St. Louis is awash in Italian restaurants. Blame it on the Italian immigrants who settled on the Hill during the turn of the last century. Blame it on the migration of city dwellers to the suburbs and the savvy Italian restaurateurs who followed them. Or blame it on the Irish, German and Slav immigrants, whose cuisines never really caught on, despite a 60-year head start. (Being of German and Italian descent myself, I know which food hit our table 99 percent of the time.)
So it was only a matter of time before the baby-boomer sons and daughters of all these Italian restaurateurs branched out to open their own restaurants, emphasizing their identities while capitalizing on the family name. Frank and Carmelo Gabriele come from such a lineage. Their father, Giovanni, is one of the few restaurateurs who set the benchmark for elegant, white-tablecloth Italian dining at his namesake restaurant, Giovanni's on the Hill.
With Carmelo running the front and Frank serving as executive chef, the brothers may be setting another benchmark with Café Bellagio, this time for relaxed, upscale contemporary dining.
It's a magnificent space, located in the ritzy multimillion-dollar City Place shopping development on Olive Boulevard about a half-mile east of Interstate 270. You can eat outside in the courtyard beside the large fountain and watch the slow parade of luxury cars and SUVs roll through the parking lot, bound for Bellagio or Provisions, the gourmet food and wine shop around the corner. Sure, it's kind of nice on a mild evening, even if the roar of the water makes it feel a little like the observation deck at Niagara Falls. But like most alfresco dining experiences in St. Louis, it's a scenic bore.
Especially when compared with the dining room inside. Only the most jaded diner would be unimpressed by Bellagio's interior. Near the entrance, a projection-screen "wall" separates the host area from the dining alcove on the other side, which in turn is separated from the main dining room by another sheer "wall," this one a sheet of flowing water. (The black-and-white video images of Italian villages were a pleasant touch on the projection screen, but the endless videotape loop of Rat Pack performances grew tiresome.) The creative wall theme continues via a floor-to-ceiling wine rack that segregates the main room from the private banquet room. By the time I absorbed the subtle color scheme, the long swaths of fabric emanating from the center of the ceiling and two small, cozy dining alcoves off the main room, I wanted to hire Bellagio's designers to take over the construction of my basement rec room.
Expectations run high when restaurant owners go to such lengths to wow us visually. To their credit, the Gabrieles back up the slick interior (even the dinner plates are emblazoned with the restaurant's name) with substance in the kitchen, to the point where even if I were limited solely to the appetizer menu, I'd be happy. On one visit we were mesmerized by a special of involtini merazona -- tender slices of grilled eggplant rolled with ricotta cheese and asparagus tips, served with a light, fresh tomato sauce. We demolished a plate of calamari livornese, squid rings as broad as pappardelle, sautéed with capers and kalamata olives and smothered in a simple rustic sauce made from intensely sweet San Marzano tomatoes and basil. Those two dishes were superb. But with the ravioli di branzino starter, Frank Gabriele had me before I'd so much as eyeballed an entrée. Gabriele stuffs two ravioli with chunks of sea bass, mushroom, spinach and a creamy seafood mousse, then bathes the plump dumplings in a reduction of sherry and cream. A plain tomato sauce would have tasted just fine here, but it would have overpowered the fish. The caramel-like sweetness of the sherry reduction, on the other hand, provides an ideal subtle complement.
At all too many Italian restaurants, the roster of typical veal and chicken dishes taste as dull as they sound. Not at Bellagio. For scaloppine, Gabriele simply seasons the pounded-thin cutlets, sautées them with fresh sage leaves and tops them with prosciutto and a slice of Fontina. A drizzling of pan juices makes the dish shimmer like silk. In addition to scaloppine, Bellagio features a sixteen-ounce broiled chop and a veal special of the day. The lone chicken dish, a breast rolled with prosciutto, Asiago cheese and spinach, is lightly dusted with bread crumbs and sautéed. Damn fine alone, but finished by a white wine sauce with shiitake mushrooms and shallots, it's downright addictive. A smattering of pretty grilled asparagus on the side was tied together with a ribbon of roasted red pepper.
Pastas are anything but anticlimactic. Penne alla Francesco combines vegetable stock and puréed vegetables with a light cream sauce, yielding a combination of flavors that jolts the palate as few cream sauces can. In another dish, the thickness of tagliatelle pasta allows for a good bite that holds up to a luscious tomato sauce spiked by not-too-spicy salsiccia, ricotta and basil. This one paired perfectly with a glass of deep, intense Santi Salone Valpolicella ($7.50 by the glass).
The wine list, numbering well over 100 bottles, is heavy on reds from Italy and California. Sixteen wines are offered by the glass, and Bellagio provides a generous pour at an uninflated price. (A staffer tells me they come up with the price by dividing the bottle price by four -- the number of glasses poured from each bottle.) Prices range from $6 to $11. Among the bottles, some cabernets stand out: A 2001 Frei Brothers Alexander Valley Reserve is a decent buy at $45 if you've got the money; ditto a 2000 Mount Veeder Napa ($60). Off the list and available for $70 a pop until it runs out is the highly touted 2000 Merryvale Reserve cabernet.
Wines run anywhere from under $30 to the triple digits -- somewhat like the menu itself. Which isn't a bad thing: You could order dinner and wine and depart Bellagio with only middle-of-the-wallet impact, or you might opt to splurge. It's nice to be faced with that choice.
Bellagio's entrée portions aren't overwhelming or obscene. Translation: "room for dessert." Of the eight desserts, a few are made in-house, including a torta di cioccolata, in which chocolate fudge and chocolate sponge cake are layered and crowned with chocolate mousse.
At the tender age of five months, Café Bellagio is already poised to become a fixture in an area that doesn't boast many dining options. And with their lineage, one wonders what the next generation of Gabrieles will offer us.