The Hill, St Louis
We have long been aware of the reputation of St Louis' famous "The Hill" neighborhood and felt we could not have real roadfood cred without finally getting out there. We had attempted a visit years ago on a Sunday and found everything closed, but this time we would not be denied--Saturday dinner on The Hill was the plan and to be a highlight of the trip.
We did not make a reservation anywhere as we did not want to go in sight unseen. Plus we would need an establishment with a certain feel. The focus of our weekend was a performance at the famous Fox Theatre (Young Frankenstein) at 8:00, one of America's grandest 1920s movie palaces, beautifully restored for popular live performances. As we would be dressed for the theater we did not want to go to a loud sports bar atmosphere, but we also did not want to be too fancy (or expensive) either. Plus, on Saturday about 6:00, we needed somewhere we could get in.
So with those and other factors in mind we set out with the thought that (a) we could find an appropriate place and look at posted menus and (b) that if we were early they could squeeze in a party of two. We decided to cruise through the neighborhood to see our choices and then set out on foot. Green, white and red lightpole banners announced we were in the right place, as did green, white and red fire hydrants. Navigating the narrow streets took us through a tidy working class neighborhood of 1920s bungalows, all immaculately kept with pride. On the corners were the restaurants in their 1920s buildings, some with diners already waiting outside. When we drove past the St. Ambrose Church (with the Father welcoming worshippers) and the Amighetti's Bakery we knew this must be the center of the action and parked. A sign for an upcoming Bocce tournament was the final signal we were about to experience the real deal.
We took an enjoyable stroll down the quiet street and it occurred to me that this quaint little neighborhood was just like my grandparent's must have in the 1940s. I could guess everybody knew everybody and was happy these nice people had stood in defiance of the urban blight that greeted so much of the rest of St Louis and other cities. We walked past a few places (had a list of possibilities from roadfood.com) and literally followed our nose to Mama Campisi's corner. www.mamacampisis.com
I went inside to beg for a table from the hostess and she said they could probably squeeze us in in less than 30 minutes. The place smelled fabulous and was just the right feel we wanted--smaller than we expected, just a little crowded but not too much, warm and inviting, looking right for a special occasion but without being stuffy or high dollar about it. As we waited outside a tuxedoed gentleman came across the street and greeted us as he entered, reminding us that a good restaurant almost always requires some wait.
We were soon seated in a small table in the middle of the room, but would hardly quibble about that. Our waiter Sam had the confident air of a guy welcoming us to HIS neighborhood, HIS dining room. He served our drinks and a basket of bread, with both (real) butter and a little oil for dipping. Here we both knew that self control would have to be exercised, as we were going to eat a fine Italian dinner with garlic then go directly to sit in a theater with vulnerable strangers very close beside. In the interest of good citizenship we brought extra breath mints, mouthwash, and, in case of emergency, toothpaste and toothbrushes. Tonight we would need the toothbrushes.
The garlic oil was UN-believable, by far the best I ever had. Rita bravely resisted but I weakly caved in to temptation. Sam came back with a bowl of fresh grated parmesian and instructed us to forget the butter (normally I would laugh off such a suggestion as ridiculous) and mix up a little garlic oil and parmesian. WOW! I began to pity our neighbors at the theater, but not enough to stop now. And it was time to order.
The menu was extensive and reasonably priced, but once again we had conditions. Locally we will order large portions and take them home for another dinner, but when on the road we cannot do that. We also did not want to be uncomfortably full at the theater, AND we wanted to save room for desert at Ted Drewes after the performance. We noticed the pasta dishes were entree only, no soup or salad, and Rita decided maybe that would be good. So we ordered two favorites, Lasagna and Seafood Linguine, both seen on the web page link. Shortly after ordering who stepped up to our table but Mr Tuxedo, who signalled the bar to turn on his microphone for his performance singing Sinatra and Dean Martin standards while strolling the dining room passing out flower buds to the ladies and kissing babies. A little cheesy, we first thought, but after a while the warm, old school mood soaked over us both. THIS was a great place!
While we waited Rita asked what was this "wedge salad" she had seen on the menu? I knew then this was a REAL old school happening and in describing it with "Mad Men" and Walnut Room references (hello Chicagoans) I cautioned her that it would be much more than a mere side salad. Her curiosity is peaked to try one soon. The food arrived and the portion was large, but we were ready. The lasagna was delicious, described on the menu on our link and some of the best I have ever had. The seafood linguine featured a crawfish as a centerpiece (my crawfish cracking skills were a little rusty) and enormous shrimp and scallops, with a linguine in a lobster and crab cream sauce. All delicious. There were only four scallops and shrimp each, but they were the biggest I have ever had. The scallops were bigger than an old Silver Dollar and the shrimp were half again as big as my thumbs--to ensure even distibution I could cut each into four quarters and have each bite almost as big as an ordinary shrimp. But I did find the linguine to be a bit bland. I sprinked some parmesian on it, and then it hit me--what I really needed--a spoonful of garlic dipping oil. PERFECT! Sorry fellow theatergoers.
We much enjoyed watching the crowd, listening to Mr Tuxedo, and finishing our entrees. Ted Drewes or no we decided a little tiramisu and coffee was in order to sweeten the palate and cut through the garlic (didn't really work, but that was our excuse). Sam assured us he would get us out in time to get to the theater and the tiramisu was pronounced excellent. An average cannolli was also consumed to little fanfare. And off we went, looking for a place to brush. Mama Campisi's and The Hill were great. Now, buffetbuster, we just need to get some Gooey Butter Cake. Todd & Rita
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