Toasted Ravs: This St. Louis tradition is a labor of love

Let’s face it – if you’re from St. Louis, you take toasted ravioli for granted. Along with the gooey butter cakes and Provel-cheese pizzas of traditional St. Louis fare, toasted ravioli tends to get lost amidst the hubbub over the city’s newest sushi lounge or its slickest Friday night hotspot. In our fervor to renovate St. Louis and take on the best of modern cities nationwide, we sometimes forget to appreciate the local charms that have always been ours. But other cities have become increasingly curious about our toasted ravioli, and it’s about time that we, too, pay homage to St. Louis’ very own culinary wonder.

Because toasted ravioli is a St. Louis tradition, our chefs certainly have the patent on how to make them best from scratch. But with the upsurge of pre-frozen varieties in many chain restaurants, it’s hard to know where to find the real thing. Luckily, in the birthplace of this quirky appetizer, it is possible to find the original, homemade toasted ravioli that is as delicious as it is unique.

It is rumored that toasted ravioli was invented at Angelo’s on The Hill in 1947, when the chef was transferring ravioli to a pan and it fell into bread crumbs (there are other stories out there, but this is the most commonly accepted version). He tried frying the accidentally breaded ravioli and started the recipe for what we now know as toasted ravioli. Charlie Gitto’s on The Hill now occupies the space where Angelo’s used to be, and the spirit of the former restaurant must still benevolently haunt the place, because Charlie Gitto’s is famous for its homemade toasted ravioli.

If you order this renowned treat at Charlie Gitto’s, what arrives at your table is the result of what can only be described as a labor of love. Making toasted ravioli isn’t easy, but general manager Eric Vogel breaks down the process by stressing the two main tenets of great toasted ravioli: a tasty filling and a good recipe for the dough.

“For our filling, we combine our meats with Parmesan cheese and Italian seasonings,” explained Vogel. “We run all of the ingredients through a meat grinder together, a process that force-marinates everything together and gives it the consistency of pâté.” The use of the meat grinder deepens the flavor of the filling, which is then spread onto a sheet of homemade dough. After the filling has been spread out, another sheet of dough is layered on top and then the ravioli are scored with a ravioli roller.

“The roller has the diameter of a half-dollar and is crinkled so that it seals the dough together,” Vogel said. “After the roller is used, we use a ravioli cutter to separate the raviolis. They turn out very irregular, without those nice, creased edges that you see on store-bought raviolis. They’re very homemade-looking.”

When the ravioli are cut, they must be frozen immediately so that they’ll be hard enough to bread and fry. For the frying process, Vogel stressed that the oil must be a certain temperature in order to produce the best results. “Frying is really a dry-cooking method,” he explained. “The deep fryer should be set to around 375 degrees because if the oil is hot enough, it doesn’t penetrate the food. It just crisps the edges, which is how toasted ravioli should be prepared. If done correctly, fried food really isn’t as bad for you as you might think.” At Charlie Gitto’s, the outcome of such thorough preparation is a reputation for some of the best toasted ravioli in the city.

Lombardo’s Trattoria, located near Union Station, substitutes the more traditional Parmesan cheese in the toasted ravioli recipe with Romano cheese. Lombardo’s t-ravs are three times the size of your typical store-bought delicacy, and unlike the square with scalloped edges, Lombardo’s ravioli also are crescent-shaped. If you’re looking for a little more crunchy dough on your ravioli, Lombardo’s claims to have heavier and doughier t-ravs than anywhere else.

Kemoll’s downtown is also known for its homemade toasted ravioli, made from a recipe that has been passed down as a family tradition. As director of marketing and public relations Ellen Cusumano explained, the recipe began with her great-grandmother, Grace Danna, and was carried on by an employee named Martella Grigsby, who continues to make them to this day. “Martella has worked for Kemoll’s for over 40 years and is now retired, but she still comes in just to make the toasted ravioli,” Cusumano said. “My grandmother taught her how to make them, and Martella would make the filling and bring some for her to taste. This went on for years, until she felt confident enough to make it on her own.”

The reason for such painstaking care is that the filling must be just right if the toasted ravioli are to be a success. “The filling must contain the perfect amount of meats, cheese, salt, pepper and herbs,” Cusumano said. “Breading and frying are child’s play compared to the construction.”

Grigsby oversees the ravioli construction at Kemoll’s, which includes everything from making the filling to dipping the raviolis in coating and freezing them until they’re ready to be deep-fried. Now a master at creating the old family recipe from the original instructions, Grigsby has become an indispensable part of the restaurant’s heritage. “She taught me how to make apple pies before I could even see over the counter,” Cusumano said. “She is like family to us.”

Most restaurants that make their toasted ravioli in-house will use beef and veal in the filling, though other meats are possible as well. If you’re a vegetarian looking for a good cheese-filled toasted ravioli, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one in St. Louis – unless you make it at home. You might be violating the traditional recipe if you do so, but at least you’ll be able to enjoy this special treat along with your fellow (meat-eating) St. Louisans. If you’re trying these at home, it’s also important to remember that if you don’t own a deep fryer, you can always use a skillet.

However you choose to enjoy toasted ravioli, look to the restaurants of St. Louis for guidance as to how they should be done. In the home of this unique indulgence, we’re lucky to have at our fingertips the restaurants where the tradition began.