Review: Milo's Bocce Garden in St. Louis

The family in “The Italian Immigrants” sculpture outside St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church on the Hill seems to curiously peer across Marconi into authentic, bonafied St. Louis: Milo’s Bocce Garden. Perhaps “Immigrants” sculptor Rudolph Torrini wanted his representation of new St. Louis Italians grounded in the holy, yet looking toward the worldly. Then again, maybe Milo’s just has that charm.

Milo’s epitomizes not so much a St. Louis bar, or St. Louis beer garden, but the now-dwindling city tavern - the common neighborhood drinking hole that welcomes patrons of all ages to socialize more than imbibe.

The building, at the northwest corner of Wilson and Marconi, has been a tavern in various incarnations for a century. Interestingly, 5201 Wilson preceded the construction of the new St. Ambrose, giving the Hill one of the few locations in St. Louis with an altar and bar within 100 feet (…good or bad?). Twenty-five years ago, Tom Savio purchased the Wil-Mar Lounge and renamed it Milo’s. Twelve years later, Savio welcomed partner Joe Vollmer, who promptly added the bocce courts in 1989.

The scene… Throughout the past 25 years, Milo’s has aged and evolved. Currently, Thursday night is one of the busiest at Milo’s and gives a good idea of what and who this Hill tavern has to offer. Bocce ball league-play begins at 6:20 p.m. and Vollmer ensures all are welcome.

A common Thursday evening at Milo’s: Two 70-plus veterans (in both the literal and figurative sense) animatedly recount the highs and lows of their just-completed bocce match - in Italian; a raspy-voiced South St. Louis couple playfully argue between sips of Bud drafts and drags of Pall Malls; a stylish black-on-black clad 20-something girl orders Long Island iced teas while talking on a cell phone; a 7-year-old boy, standing tippy-toed at the bar, begs Vollmer for change for the foosball table, enduring teasing about his missing front teeth from the barkeep. Being that Milo’s is a restaurant as well, children are welcome to enter, but not to drink.

On weekend nights, young singles often use Milo’s as a jumping off point to clubs and bars downtown. Likewise on the weekends, tourists, seeking a Hill fix, visit the tavern. Monday through Thursday gives more of a local feel, while the weekends bring a geographically diverse crowd.

The look… Milo’s décor, almost as much as the clientele, renders it a St. Louis tavern. The wood-paneled walls are covered in a jumble of tavern-kitsch: Bud posters, Miller neon signs, an Abbot & Costello print and the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Five TVs are tuned to the game. The side game room offers darts, pinball, foosball and Golden Tee. The juke box - three songs for a dollar - offers Sinatra and Martin, mixed with some old school R&B and contemporary pop. (A hint: pick A3’s “The Soprano’s” theme song “Woke Up This Morning.” Look for Tony, Paulie, Silvio and Christopher.)

Above the transparent Luxur-Rock bar, inlaid with crushed seashells, rocks and a few buttons, hangs the defining feature of St. Louis tavern-decor, “Clydesdale Spectacular.” In this celebrated Anheuser-Busch Plexiglas bubble, a miniature Budweiser beer wagon is eternally pulled in a circle by miniature Clydesdales.

Outside the bar are the namesake bocce courts in a large, fenced-in patio that juts against the surrounding shotgun homes. A total of more than 50 teams participate in bocce leagues that run Monday through Thursday, three times a night. Otherwise, pick-up games are encouraged, with regulars enthusiastically teaching rookies the bocce ropes. Players must be 21 years of age or accompanied by an adult. Next to the courts, green umbrellas above the tables shade patrons. Because Milo’s is completely enveloped within the neighborhood’s homes, the patio and bocce courts close at 10:30 p.m.

The drinks… As befits a city tavern, Milo’s offers no signature drinks or cocktails and instead relies on STL’s own Anheuser-Busch products. Bud and Bud Light are offered in frosty mugs for $1.75. Everything AB bottles is $2.75. Miller High Life, Miller Lite, Sam Adams, Schlafly Pale Ale and Rolling Rock bottles are likewise $2.75. Bass, Guinness and Fat Tire drafts go for $4 a pint. Import bottles (Becks, Becks Dark, Heineken, Foster’s, Grolsch and Peroni) sell for $3.25. Call drinks are $3 and up, while rails go for $2.75. White Zinfandel, Chianti, Merlot and Pinot Griogio sell for $3.50 a glass. A small humidor offers cigars for $3 to $10.

While Milo’s is a tavern, the food is steps above tavern fare. Nothing fancy, but infinitely better than pickled eggs. An assortment of fried appetizers, wings, burgers, simple pastas and pizza all sell on the cheap, with most under $7. (another hint: The Hill specialty Salsiccia sandwich goes for $5.75.).

The verdict... If you’re looking for a relaxed atmosphere, bocce ball, cheap drinks, an authentic St. Louis feel, an age-diverse but mostly south-of-Highway-40 crowd and, most of all, “Clydesdale Spectacular,” head to Milo’s.