Feast on St. Louis: The Hill

Monday October 2, 2017

Written by Bethany Christo

Photography by Jacklyn Meyer

If you stand at the intersection of Marconi and Wilson avenues, you can admire much of The Hill’s appeal and essence. On one corner is the towering red-brick St. Ambrose Catholic Church, built in 1926, that became a gathering hub for the Italian immigrants who comprised the close-knit community. On the other corners are a locally owned Italian gift and import shop, a small-batch gelateria and Milo’s Bocce Garden with an outdoor court lit up with friendly competition. And across the street is Amaghetti’s – serving authentic Italian cuisine and bakery items that make up the heart of what it’s like to dine in St. Louis’ own Little Italy.

Many establishments on The Hill claim some kind of renown – at Rigazzi’s, it’s being the most time-honored. Established in 1957 by friends John Riganti and Lou Aiazzi (pronounced “ozzie”) and operated to this day by the Aiazzi family, the restaurant is the oldest on The Hill and best known for its generous portions of pastas and equally mammoth “frozen fishbowls” – 32-ounce frosted goblets that can be filled with beer or your drink of choice. Red-and-white-checkered tablecloths top tables in the dining room, where you could spend hours examining the history covering the walls – from signed and framed photographs of famous patrons to smiling figurines on shelves to a stained-glass homage to the fishbowl behind the bar.

“The Hill is still very much an Italian community,” says Rigazzi president Joan Aiazzi, whose late husband, Mark, was Lou’s son and took over the business at age 18 when his father passed in 1974. “It’s really an authentic, hometown, old-school place. This building is 100 years old, and we’ve been here for 60 of those years. This is home. We still make almost all of our food from scratch using my father-in-law’s recipes, which came from Italy.”

Along with St. Louis-style pizza, must-trys include the Eggplant Stack with layers of breaded eggplant, fresh mozzarella, tomato, arugula and balsamic vinaigrette, as well as chicken parmiciano, Mark’s Special Chopped Salad and toasted ravioli – perhaps the most iconic dish to come out of The Hill. At Rigazzi’s, the stuffed pasta is lightly breaded before it’s deep fried, resulting in golden and crispy yet pillowlike T-ravs.

The Hill restaurant that claims to be the birthplace of the local specialty is just down the street at Charlie Gitto’s, where current chef-owner Charlie Gitto Jr. says toasted ravioli was created from a serendipitous accident in the kitchen in 1947 (the space was then called Angelo’s), after a chef dropped a ravioli into hot oil rather than a pot of water. Although the T-ravs haven’t changed much since then, Gitto, who started wrapping potatoes and polishing brass in the kitchen in grade school, took over in 1981. He changed the name on the door and added an emphasis on impeccable service to accompany your meal. All the restaurant’s bread, pastas and desserts are made in house, and fish is flown in daily and broken down in the back by Gitto’s son, Anthony.

“We prepare our food with old-fashioned, old-world standards, and some of the recipes go back in my family for generations,” Gitto says. “I’m passing those on to thenew generation – my daughter and my son. We also stay in touch with what people want, with new items coming [out of] our kitchen all the time.”

Signatures include the extra-large CG Signature Shrimp; Seafood Pasta Suzanne with fresh housemade tagliatelle in a three-pepper cream sauce with shrimp, scallops, clams, langostinos and mussels; veal Milanese; beef Siciliano; and, of course, that iconic toasted ravioli.

Strolling the streets on The Hill, Italian pride is everywhere – you’ll spot painted fire hydrants, Italian flags hanging on front porches and bustling Italian markets filled with deli meat cut to order, shelves of pastas and sauces, and cases of fresh Italian cookies and other bakery items. Be sure to seek out the packed, spacious patio at Favazza’s on The Hill. Owned by brothers John and Tony Favazza, the restaurant was founded in 1978 by their father, the late Vito Favazza; their mother, Ellen; and Tony. Favazza’s started with 75 seats and has grown in capacity now to fit 530 guests in its dining rooms, indoor and outdoor patios, and banquet room. The menu serves variations of Ellen’s family recipes, including signatures such as Sicilian chicken, veal saltimbocca, lasagna, linguine pescatore and Steak Mudega, a lightly breaded and charbroiled 8-ounce filet mignon topped with cheese, white sauce, prosciutto and mushrooms.

A short walk from Favazza’s is the 5400 block of Elizabeth Avenue, renamed Hall of Fame Place to honor the great Yogi Berra, Joe Garagiola and Jack Buck who grew up there. Another sport, cycling, hosts an important event, Giro Della Montagna, that’s part of the four-day Gateway Cup cycling race held in the neighborhood every Labor Day weekend.

The Hill serves more than just classic Italian fare, too, like the loaded dogs at Steve’s Hot Dogs or tasty tacos at Cha Cha Chow. Guido’s serves a mix of authentic Italian cuisine, Mediterranean fare and Spanish tapas. Chef-owner Miguel Carretero cooks family recipes that his mother and father, Genevieve and Segundo, brought from Madrid. Think Paella Valenciana with saffron rice, fresh seafood, chicken and vegetables; mejillones en salsa de jerez (steamed mussels in a sherry sauce); tortellini; and St. Louis-style pizza including Guido’s Deluxe with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onion and green pepper.

O’Connell’s Pub – which was founded in 1962 in what was then known as the Gaslight Square district before moving to its current location 10 years later – has been serving a mostly unchanged menu throughout its history. The menu is full of quirky “O’Connellisms”: For example, only one dressing – Mayfair – is offered, and the pub doesn’t serve tomatoes. Its 9-ounce charbroiled burgers have stood the test of time in the historically significant space, which still features original woodwork, fixtures, beveled-glass windows and chandeliers, as well as an antique shop upstairs. Other favorites include the Friday fish-and-chips special, the roast beef sandwich and the cold shrimp appetizer.

Bordering The Hill on the far southwest side, LoRusso’s Cucina is sometimes classified in Lindenwood Park, although its Italian fare is on par with anything found in The Hill proper. Chef-owner Rich LoRusso was born and raised on The Hill, and his grandparents emigrated from Sicily and brought tradition and history with them. LoRusso’s recipes are Sicilian family staples he learned from his mother that have been passed down for generations.

“Our most popular dish is our marinated Tenderloin Mudega; people will come in after two years and not even open the menu because they know that’s what they’ll order,” LoRusso says. “Our Cioppino Majerus seafood stew is quite phenomenal, and it’s named that after Saint Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus said it was the best he’d had in the world.”

Many head to LoRusso’s for special occasions and for its daily fish specials like swordfish, scallops and amberjack – “People trust us with fish preparation,” LoRusso says – but also for signatures such as tuna carpaccio, a fettucine chicken-Asiago pasta bowl, filet Gorgonzola and a decadent appetizer trio of wild mushrooms in Champagne-porcini cream.

A visit to The Hill is special, no matter where you go. It’s a time-honored destination that has maintained a strong sense of community, culture and, of course, tasty cuisine.

“If you want to experience The Hill, come and walk around: You see people sweeping their sidewalks, hosing down the street, manicuring their lawns, speaking Italian,” LoRusso says. “It’s an icon for St. Louis. There’s a lot of tradition, and there’s a lot of history.”

Charlie Gitto’s on The Hill, 5226 Shaw Ave., St. Louis, Missouri, 314.772.8898, charliegittos.com

Favazza’s on The Hill, 5201 Southwest Ave., St. Louis, Missouri, 314.772.4454, favazzas.com

Guido’s, 5046 Shaw Ave., St. Louis, Missouri, 314.771.4900, guidosstl.com

LoRusso’s Cucina, 3121 Watson Road, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.647.6222, lorussos.com

O’Connell’s Pub, 4652 Shaw Ave., St. Louis, Missouri, 314.773.6600, saucemagazine.com/oconnells

Rigazzi’s, 4945 Daggett Ave., St. Louis, Missouri, 314.772.4900, rigazzis.com

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