The only thing more dubious than a new restaurant is an old restaurant. Once a place gets past its infancy (no easy feat, as any industry insider will tell you; the survival statistic most often cited is that one in ten makes it beyond the first year), its vitality often fades away, and the restaurant moves in a few short years from buzz-worthy upstart to predictable warhorse. It loses its je ne sais quoi, because eventually you sais every quoi the place has got. No longer the lover you can't stop gushing about, it becomes the old flame you meet for dinner once every few months to rehash old times, the one in whom you can sort of still see what you saw there in the first place, but that's about it. It's Lethal Weapon versus Lethal Weapon 4. Or worse, Lethal Weapon versus Gone Fishin'.
Bar Italia has a long and storied past. Since its opening in 1983, it has morphed from a tiny storefront café on Maryland just east of Euclid that served drinks and gelato to a big-time operation on Maryland just west of Euclid. Its famous patio has become a perennial choice for best-outdoor-dining accolades, and rightly so. Under the stewardship of Mengesha Yohannes, who bought the restaurant in 1999, Bar Italia has managed to avoid the typical laurel-resting pitfalls. At the ripe old age of twenty, the restaurant shows no signs of stumbling into mediocrity. In fact, it appears to be admirably entrenched in its Lethal Weapon 2 phase -- just as much zip as the original, just as crowd-pleasing and perhaps even better all-around.
One of the plus sides to a restaurant that's a proven profit-turner is that the menu is often more extensive than average. Bar Italia's dinner menu encompasses 21 appetizers and starters (including soups, salads and small pasta plates), seven pasta entrées, ten meat and fish entrées and a whopping thirteen desserts. The presentation is almost always a big to-do, but the preparation is not. Which is to say, everything looks fancy and fussy but tastes straightforward, fresh and delicious.
On one visit, my companion and I decided to make a meal out of appetizers and salads. We were not disappointed. Poached asparagus, five spears cozying up on the plate with slices of Parmesan, is firm but not too tough. Caprini (soft goat cheese), meanwhile, is just oozy enough to mandate that it be sopped up with bread (which is great, because the pool of olive oil it's standing in is not something you want to neglect anyway). Carpaccio comes three ways -- salmon, classic beef and an off-the-menu selection such as venison. Each is served with different accompaniments (the salmon gets sour cream and toast points, while the other two receive an amalgam of Parmesan, mushrooms, capers and olives), but all prove first-rate. Only a bowl of Atlantic-coast mussels seemed a little off, with a too-spicy chicken broth overpowering the main ingredient.
The most surprising appetizer was the calamari and chickpeas (or calamari e ceci), a dish that serves as a good example for how Bar Italia keeps itself several steps ahead of mediocrity. When I order squid in St. Louis, I consider myself lucky if what comes to the table is not breaded and deep-fried. Bar Italia exceeded those expectations and then some. Not only is this seafood fleshy and crumb-free, it's served on a bed of chickpeas, potatoes and tomatoes. The pairing of squid with what basically amounts to a creamy hummus and potato salad is nothing short of terrific; it's got a lovely, cool taste and feel, mild but eminently worthwhile.
If you were to put twenty Italians in front of a stove, you'd be lectured on twenty different ways to make absolutely perfect pasta. How much water in the pot? How much salt? How firm? How much sauce? How much oil? As far as I'm concerned, Bar Italia's pasta hits all the right notes. In the penne con pesto, for example, the basil, pine nuts and Parmesan manage never to fully coalesce into an indistinguishable mass of sauce -- a great thing, as each maintains its distinct taste and texture in the bowl.
I try to refrain as much as possible from saying "get the salmon" in both my personal and professional advice-giving. But I've got to make that recommendation here. Preparation is always "chef's choice," as noted on the menu. The fish can come on a bed of shredded purple cabbage, or accompanied by couscous, or who-knows-how-many other ways. In any permutation, the plate looks attractive as all get-out -- the pink of the salmon underscored by that purple cabbage looked so good, I had to defend my plate from the others at my table.
I also tucked heavily into the pork tenderloin slices bathed in shiitake mushrooms and cream sauce -- a surprisingly light dish, which is quite welcome when it's a humid St. Louis summer night and you're determined to have dinner on the patio.
The wine list is composed entirely of Italian selections, which can prove daunting even to those who know a thing or two about vino. Like the menu, it's somewhat lengthy. Wines available by the glass receive descriptions that -- as is far too often the case on wine lists -- don't help the customer at all. (Frascati, a white, is "A taste of the summer sky. Soft spoken and amiable." Wuh?) Wines available by the bottle don't receive any description at all and are listed alphabetically, which isn't much help either. Fortunately, the servers are adept at helping you do the pairing thing and don't oversell. And you can always order a half or full carafe of the house whites and reds.
The after-entrée menu options seem endless: well over a dozen grappas, dessert wines, about eight specialty cocktails, coffee drinks and the aforementioned long list of desserts. But even when a dessert goes heavy on the chocolate -- and almost all of them do feature chocolate in one way or another, from the tiramisu to the zabaglione torte to the Vesuvio -- it still registers light as air on the tongue.
Bar Italia has proven worthy of a long-term relationship with St. Louis' fine-dining crowd. It surely stands out in the Central West End -- a neighborhood chockablock with old-timers that could use a little waking up. While nearby Wild Flower, Liluma, Duff's, Zoë and Café Balaban all remain hugely popular mostly owing to their location, location, location -- how can you not do good business when you're in the heart of the city's quaintest, most foot-traffic-friendly neighborhood? -- Bar Italia really does earn its reputation.