Trattoria Marcella: Still That Good

Four girlfriends are sitting in a corner booth at Trattoria Marcella in South City. They’re gabbing about wedding dresses and relationships, hopes for the future, reminiscing about the past. There is a slight pause in the conversation as big white bowls descend before each of them, then they launch into a new topic: pasta.

They gush and swoon, helping themselves to tastes of one another’s dishes, each forkful more enticing than the last. The favorite was the Straw and Hay, a spinach (the hay) and egg noodle (the straw) dish rich and sumptuous with mascarpone cheese, salty and earthy with morsels of coppa ham and crimini mushrooms, sweet and crisp with sugar snap peas. With every noodle enveloped in a dreamy creaminess, each bite comforts like a long hug.

Just as wonderful is the agnolotti del plin, a dish typical of the Piedmont region of Italy. It comprises diminutive “pinched” pasta stuffed with meats or cheeses. Trattoria Marcella’s rendition stays true to form with a meat and rice filling. The agnolotti are delicious on their own, but add a flavorful, light sauce of herbs, butter and cheese, and these bundles are something special.

It seems hard to go wrong with any of the pasta dishes here. Each one is elevated to new heights with flavorful and textural enhancement here and there. The slow, careful braising of boar in aromatic vegetables and wine is evident in each bite of ricotta agnolotti smothered in a boar ragu, a special one night. The potato gnocchi in another ragu, this time pork and mushroom, are light and smooth in texture, not too dense or tough.

The pastas beat out the selection of pizzas, hands-down. As I crunched into the cracker-thin Roman-style crust, brushed with arugula pesto, strewn with bits of mineral-y shrimp, oven-roasted tomatoes and goat cheese, I was left longing for one of those impeccable pasta dishes. While I like the idea of a lighter, healthier pizza, I’m still looking for lots of flavor. A heartier dose of pesto would have helped with the dryness, and enhancing the shrimp with some garlic and lemon would have maintained the lightness of the dish without weighing things down.

Instead, stick with salads and starters if you’re looking to eat light. The spinach salad is a good place to start. Smoked salmon “bacon” and thin, crispy shoestring potatoes do great things for this salad, which is tossed in a sweet and tangy vinaigrette.

Despite being fried, the fritto misto feels light as a feather. The calamari is tender under its crispy golden coat and the spinach is delightfully brittle. There’s no accompanying dipping sauce, but rather a light shaving of Asiago and a wedge of lemon for squeezing on top. Perfect.

Another starter that is fried but doesn’t feel overly burdened by grease is a little plate of polenta fries with wild mushrooms in a Marsala-spiked cream sauce and Gorgonzola. The “fries” are cut from a pan of firm polenta then dropped into a fryer until they gain a rich caramel brown crust. Inside, the polenta is soft and steamy. Drag one through the pool of the sweet and earthy mushroom cream and devour this twist on classic smothered fries. Save some bread to sop up the remaining sauce after the fries are gone.

Polenta showed up in its more common creamy form on a scallop special one evening. The polenta was luxuriously good, cheesy and savory. The scallops tasted nice and fresh, but their light breading was a little soggy or saturated.

The wine list is extensive, and reasonably priced glasses and carafes are offered. Service is friendly and informed. Desserts, especially a tiramisu that’s at once delicate and decadent, are fine. The décor is simple: golden yellow walls and white clothed tables. When the dining room is full, a jubilant buzz radiates from the dining rooms and bar, which always seem to be full. I wouldn’t go without a reservation.

If you can’t get a reservation on your desired day and time, don’t worry. This place should be open for a long, long time. Brothers Jamie and Steve Komorek opened Trattoria Marcella in 1995, naming it after their mom. The crowds have been stampeding to their door ever since, whether to celebrate one of life’s milestones, to enjoy a cozy dinner for two or to catch up with the girls over a bowl of comfort.

WHERE: Trattoria Marcella, 3600 Watson Road, St. Louis, 314.352.7706
WHEN: Tue. to Thu. – 5 to 10 p.m., Sat. and Sun. – 5 to 11 p.m.
DON’T-MISS DISHES: Spinach salad, fritto misto, Straw and Hay, agnolotti del plin, tiramisu
VIBE: Lots of special occasion diners and bigger groups, bustling and jubilant. More quiet and cozy before and after peak hours.