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Taste of Italia - Amighetti's Bakery
Amighetti's Bakery & Cafe is known for its freshly made, Italian bread sandwiches.
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Taste of Italia - gelato
Gelato, from Amighetti's or Charlie Gitto's, is a wonderful finish to a meal.
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Taste of Italia - Charlie Gitto's
Charlie Gitto's features classic Italian dishes made from scratch.
St. Louis Neighborhood Serves Up Italy
by Nina Furstenau
They came. They stayed. They made pasta.
The Italian immigrants of The Hill at St. Louis built their neighborhood of bricks made from the clay mines below, but the mortar that held their culture together was food.
In addition to all the home chefs in the area, there are nineteen-plus restaurants at The Hill, according to The Hill Business Association. They sit among narrow shotgun houses with scrubbed front steps, near The Italian Immigrants statue on the corner of Wilson and Marconi at the parish church, St. Ambrose. All of these structures stand in a fifty-six-block area with a square-shouldered sturdiness. A visitor can almost feel the hard work, pride, and heritage steeped in the neighborhood. And, according to Eric Vogel, operating partner of Charlie Gitto’s on The Hill, when you talk about Italian culture, you are talking about food.
“It’s the way of life. If you ask an Italian what he’s thinking about, it is
the next meal.” Eric says.
Experts, such as Rowland Berthoff in An Unsettled People, say that modern life is “essentially uncommunal,” and this creates social ill. But the connection between neighbors on The Hill has always been strong; perhaps it was because of the connection to their homeland or the labor of working in clay mines and brick factories or the daily walk up the hill home from those jobs thinking about fresh-made pastas. In fact, 75 percent of the neighborhood remains Italian, according to www.stlouis.about.com.
A bird’s-eye view of The Hill would reveal rows of rooftops that resemble rail cars—narrow and long in their yards. In fact, the homes are designed a bit like the rail cars that brought their occupants to the mines and factories at the turn of the century: parents at the front, children at the back, and a kitchen in the middle for meals together. It’s hard to say whether the shotgun-style homes were modeled after the train cars that brought the settlers across the Midwest from New York, though the
design complemented the Italian preference for making the kitchen the center of home and life.
There was very little habitation on The Hill before 1890, according to the “History of St. Louis Neighborhoods,” by Norbury L. Wagman. But 1904, 1905, and 1906 brought in immigrants like never before. One-story brick homes began appearing, and the cornerstone for St. Ambrose Parochial School was laid in 1906. Today, the narrow homes have newer second stories added on top to keep growing families from moving elsewhere. Small scenes of Mary or the Holy Family, in niches of ivy or spotlighted, dot the fronts of some of the homes, and thick vines of settled gardens enliven small yards. Fire hydrants along the streets are painted green, white, and red, the colors of the Italian flag.
Many residents of The Hill are descendants of immigrants who left Lombardy and Sicily. These diverse regions of Italy found common ground in the work of clay mines or in the brick making from that clay in St. Louis. At the turn of the century, after a day spent loading clay in rail cars for forty cents per car or pushing wheelbarrows full of bricks for fifteen cents an hour, according to Eleanor Berra Marfisi in The Hill: Its History—Its Recipes, the men would wend their way home up the steep, muddy hill near the highest point in the city, hence earning the neighborhood its moniker.
The area’s strong sense of community saved The Hill several times, Marfisi says. In 1956, plans for Interstate 44 bisected The Hill, cutting off 150 families. In the 1960s, a local lead company petitioned to pump slurry into abandoned clay mines under The Hill’s foundations, and a drive-in theater was once planned amongst the residential streets. Residents of thearea rallied to raise fifty thousand dollars to add an overpass to Interstate 44 and keep the neighborhood intact, to deny the permit to dump waste into the mines, and to stop the building of the drive-in.
This focus and sense of purpose kept the community feel of The Hill in place throughout the century and has served up a restaurant district in St. Louis straight out of the Old World. The foods found in The Hill’s restaurants and grocery stores reflect the homeland of its settlers. Italian cuisine, whether northern or southern, can be seen in restaurant dishes that encompass far more than pasta—dishes like zuppa di pesce (fish soup), risotto with fresh tomato, Milanese-style veal chops, and zucchini bruschetta.
The dishes from the north reflect a more pastoral land, Eric says. “There’s more milk and more cream in those dishes, and you get more tubular pastas.” In southern dishes, the pastas are often flat and dishes like putinesca, with hand-squeezed plum tomatoes, kalamata olives, and anchovies, are more common.
One recipe developed independently of Italy, however: St. Louis’s own toasted ravioli. A certain American fusion is noticeable in this dish and, if the rumor about its origin is true, a certain admonition not to waste your food helped. Neighborhood lore from The Hill has it that toasted ravioli was invented at Angelo’s at The Hill in 1947 when the chef was transferring ravioli to a pan and it fell into bread crumbs. Instead of throwing the dropped pieces out, he tried frying the accidentally breaded pasta, and an indulgence was born. On The Hill, toasted ravioli dough is made from scratch with beef and veal in the filling. Tangy dipping sauce serves to draw out the flavors.
Charlie Gitto’s on The Hill, now in the spot of Angelo’s, offers up “the original” toasted ravioli for diners. Entering the restaurant is a step into warm greetings and deep colors. A long bar, with wine stems hanging above the far end, flanks the right side of the front room. The mirrors, iron scrollwork, and wood-beamed ceilings create intimacy and contrast to the white-tablecloth setting. The restaurant seats 150 after a renovation enclosed a long courtyard in 1989. A walled portion of courtyard still exists with outdoor seating and can be seen through leaded-glass partitions.
Toasted ravioli is a tasty start to a meal here. Though some chain restaurants are starting to serve versions of this Missouri classic, the tangy sauce that accompanies the made-from-scratch, beef-and-veal-stuffed ravioli cannot be beat. Next, try Veal or Chicken Nunzio, named after Charlie’s late brother. The veal version consists of pan-seared thinly sliced veal with a white wine and lemon butter sauce. Jumbo lump crabmeat and Provel cheese garnish the veal beautifully. (Provel cheese is a blend of provolone, Swiss, and cheddar. It is exclusively made and distributed by Roma groceries of St. Louis.) Sweet potato soufflé and roasted eggplant cannelloni accompany
the entree. Another enticing option for pasta lovers is Penne Borghese in which brandy-glazed, diced yellow onions and prosciutto enliven a cream pomodoro sauce. To finish, tiramisu made on-site is tall, delicate, and rich. Freshly made gelato is also offered. Certified wine sommeliers on the floor assist with the perfect selections, and fresh produce, taken directly from the restaurant garden, is used whenever possible. Fresh-baked bread from Fazio’s Bakery at The Hill, excellent coffee, and service make a meal at Charlie Gitto’s a pleasure.
Gitto is a well-known name in the restaurant business in St. Louis. Charlie Gitto’s on The Hill began after Charlie Jr. purchased Angelo’s in 1981. In 2004 he opened Charlie Gitto’s in Harrah’s casino. His father, most certainly, began the restaurateur’s interest in the business. Charlie Sr., who was inducted into the Missouri Restaurant Hall of Fame in 2005, was maitre d’ of Angelo’s prior to his 1974 opening of Charlie Gitto’s Pasta House near the St. Louis baseball stadium. The family was always surrounded by Italian foods made from scratch—even the tomato paste was made from homegrown tomatoes out of the back garden. This influence reached out to brother Johnny Gitto, who operates Johnny Gitto’s in south St. Louis.
In addition to the fine foods, The Hill has another draw for fans of baseball. Three members of the Baseball Hall of Fame lived within one block of Elizabeth Avenue. Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola grew up across the street from one another. And broadcaster Jack Buck bought his first home here. For soccer fans, visit Soccer Hall of Fame Place, on Daggett Avenue between Shaw’s Coffee and St. Ambrose Catholic Church. Five Hill residents from the 1950 U.S. World Cup soccer team are honored here for their upset of number one ranked England.
When visiting The Hill, go early and check out the foods available at Viviano’s & Sons grocery at 5139 Shaw Avenue. It’s a wonderful place made somehow complete with family photos on the walls and a poster near the register of The Sands in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop lounging in front. You’ll also find Italian wines, balsamic vinegar, a full half-aisle of olive oil choices, asiago and other cheeses, frozen cannelloni, sausages, and savories, such as jars of straw mushrooms, sea clams, and grape leaves. Feast your eyes on pastas like pastina cellentani (twisted macaroni), ziti, rigatoni, linguine sold in packages with Italian descriptions or wrapped in white paper for bulk sales. In the early days, John Viviano would extend credit to his customers in a credit book that patrons could pay off as they were able, Marfisi says. It’s the kind of store that seems as if it still might do so.
If you plan your trip right, you’ll be able to squeeze in Amighetti’s Cafe and Bakery at 5141 Wilson Avenue for lunch. It’s worth a stop, and a deep breath. The aroma is straight-up bakery—tantalizing and yeasty, making you want to reach for the butter. They are known for the Amighetti Special and Little Bit of Italy sandwiches that have freshly made Italian bread as a base and a host of toppings, including fresh mozzarella and brick cheeses, Genoa salami, ham, olives, onions, special sauce, and garlic butter. Bakery cannoli is a good choice for a sweet, complete with flaky bits of crust that will dust your shirt front as you chew.
Be sure to see the statue of The Italian Immigrants at Marconi and Wilson streets outside St. Ambrose church. After you look over the Rudy Torrini piece, consider a stop at Milo’s Bocce Garden at 5201 Wilson Avenue, just behind you. Bocce, a game played by eight people in two teams, has a rectangular court with a short wall on its borders. Milo’s has courts behind his tavern for those wanting to try a toss.
After strolling The Hill, the mix of beauty, flavor, and history lingers long after you leave. It is a postcard of Americana—neat rows of small homes, clean streets, grocers, and restaurants—and here and there, a bocce court.