Like every Italian mother who traces her sauce back to her nana, nearly every formal Italian restaurant around here can trace its lineage back to Tony's. Whether it's a chef who started as a busboy or a restaurateur who once waited tables at the venerable Italian restaurant and patriarch of formal, elegant dining in St. Louis, they all have a bit of Tony's in them, even if the mark is as minor as a red speck of sauce on a white shirt.
Benedetto Buzzetta was one of those waiters. He spun off from the Tony's sphere three decades ago and opened his own restaurant, Benedetto's Ristorante. Ten years ago he moved the place from the Hill to the more tony surroundings of Frontenac, in Le Chateau Village. Perhaps it was an odd space for a restaurant; the faux-European "village" across Clayton Road from Plaza Frontenac is mostly composed of small shops and offices. But back then Benedetto's offered the elegant, dress-up-and-wear-a-tie variety of restaurant that was noticeably lacking in the exclusive suburb.
Today it's still highly regarded as a destination for special occasions and expense-account dinners. The small, odd-shaped rooms, fancy chandeliers and paintings dripping with romanticism make you feel like you're eating in your rich uncle's mansion. When the floor-to-ceiling French doors are thrown open, diners in the main area have a relaxing view of the semi-al fresco terrace overlooking the atrium of the four-story building. That terrace, with its wrought-iron railings, brick floor and view of the old-fashioned cage elevator and surrounding flora in the atrium, was open only for lunch until three months ago, when the family decided to use the space for Benedetto's Bistro.
Smart decision. Eating-out habits have changed in the past ten years, with diners -- especially those with children -- opting for casual meals and dress (shorts and denim aren't welcome in the ristorante). Perhaps more to the point, Brio Tuscan Grille opened a branch in Plaza Frontenac's parking lot, offering an affordable Italian-oriented option in a casual (albeit deafening) atmosphere. So the Buzzettas -- it's a true family affair, from Benedetto's wife Lia heading up the kitchen to eighteen-month-old grandson Benedetto occasionally on hand to greet guests -- altered the ristorante's menu, lowered the prices a bit, closed the French doors and called the terrace a bistro, aiming to draw a casual crowd.
They also added a television set, which wasn't such a good idea, especially on a Saturday night when the live piano and violin music lilts into the bistro from the formal dining room. Casual dining doesn't mean we all want to stare at the tube while we eat, and Benedetto happily accommodated our request to shut off the thing. We were the sole bistro diners late on a Saturday -- evidently after a large private party had ravaged most of the tables. Though things were a bit unsettled, Benedetto, always the gracious host, cleared off a four-top and rustled up a waiter.
Compared to the Lristorante's menu, the bistro offers about half as many appetizers, salads and entrées. Diners may also order from the ristorante's menu, which includes lamb chops, pounded veal and a larger selection of seafood. But when in the bistro, we thought, it's best to do as the bistro-goers do. And within those narrower confines, plenty of exquisite examples of Lia Buzzetta's Sicilian-influenced and northern Italian cuisine are worth exploring. The simple bistro house salad, tossed with mixed greens, chopped red pepper and red onion, re-engaged my taste buds for the classic vinegar-and-oil salad, sparking memories of my mother alternating splashes of each until she found just the right balance. And I could eat calamari fritti almost every day. Buzzetta's is crisp without being oily, tender with just the right amount of bite. A squeeze of lemon would have sufficed, but the accompanying small bowl of marinara -- bright and with a bit of red-pepper kick -- paired well with the squid. Only one shortcoming: The calamari were supposed to come with fried zucchini, but the squash was a no-show.
The bistro offers ten entrées: two beef dishes, two chicken, one salmon, one shrimp and four pastas. The Sicilian-inspired rigatoni melenzana (with eggplant, fresh tomatoes, basil and Parmesan) was particularly notable. The combination of melt-in-your-mouth eggplant and al dente rigatoni formed a perfect melody, much like the piano and violin music being performed in the main restaurant's bar area.
Also delicious was risotto al Giardino, full of seasonal vegetables and rice. Risotto can be tricky, often arriving at the table underdone or runny, but this rendition had the proper consistency and was imbued with flavor from tomatoes, asparagus, peas, carrots, broccoli and mushrooms. Pollo Sinatra was about as basic an Italian chicken dish as fried chicken is to Southerners. Buzzetta pounds a whole chicken breast down to about a quarter-inch, lightly breads it, then sautés with slices of spicy Italian sausage and serves with a sauce of rosemary and white wine. It's topped with a few slices of sun-dried tomatoes and served with a healthy portion of Sicilian fried potatoes, bringing back memories of Sunday dinners at my nana's. The side of mixed overcooked broccoli and carrots was disappointingly predictable -- though it too reminded me of my mother's method of cooking vegetables.
Of the three desserts offered, only the excellent tiramisu is made in-house. Buzzetta takes sponge cake dipped in a coffee mixture, then layers it with mascarpone cheese and whipped cream before topping the trifle with grated chocolate.
The bistro and ristorante share the same wine list, which means prices are high and selections mostly Italian. Oddly, wines by the glass ($7) aren't listed but are left to the servers to describe, as in: "We have chardonnay, merlot, Chianti and pinot grigio." While the bistro's limited food menu wasn't a letdown, it was disappointing to be presented with an extensive wine list, only to be constrained to four unnamed wines by the glass.
There's something infinitely satisfying about supporting a family-run restaurant that tries to compete with encroaching chains, lower expectations and society's increasing casualness. Especially when said family can trace its attention to detail back to the legendary Tony's -- or, for that matter, to nana.