It's not very often that a rookie breaks into the majors and is instantly competitive, but that seems to be the case with La Piazza, the latest in a fairly long list of restaurants to be housed in the charming early-20th-century space at the corner of Jackson and Pershing, just over the border from Clayton in a mainly residential part of University City. Open for about two months, La Piazza features Jon Koch in the kitchen and Chad Mathews coordinating the operations, with Koch's family playing a strong supporting role. Although Koch was formerly associated with the St. Louis Coffee Roasters, you won't find a bunch of restaurant jobs in his background.
Nonetheless, if I lived around there, as I did many years ago, I'd be bending over backward to ensure that the new tenant, La Piazza, turned into a long-term neighbor. The hostess and staff are as sweet and attentive as they can be; more important, the "rustic Italian" food (a term I first remember being popularized locally by the now wildly successful Trattoria Marcella) maintains a level of quality and excitement that places it well above your giardino-variety neighborhood Italian.
How so? How about gnocchi that completely avoids the too-common tendency toward gumminess, instead holding a firm consistency, then magically disintegrating once it gets past the threshold of your teeth, adding perfect hints of texture to a rich, cream-enhanced red sauce whose tomato sweetness and acidity are amplified by the soft tang of goat cheese?
Or what about the simplicity of linguini in a choice of red or white fresh clam sauce (we tried the red), featuring not just large, plump clams in the shell but also sizable mussels -- all fresh, pure flavors -- over a large helping of al dente linguini?
The "rustic" identity is continued in a long list of upscale pizzas, consisting of lightly leavened dough, imperfectly shaped into an oval and served on a similarly curved board, with a dozen topping choices ranging from the classic Margherita to shrimp and even roasted potatoes. A five-item listing of "large plates" rounds out the menu, with significant cleverness and virtuosity complementing the sheer volume that helps reinforce the rustic theme.
We managed to try three of these, all with superior results. The marinated-sea-scallops plate comprised four large mollusks, a sprig of fresh rosemary protruding as part of the skewer, with a "walnut butter emulsion" in squiggles across the top of each and roasted asparagus and a fennel-highlighted mixture of greens below. Chef Koch seems to have an affinity for walnuts in his menu selections: They show up here, in the mashed potatoes that accompany a sliced ribeye steak and in mashed-potato "cakes" (sort of like potato pancakes, sort of like crab cakes in consistency) that come with a pan-roasted chicken.
And because we included those other two entrées in our tasting, we were pretty much wall-to-walnuts, although the flavor was never more than a background item. For the chicken, the dominant accompanying flavors came from a combination of garlic and tang in a white-wine sauce and a hint of resin from rosemary, coupled with an unusual but not unpleasant combination of charring and inherent slight bitterness from roasted, quartered radicchio. The beef received most of its complement from the simple pleasures of Vidalia onions, which were sliced and cooked in such a way as to visually impersonate egg noodles.
Several of the appetizers incorporate a flatbread based on the same dough used for the pizzas -- in one instance served with a creamy white-bean hummus and, in a much more interesting execution, topped with balsamic fig paste, crumbled Gorgonzola cheese and prosciutto. On the surface, there appears to be entirely too much going on here -- the sweetness of the figs, the saltiness and bite of the cheese, the smoky flavor of the ham -- but, in fact, it's a minor masterpiece. For those not inclined toward so much starch at the beginning of the meal, we also found the crab cakes (three of them, about a half-inch thick, with a good balance between crab and filler) and, especially, the fried green olives (stuffed with a piquant, mildly spicy goat-cheese-and-sausage mixture) to work quite nicely.
Our meals ended just as well as they had started and continued with understated desserts such as a white-chocolate bread pudding that defied our preconceptions of the near-mandate of heaviness in a bread pudding, as well as a delicate fallen chocolate cake and a crème brûlée made less ordinary by a thin base level of chocolate sauce.
It's fitting that the wine list has a thick Italian accent -- specifically, Italian reds, with about 30 of those and half that number of Italian whites, along with about a dozen each reds and whites from elsewhere in the world and a total of about 15 by the glass. Bottles average around $30, glasses $6.
The atmosphere is primarily, well, piazzalike, with dappled walls and fresco-style paintings of pineapples and asparagus, although metal freeform artwork, S-curved track lighting, lavender-painted furniture and retro tablecloths provide a decidedly modern counterpoint.
All this gushing praise is not to say that these rookies wouldn't benefit from a little seasoning. If you happen to bounce to voice mail when calling for reservations, for example, the disembodied computer-generated message gives you absolutely no indication that you've reached a restaurant. On one visit, our table inadvertently fell into a no-man's-land between two waiters' stations, and no one on the staff noticed until we grabbed a server passing by (although, later on, it almost got to the point where waiter and hostess were offering to wash our car, pick up our dry cleaning and do our weekly grocery shopping as reparations for the oversight). And even though it's not in Clayton, La Piazza still suffers from the Clayton restaurant disease in that, any time it's more than half-full, things can get just plain loud.
But you have to respect a brand-new place that, after just a few weeks, decides to postpone any further lunch service, in part because its style of preparation impeded the quick-in, quick-out style favored by many office workers. It's obvious that the kind of quality that results from thoughtfulness, thoroughness and patience is prime in the minds of the folks at La Piazza. They may be new to the biz, but they act as if they've been at it for a long, long time.