto's "simple" patio as Best Outdoor Dining of 2010, hailing it as "an escape from the hustle and bustle of other St. Louis restaurant patios."
The modern flourishes on Copia's menu are grounded in the kind of American culinary tradition that chef Dave Rook knows best: raised in a family that ran a drive-in burgers-and-root-beer stand in Alton, Illinois, an appreciation for the comfortable side of dining runs in his blood. Globally inspired dashes of red chilies and champagne-goat-cheese cream take off from Midwestern classics, such as slow-roasted rotisserie chicken, house-smoked trout, and pork-rib chops.
Aided by a wine market whose bottles pour into the dining room at retail price, the downtown eatery aims to shuttle city dwellers directly into wine country with 18,000 square feet of exposed brick walls, wood-beam ceilings, and white tablecloths. Elsewhere within the rambling complex, natural light pours into an atrium garden, a glass waterfall neatly partitions off the bar to prevent diners from impulsively ordering every dish and drink they see, and stainless-steel vats age several of Copia's own wines. Much missed after a fire shuttered its initial incarnation, Copia was roundly welcomed back onto the St. Louis scene in 2010: among other praise, St. Louis Magazine called its calamari "as crispy-crunchy delectable as any seafood you’ll find in a New England clam shack" and its smoked ribs "the best upscale version of barbecue in the area."
The sausage recipe didn’t start with Helmut and Henry Wanninger, but they were the ones to bring it across the Atlantic in 1965. Sons of a sausage meister, Helmut and Henry left their home in Bavaria and set up shop in St. Louis, where they began spicing, grinding, and casing sausages to the delight of the city’s southern neighborhoods, home to many German immigrants. The popularity of their encased meats continues today, though cousins Bob and Gerhard are now the master meatsmiths. These Wanninger descendants prepare more than 30 different Bavarian-style sausages, including multiple types of bratwurst, specialty sausages such as bockwurst and smoked liverwurst, and Landjager beef sticks. These specialties grace venues all over St. Louis, from Grant’s Farm to Gus’ Pretzels to the Egypt-themed alternate reality that exists on the other side of the Arch.
Bob and Gerhard also apply their expertise to other styles of encased meats, such as andouille and chorizo, and they happily process deer for hunters. In addition to manning the meat counter, the duo stocks the shelves with German goods such as Lowensenf mustards and breads from local bakeries.
According to many members of the close-knit Italian community on The Hill, it was at a restaurant called Oldani's in the early 1940s that a clumsy chef dropped a piece of pasta in frying oil and created the first toasted ravioli. That dish went on to become a Saint Louis specialty, and Oldani's went on to become Mama's On The Hill, rechristened by matron Mama Campisi, who took it over in 1982. When Mama's sons, John and Frank, had to give up the restaurant in 2005, Lance and Andrea Ervin jumped at the chance to take over the culinary landmark. They reopened it in 2006, retaining many of Mama's original recipes as well as the crisp signature pasta.
Ivory and black stripes upholster padded chairs in the understated dining room, where a set of glowing candles are ensconced in a stone fireplace. Here, Mama's special recipes still serve as blueprints for many of the house sauces, including the marinara and parmesan cream. Salmon entrees are drizzled with her chianti-balsamic glaze, and deep-fried shrimp do cannonballs into her cocktail sauce.
Mama's famous fare also lures avid diners to enroll in culinary classes taught by kitchen staff. In the currently running sauces class, up to 20 students set pots a-simmer in groups of five, fueled by appetizers, snacks, and pep talks given by freshly cracked bottles of wine.