As I'm reminded whenever I mention (however glancingly) my opinion of the native style, pizza is a contentious subject in St. Louis. Let me fan the flames once again by asserting that Laganini Pizzeria & Restaurant serves the best pizza that you have never heard of.
How do I know you haven't heard of Laganini's pizza — or Laganini itself, for that matter? Well, the restaurant opened in January, but I didn't hear about it until months later, and I get paid to keep track of these things. If you have heard of Laganini, you still might not know about the pizza: The restaurant is located in the city's Bevo neighborhood, right next door to the Bosnian restaurant Bosna Gold, and bills itself as a European restaurant.
If you have heard of Laganini and you know that the kitchen is turning out excellent pizza — elegantly simple, with a thin, lightly chewy crust, a crisp golden-brown color on the bottom and, unlike most crust, flavorful — then you are probably the reader who called me several weeks ago, imploring me to try the pizza as soon as possible.
(Apparently, word is getting around: When I returned to my office after my first visit, I found that my Post-Dispatch counterpart, Joe Bonwich, had just published his generally positive review of the restaurant.)
Laganini occupies a former Captain D's: If you drive around back, you can see what remains of the drive-thru window. As you might expect from a restaurant that draws on the cuisines of Bosnia, Italy, Greece, Austria and even St. Louis (T-ravs, natch), among others, the décor doesn't evoke a specific place. Instead, the interior is a throwback to a time when the term "restaurant" implied at least casual elegance: the napkins are cloth, the servers don't wear jeans, and a poster hanging on one wall defines "gourmet."
(The synonyms listed on this poster include "gastronomer," which I like much better than foodie. But I could do without the soft rock from KEZK playing on the sound system.)
The menu is long, but you know where I'm going to start: Skip nearly to the end of the thick tome, where you will find the pizza. You can build your own pizza or choose one of a dozen different topping combinations, both classics like the margherita (mozzarella, tomatoes and basil) or a veal sausage, mushroom and green-pepper pie, as well as such creations as the blagica (tuna, kalamata olive, onion, parsley and oregano).
I opted for one basic pizza (beef pepperoni, in deference to the Muslim prohibition of pork, and oregano) and the "Tuscan chicken margherita," which adds roasted chicken and kalamata olives to the basic margherita ingredients. The pepperoni pizza was excellent: I've already mentioned the crust, and I was pleased to find that the tomato sauce was applied judiciously, accenting the other flavors with a touch of acidity and sweetness rather than swamping them. Despite its Olive Garden-esque name, the Tuscan chicken margherita pizza was just as appealing, adding definite (but not overwhelming) savory and salty notes to the light, summery taste of a classic margherita.
The rest of the menu is difficult to characterize, as it ranges from casual contemporary fare such as coconut shrimp and a Buffalo chicken sandwich to old-school classics like chicken cordon bleu. It does lean toward heavier fare: Chicken schnitzel — veal schnitzel is also available, but our server recommended the chicken — brought a piece of pan-fried chicken beaten so thin that it covered half of a large plate but, thanks to its thick batter, proved too much to finish. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice and the thin layer of Gorgonzola stuffed between the chicken and its jacket of batter provided a welcome kick to the straightforward dish. As if that weren't enough, on the side was a large serving of potatoes in a spinach-cream sauce.
I suppose if I had to lump Laganini into one genre, it would be something like global comfort food. The pasta menu offers both chicken Alfredo and beef stroganoff — though the latter was much lighter than I've come to expect, with very thinly sliced beef and a sauce that provided the tang of sour cream without its cloying texture. Bosnian dishes include a sort of chicken pot pie called kvrgusa and the fearsome mixed grill known as mjesano meso: sausage, hamburger, veal, chicken and (why not?) a small rib-eye steak.
Maybe the best-known Bosnian dish is cevapcici: minced beef formed into links and grilled, then served on what is essentially an oversize hamburger bun. At Laganini you receive ten to twelve of the mildly spiced links, along with a dish of sour cream on the side to use as a condiment. The appeal of cevapcici is difficult to describe: The dish certainly isn't sophisticated, nor is the spicing especially complex. I suppose they have the same simple appeal as hot dogs or bratwurst off the grill — though I think that the big roll, which I've always found to possess a kiss of sweetness, has something to do with it. (It also helps that, at $7, an order of cevapcici brings a generous amount of food for the money.)
Of course, I've only scratched the surface of Laganini's menu. Most of the desserts involve ice cream, though there is one Bosnian dessert, which looks like apple pie and baklava had a baby. Appetizers lean toward American tastes: fried mushrooms and calamari, mozzarella sticks and the aforementioned T-ravs. I liked the simplicity of the bruschetta, which featured chopped tomatoes as red as a fire truck and fresh basil atop toasted bread. (Speaking of bread: While I hardly ever mention the complimentary bread that begins your meal at many restaurants, Laganini's bore that especially yeasty flavor I always associate with home-baked bread.) What's more, even though Laganini isn't open early in the day, the restaurant offers a "late breakfast" in the form of an omelet or waffles throughout business hours.
I never like to leave so much of a menu unexplored — especially when it comes to a restaurant as surprising as Laganini. It won't win any awards for hipness or culinary innovation. Yet in a spot that most of us, myself included, could easily miss, it turns on the charm — the service is exceptionally friendly, and, according to our server, the owner sings on Saturday nights — and dishes out food that is satisfying in that Old World way and, in the case of the pizza, downright terrific.