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."
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.
Gazing at the Tuscan-inspired murals in La Gra Italian Tapas & Wine Bar's dining room as the aroma of Italian tapas wafts through the air, guests might think they've been transported to the old country. However, while guests haven’t been secretly teleported to a Florentine trattoria, you can hardly blame them for making the mistake. Small plates of tomato-, caper-, and garlic-topped bruschetta or flash-fried Sicilian olives stuffed with gorgonzola cheese map out bite-sized guides to Italy’s native tastes. Fresh Mediterranean-inspired ingredients also populate larger entrees such as four-cheese veal parmesan and pizzas topped with provel cheese, yellow squash, and spicy garlic cream sauce.
Pours of domestic or imported red and white wine add Euro-style complements to meals occasionally accompanied by the strains of live music. More than 20 martinis also showcase the resident mixologists’ creativity, with the Cosmic Sorbet boasting citrus vodka and cranberry juice supplied by the astronauts who lead each year’s fruit harvest on Venus. While dinner is served and drinks flow seven nights a week, guests can also rent the dining room, bar, café, or entire restaurant for private parties that accommodate up to 100 attendees.
The doughsmiths at Cecil Whittaker’s Pizzeria craft thin-crust pizzas bubbling with an untouched surface of cheese or loaded with toppings such as jalapeño peppers, bacon, and shrimp. It’s their specialty and what they’re known for—“This is the place to go if you like St. Louis-style, thin-crust pizza (though they do offer a thick crust pizza, too) or just want to kick back and have a beer,” raves Metromix.
But the menu isn’t limited to pizzas. Each day, the kitchen roasts and slices tender beef for roast beef sandwiches dipped in savory au jus. The au jus is prepared in house, as is the meat sauce that graces Cecil Whittaker's pasta, chicken parmesan, and meatball sandwiches. There’s also a hearty selection of smokehouse dishes such as ribs, pulled pork, and brisket served with homestyle sides of green beans and coleslaw. A weekday lunch buffet from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. gives diners a chance to sample different entrees and sides–along with a salad and pizza bar–and creative additions the chefs cook up like sloppy joe's one day or bacon cheeseburgers the next.
When Mr. and Mrs. Kemoll opened Kemoll’s in 1927, Mrs. Kemoll served her mother’s authentic Italian recipes in a casual dining room adjacent to their living quarters. Today, the dining room fills the 40th floor of Metropolitan Square, the tallest building in downtown St. Louis. Two floors above, Kemoll’s Top of the Met banquet facility caters to weddings and private parties. Spectacular views of the city and riverfront helped Kemoll’s earn third place for Best Romantic Restaurant from CityVoter in 2010, and prompted Gayot to note that “the three-direction views only heighten what was already a lovely dining experience.” Lunch and dinner menus include Italian delicacies like cannelloni, manicotti, and Kemoll’s signature fried artichokes. In the spacious dining room, elegant place settings perch upon white tablecloths as diners attempt to spot celebrity clientele or undercover espionage agents from Chef Boyardee. Complimentary parking is available in an enclosed garage.