Review: Trattoria Marcella in St. Louis
Going into the restaurant business may be a better bet than dropping a chip on a casino roulette wheel, but not much. Nationally, more than half the new ones fail within a year, and sad tales of failure are legendary and numerous.
Trattoria Marcella is one of the great St. Louis success stories of the last decade, and the accomplishments of Steve and Jamie Komorek continue rock-solid, even as their popularity grows.
The restaurant, where casual dress holds forth, has expanded to offer a little more space. Even though the noise level remains high, new wall hangings provide a more relaxed aura. Servers are excellent in all respects. But in the final analysis, at least to the Guru, the rich, delicious food keeps getting better while the kitchen shows more and more imagination. And at the same time, prices remain amazingly modest.
I can think of a dozen local restaurants that charge a lot more, but fall far short of the taste appeal of dinners served in the modest south St. Louis location.
Summer may be the very best time for Italian dinners, because tomatoes are at their best, and they play such a large role in the Italian kitchen. On a recent visit to Trattoria Marcella, the famed panzanella, or bread-and-tomato salad, bolstered with herbs and olive oil, was tasty and delightful, though the sweetness offered by the balsamic vinegar might seem a bit off-putting to some. Fresh, beautifully ripened tomatoes are always welcome, and are the prime reason to live in St. Louis in August. Spinach salad, in a red wine-and-basil vinaigrette, was improved with the addition of smoked salmon bacon and a handful of crisp, well-drained shoestring potatoes. Smoked salmon bacon, by the way, is heavily smoked salmon, sliced and crisped like bacon. Caesar salads include fresh, tasty arugula and romaine, dressing that is redolent of anchovies and superior garlic croutons. A minor shortcoming was a too-heavy hand with dressing; it should cover the leaves and not puddle in the plate.
Appetizers include the perennial favorite of fried spinach and calamari, a brilliant combination dusted with fresh Parmesan cheese to add extra flavor and a new dimension to fritto misto, and a plate of roasted mushrooms atop polenta french fries. That's a superior dish, but polenta fries, though tasty, are becoming too common in local restaurants. A special appetizer on one visit was chilled cantaloupe soup, a dreamy delicacy in the summer, though with certain restrictions. At the beginning of a meal, I prefer my tastes to be savory. Save the sweets for dessert. I asked if the soup was sweet, and was told it was. But, the server added, it has crisp pancetta bits and some gorgonzola cheese that offset some of the sweetness.
"Save a bowl," I said. "I'll have it for dessert." And I did, as will be shown later.
A handful of small pizzas are on the appetizer menu, and they're of a perfect size for a pair of diners to share. Pancetta (Italian bacon) and spinach, with roasted garlic and real mozzarella cheese, is my favorite. Other available toppings are prosciutto from Parma with mascarpone cheese and oregano, four cheeses with mixed greens and tomatoes, pepperoni and red onions and roasted vegetables and caramelized onions.
From Day One, Marcella has had liver on the menu, served with pancetta, caramelized onions, rosemary and a Marsala wine sauce atop nicely garlicked mashed potatoes. When I grew up, liver was a regular in the starting dinner rotation, and I've always been a fan. Given its success at Marcella, it's obviously favored in other quarters. Thin slices, cooked on the rare side, come out as a tender, taste-filled entree. A pork chop special produced a giant chop of superior flavor, though it was a little too pink for a visiting diner, slightly squeamish about undercooked pork. It went back to the kitchen to return a few minutes later at the peak of flavor and of perfect doneness.
Other entrees are chicken spiedini, a boneless breast which holds prosciutto and a host of other good things; salmon stuffed with pistachio pesto; grilled lamb chop with eggplant risotto; grilled beef tenderloin with roasted garlic and barolo wine sauce, piled high with mushrooms; and veal Marsala, thin slices with the traditional Marsala wine sauce, mushrooms and sweet red peppers.
A shrimp/scampi special involved perfectly grilled, large shrimp, tasty and just toothy enough to give them outstanding texture as well as flavor. The added fillip of porcini dust atop the shrimp brought a lovely extra hint of mushroom, always one of my favorites. This is the sort of special dish that is truly special, and if it is an experiment for a menu addition, I say add it.
Pastas at Marcella are outstanding; Mrs. Guru always has maintained that St. Louis Italian restaurants do not get the credit they should for truly splendid pasta dishes. Perhaps it's the fact that thousands of Italian home cooks do almost as well. But lasagna was superb, a great balance of meat (both beef and sausage), ricotta, mozzarella, pasta and sauce, and linguine with clam sauce was equally good, with a handful of clams, in their shells, riding on top for a final fillip of flavor and texture.
Lobster risotto, long a signature dish, lived up to its reputation and then some, because the huge portion provided leftovers and the rice dish was even better for lunch the next day, the flavors having spread perfectly throughout the dish.
The Komoreks have a fine wine list, and it was an extra pleasure to see a Missouri chardonel, from Mount Pleasant, offered on a chalkboard list of wine specials over the bar. Chardonel is a hybrid grape, created by crossing chardonnay with seyval blanc, and the offspring is able to withstand the temperature shifts of a Missouri winter, something that chardonnay cannot do. The dry white was a nice companion to a salad course, and when heartier fare came along, an Italian Capannece, a hearty red wine from Tuscany, was a nifty addition to the meal.
The dessert list includes standards like creme brulee and tiramisu, which are eminently satisfactory, plus a pleasing chocolate tart. But I did not forget the cantaloupe soup which is not, as far as I know, an Italian dish, but which is delicious. Getting the pancetta crispy was a trick in itself and the gorgonzola added a fine and sharp contrast. But the soup was as fine a dessert as I can imagine – light, flavorful, sweet with a bit of sharp, and with some crunchy texture.
Trattoria Marsala, a south side winner, is a restaurant for family groups, dating couples, folks celebrating anniversaries or birthdays. It is, in the finest sense of the word, all things to all people.