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Aug 23, 2014
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Sip Vino at Bar Italia
By Sean Hixson
Posted On: 08/12/2003   

I heard the whistle first. Even among the drunken shrills of bachelorettes pouring out of the bus and stumbling into M.P. O’Reilly’s across the street, the whistle stood out. This was a “Darn it, look!” alarm, blown with some East-side rhythm. Of course, I looked.

Next I saw the baton with blinking green lights, flipping 30 feet above Maryland Avenue. Then I saw Bob Jamerson … tossing, pirouetting, catching, strutting and repeating – like any good drum major on a slow Maryland Avenue parade would.

Between the darkness and his tight whirls, it was hard to see his getup at first. As usual, he dressed to be noticed: a tight white mini-dress, white fish-net tights, white boots with pompoms, and, just in case that wasn’t enough to grab you, a crown of blinking green lights matching his baton. Jamerson brought his show inside Bar Italia’s patio, spinning in place next to the hostess stand and vaulting his baton into the air. He caught it and bowed; we politely applauded. I hadn’t laughed that much in months. Quite a welcoming patio.

The look … Situated in the cosmopolitan Central West End, Bar Italia opens its patio any time the weather cooperates. June nights are ideal. With room for almost 200, the large wrought-iron-fenced terrace sits directly to the west of the restaurant. Patrons enter from the Maryland Avenue sidewalk and are immediately greeted by a hostess.

A small, 10-table cocktail area to the left serves as a waiting area for the main tables to the right and a scene for the cocktails-and-appetizers crowd. A small, off-center gazebo seems to be a base for the few lights more than a special sitting area. It’s quite dark come night. Good for romance, bad for menu reading.

Like a model who needs a haircut, the landscaping could use some work. Dead banana plants, overgrown bushes and some overbearing trees can distract the overly observant and picky. Weather and popularity also affect the look. Daytime sun brings out umbrellas. Packed July nights open the outside bar. May tornados shut it all down.

The scene … Bon Appétit heard about it – Bar Italia, not Jamerson. In a three-page dustup on “gorgeous” patio dining in the June issue, Bar Italia’s terrace is mentioned, rightfully, alongside the best of Manhattan, L.A., the ATL, Boston and Denver.

This is a choice restaurant and behaves as such. The patio is for romantic couples and small groups. Early in the evening, the clientele personifies the diversity of the Central West End – many races, many ages, many sexual orientations. Obviously, it’s hard – and sometimes rude – to mingle with anyone but the company you came with, but a small social scene picks up as the night flows. Before 11 p.m., most of the flirting goes down between the young hostesses and wine-happy men. After 11 p.m., as the dinners wind down, the young (mostly 25 to 40) stay to idly socialize with their table, sometimes the one next door and sometimes the staff. Think of it as a starlight lounge where everyone has a table.

Like the lame Phil Collins album, no jackets required, but dress typically leans upscale. Men tend to wear slacks and button downs, and women skirts or dresses. Thursday through Saturday, it’s darn hard to get a dinner table before 10 p.m., so I highly recommend making a reservation.

Italian pop, jazz and classical music are softly broadcast in the background. Otherwise, the only entertainment is the conversation of your company, and possibly the batoning of Jamerson. Please applaud. He’s bringing joy …

The products … The food and drinks are as authentic as Italian cuisine gets in the middle of the United States, covering fine cuisine from the Boot’s south to north.

Bar Italia takes pride in the more than 20 varieties of grappa offered for $7 to $25 per glass. Lightweights can get theirs infused with raspberry or vanilla for $5. The all-Italian wine list offers white and red by the glass ($5 to $9), half liters (around $10) and full liters (around $20). Bottled selections number 70 or so, but many others may be available on request. Bottle prices are reasonable, topping out at $75.

Eight house cocktails like Primo – top-shelf vodka, orange brandy, Campari and soda – take on more Italian themes for $6.50. Italian bottled beers (Peroni, Moretti, etc.) are $3.75. Schlafly drafts run $3.75 as well. Sophisticates can order cocktails, spirits and liqueurs like Tuaca and Amaretto for $4 to 7. No rot-gut behind the bar.

All coffee products are brewed to order. There’s no pot of Folgers sitting on the burner. Darn good espresso is $1.95; $2.95 for a double. Cappuccino is $2.50, and house specialties like Latte Orzata are $2.50. More than 10 hand-made Italian pastries may accompany your espresso quite nicely for around $6 each.

The dinner offers all that genuine Italian cuisine should: antipasti (appetizers), insalate (salads), primi (first courses), paste (pastas) and pietanze (entrées). Appetizers run $6 to $10, entrées $13 to $22. Service is almost always top notch, with owners of 20 years, the brothers Mengesha, Robel, and Yitbarek Yohannes, mingling with the crowd.

The straight 411 … Sip vino, eat carpaccio, sip vino, sip vino and impress a date, all under the stars on the best restaurant terrace in the STL.

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