The scene: New York has Little Italy, San Francisco has North Beach and Boston has the North End, all among the nation’s most famous Italian neighborhoods. But The Hill in St. Louis, aptly named as the city’s highest point, may be the best preserved of them all, more a true neighborhood than a tourist attraction. Seemingly frozen in time for half a century, The Hill has a Romanesque church modeled after one in Milan, bocce courts, and quiet residential streets dotted with mom and pop Italian grocery stores and bakeries. Baseball great Yogi Berra grew up here, and is said to have coined his pet phrase, “It’s so crowded no one goes there anymore,” about the now defunct Ruggiero’s restaurant, where he once worked as a waiter.
In fact, people do still go there, both tourists and residents from other parts of St. Louis, because The Hill is home to some excellent Italian restaurants, the most famous of which is Charlie Gitto’s. In the tradition of Yogi, Charlie Gitto’s is popular with professional athletes, both local and visiting teams, and has a heavy dark-wood steakhouse feel, with a private room in the back named for former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. It has hosted everyone from Joe DiMaggio to Vincent Price, Barbara Bush to Mark McGwire, and according to current owner Charlie Gitto, Jr., “Anybody that’s anybody who visits St. Louis.”
But despite its long tradition of upscale Italian cuisine and celebrity clientele, the reason most people make it a point to get to Charlie Gitto’s is because this is the place that invented a true St. Louis specialty, toasted ravioli.
Reason to visit: Toasted ravioli, Amy’s gnocchi, Signature shrimp, Chicken Nunzio
The food: Toasted ravioli is ubiquitous in St, Louis, where it is commonplace not just on Italian menus but as a bar snack, transcending ethnic divides like the chicken wing or nachos. To a lesser extent you can find it outside of St. Louis, where it is usually called fried ravioli, and that’s what it is: breaded and deep-fried ravioli served as a starter or bar snack. There are other claimants, but Charlie Gitto’s is generally recognized as the birthplace of the dish in its previous incarnation as Angelo’s restaurant.
“Toasted ravioli was invented here in 1947,” says Charlie Junior. “Louis Townsend was the guy who accidentally dropped ravioli in the breadcrumbs. He decided to fry them instead of tossing them, and brought them to Angelo, who thought it was a great idea because he could quickly get them out to the bar. In the post-war era, the bars were really busy, all these classic cocktails, and Angelo served ravioli as bar food.” He showed me a clipping from a 1967 Life Magazine celebrating Angelo’s and the 20th anniversary of Townsend’s invention.
Charlie Gitto, Sr. worked for Angelo and eventually took over the restaurant, and when his son ascended to the throne in 1981 he changed the name, but not the recipe. “The ravioli are all handmade, irregularly shaped. Meat ravioli was always the standard, but sometimes I do a special, like seafood. Every single table, especially out of town guests, gets an order.” Keeping the tradition alive, staff sometimes passes complimentary toasted ravioli to bar patrons and those waiting for tables.
These are not your mass-market fried ravioli, which are usually heavy, greasy, and made from cheese ravioli. These are stuffed with a rich and tasty mix made from whole pieces of chicken, veal and beef that are slow-roasted with vegetables, then ground up and encased in fresh homemade pasta. The breading is very light, the pasta also light and tender, and the interior delicious, the consistency of very good homemade meatballs. They are instantly addictive, and one of the rare such regional “delicacies” that lives up to – or exceeds – their billing.
Surprising for a place known for a bar snack, Charlie Gitto’s is a decidedly upscale restaurant featuring 28-day dry-aged steaks, seafood, and a wide selection of pastas, all homemade daily, plus a huge wine list. While ravioli run $10, most entrees are $25 and up, and the dry-aged ribeye tops out at $42. Entrée specialties include Chicken Nunzio, a breaded cutlet topped with fresh lump crabmeat and lemon sauce; Amy’s gnocchi, named for Gitto’s daughter and tossed with pan-crisped prosciutto, fresh peas, and mushrooms, in a buttery chicken-broth reduction; and the Signature shrimp, jumbo crustaceans flash-cooked at 1600-degrees with garlic, butter, and seasonings. Gitto has three other restaurants, all serving “The Original” toasted ravioli, including locations at the Harrah’s casinos in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes – the toasted ravioli are better than you could reasonably expect, and the entire menu is full of tasty choices.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: Original, 5226 Shaw Ave., St. Louis; 314-772-8898; charliegittos.com