The toasted ravioli at Marcella's Mia Sorella are so plump they look like deep-fried golf balls. An order brings six of these golden-brown Titleists under a snowfall of Parmigiano-Reggiano with the obligatory crock of marinara sauce on the side for dipping. Only upon closer examination will you notice the squared-off corners of each raviolo. The pasta is remarkable not for its flavor (negligible) or its texture (crisp), but for the fact that it is able to hold on to its baby's fist of finely ground beef without falling apart. The beef is tender but very lightly seasoned. Apply that marinara sauce liberally.
Unless you have the metabolism of a teenage boy, you should probably split the T-rav appetizer with someone else. Even then you might think twice before finishing the entire half-dozen. You haven't seen the size of your pasta entrée yet.
Jamie and Steve Komorek opened Marcella's Mia Sorella four months ago as part of a new shopping plaza along Clayton Road in Ballwin. Sorella is the Italian word for sister, and as its name suggests, the brothers' latest venture is indeed a sibling of their south-city restaurant, Trattoria Marcella. It is not, however, an identical twin. Trattoria Marcella serves upscale Italian cuisine in an intimate setting. Marcella's Mia Sorella is a much more casual affair, big as a barn and about as noisy, with a vibe more conducive to large gatherings of family and friends than candlelit canoodling. The bar area alone might be bigger than any of Trattoria Marcella's dining rooms (the bar itself, an antique, is gorgeous), while the dining room seats well over a hundred in banquettes and booths and at freestanding tables. The concept and the space practically beg to be compared to Gerard Craft's new venture, Pastaria. Both are big; neither accepts reservations. Each features a family-friendly vibe and a menu dominated by pizza and pasta. The price points are nearly identical. Conspiracy theorists might go a step further and point out that the two restaurants opened within a week of one another this past September.
But the similarities end at the surface. Pastaria is a bold step forward for St. Louis dining — a step that's striking in its simplicity and in the crowds that have snaked out the door in its early months of operation. Marcella's Mia Sorella likewise appears to have attracted a devoted fanbase. But behind the restaurant's back-to-basics trappings, the kitchen is churning out the Italian comfort-food favorites dear to so many St. Louisans' hearts and not much more — though, as those titanic toasted ravioli attest, certainly nothing less.
Slideshow: See photos inside Marcella's Mia Sorella
The pizzas here hew relatively closely to the Neapolitan style: a thin crust, quickly fired. The crust, though thin, has body and flavor, especially where the brick oven has slightly charred its underside. (Though the crust doesn't receive the exquisitely charred patches that a wood-burning oven imparts.) You can build your own pie from a brief list of toppings (several meats, anchovies, garlic cloves, roasted vegetables) or try one of the kitchen's own creations: roasted chicken with toasted pine nuts and mushrooms, perhaps; or clams with pancetta and arugula.
Pleasantly bitter broccoli rabe elevates a straightforward pie with tomato sauce, shredded mozzarella and housemade sausage with a strong fennel note. I especially liked a pizza that substituted a thick roasted-garlic crema for the standard tomato sauce and then tops this with spinach, prosciutto cotto (a lesser, though still tasty, version of the classic cured ham) and Gruyre. As is often the case with pizzas in this style, one is more than enough for a solo diner but probably not enough to share.
Pasta dishes try to strike a balance between the rustic — especially the pasta itself, most varieties of which are made fresh in-house each day — and the St. Louis Italian ethos that more is more. The tagliatelle carbonara, for example, is a heap of perfectly cooked pasta (that not-quite-silken texture, that pleasant chew) tossed with English peas and diced pancetta in a thick, creamy sauce of egg and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The elements of a good carbonara are there, but the ratio is wrong. There are so many noodles on the plate that the peas are but a garnish, the pancetta a mere rumor of pork. I tell you there is egg in the dish only because the menu says so.
Another pasta dish entices with the promise of roasted chicken and a smoked-mozzarella sauce, but the chicken is bland, and the sauce lacks any suggestion of smoke or, for that matter, cheese. You end up with a clutter of fusilli and broccoli in a generic cream sauce.
There is a brief selection of traditional entrées: beef braised in Barolo; shrimp scampi; chicken Milanese. A beef-tenderloin dish features two medallions of meat grilled to order and then smothered (there is no word) in mozzarella. A lemon-garlic sauce enriched with the meat's juices helps cut through the melt-o-rama, but, well, that's still a whole lotta mozzarella. A side of sun-dried-tomato polenta was excellent, but a stack of grilled fresh asparagus was jarring in January.
If west county was suffering a shortage of out-of-season asparagus, globs of mozzarella and "prosciutto" that requires quotation marks, Marcella's Mia Sorella has those bases covered. Doubtless, amid what truly appears to be a budding renaissance on the St. Louis dining scene, some will find that reassuring. As for me, a T-rav is a T-rav, no matter how you bloat it.
Slideshow: See photos inside Marcella's Mia Sorella