Members of the eaterati insist that there are appetizer restaurants and there are entrée restaurants. Trattoria Marcella is a specials restaurant. While chef/co-owner Steve Komorek's regular menu is a well-constructed line of classics, his specials are like a runway show of inspired designs. After three visits to Trattoria Marcella in as many weeks, the exquisite flavors of Komorek's specials seem as vivid in our memories as the taste of this morning's breakfast.
The opening of Trattoria Marcella in 1995 was greeted like the appearance of a sleek new bistro in Manhattan: reservations were snapped up faster than black-leather hot pants during Fashion Week at Prada. But Komorek chose a neighborhood that has more in common with Hoboken than with SoHo. The restaurant, modestly housed in a brick building on the corner of a workaday South City block, is an inglorious but fitting place for Komorek to prepare casalinga, the peasant food of Italy. St. Louis natives who had eaten cannelloni on the Hill for generations were ready for this new kind of Italian fare.
Notable chefs, restaurateurs and food writers -- M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Alice Waters, James Beard and Marcella Hazan, to name a few -- have gradually shifted Americans' culinary preferences from the refined to the rustic. Fussy, affected dishes and dubious Americanized ethnic foods have been replaced by meals rooted in culture, place and season. Meats are grilled or braised rather than set afire at tableside in a mesmerizing flash of Sterno. Fish, such as salmon and trout, might be roasted on a cedar plank instead of poached in court-bouillon. Humble baked goods, such as Apple Brown Betty, have been rediscovered while elaborate soufflés and roulades have fallen out of favor. The restaurant experience itself has changed, too. Servers who used to prance about in tuxedoes now sport oxford shirts. Stodgy dining rooms as somber as funeral parlors have been supplanted by loud cafés with pinpoint spotlights, zinc bars and faux-chinked-brick hearths. Nowhere has this evolution from the haute to the hip and homespun been more evident than in contemporary Italian restaurants such as Trattoria Marcella.
Komorek, a self-taught cook from a family of restaurateurs, excels at preparing the roughcast dishes of Italian cucina, embroidered with restrained New American flourishes. His tortina pomodoro, for example, is a disk of supple dough draped with melted mozzarella. The puffy round is dotted with Kalamata olives and tinctured with emerald chive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. A sweet roasted tomato, halved into a dome shape and festooned with frizzled leeks, crowns the pastry like feather-trimmed millinery. Even simpler was a satisfying special of ricotta cheese sprinkled with herbs and baked with chunky tomato sauce in a shallow gratin dish. The restaurant's menu includes a selection of hand-rolled, Roman-style pizzas, presented on narrow wooden boards. We sampled Pizza Stefano, a coarse flatbread laden with grated mozzarella, dollops of ricotta, caramelized red onions, green beans, carrots, red and yellow peppers, zucchini and tomatoes. The vegetables change according to what's ripe.
Komorek excels at preparing regional Italian dishes, such as pastas from the South and risottos from the North. In fact, his seafood risotto has become a signature item, available as a special every night. To make it, superfino (long-grained) Arborio rice is bathed in lobster stock and tomato-cream sauce, and the bowl is heaped with spinach, mushrooms, buxom shrimp and fleshy nuggets of lobster-claw meat (diners can choose either one or both crustaceans). Farfalle Alessandra is a bow-tie-shaped pasta lightly tossed in lemon cream sauce with asparagus, diced tomatoes and herbs. Black olives give the dish a briny tang, and smoked salmon imparts a shadowy veil of flavor. Ravioli della nonna is plumped with a ricotta-cheese filling tinged pale green with puréed asparagus and artichokes. The plate is finished with diced San Marzano tomatoes, crumbled pancetta and a splash of cream.
Coaxing intense flavor from ordinary ingredients is a hallmark of provincial cooking and a defining characteristic of Komorek's culinary style. Take the concentrated carrot broth he improvised to sauce a fish special one evening. Grouper, a mild variety of sea bass, is an ideal foil for keener flavors. Komorek plated the fish with other bland foods -- wilted spinach and hand-whipped potatoes -- and then ladled around them a bright ring of satiny carrot broth. He made it by extracting juice from the carrots, reducing the liquid (to thicken it and cook out the raw taste) and combining it with puréed red peppers, butter and a chiffonade of basil added at the last minute. Another seafood special featured half-dollar-sized sea scallops. Chefs usually serve these shellfish nude or lightly swaddled in cream, white wine or lemon juice. Instead, Komorek brushed the scallops' flat tops with a piquant barbecue sauce, which curiously complemented rather than overwhelmed their gentle flavor. Every dish that leaves the kitchen is adorned with a pretty garnish, such as tiny white chive blossoms dusted over the plate like snow flurries.
The only soft spot in Komorek's main menu is the menu itself. It's printed on heavy paper stock shielded by shabby tri-fold plastic sleeves, a tip-off that the same choices will be presented night after night. These sheathes, fingerprinted and blistered by candle flames, give diners a distasteful first impression, especially when it's so easy these days to print fresh daily menus describing dinner specials, desserts and featured wines.
Trattoria Marcella's dessert menu is respectable but disconcertingly familiar, like the wardrobe of a woman who rotates the same few serviceable dresses too many times in a season. Since the restaurant's talented pastry chef, Michael Risk, was promoted to chef de cuisine, the list of sweets has shrunk to a few threadbare choices, such as tiramisu and crème brûlée. One or two hot little numbers are trotted out as specials each night, including a fluffy marbled mascarpone cheesecake and a lovely peach tart with crème anglaise. Risk is training the young chef who's turning out these beauties, and we're eager to see the confections debut as regulars on the dessert circuit.
Trattoria Marcella is just the sort of clean, comfortable place in which to linger over biscotti and cappuccino. An expansion three years ago allowed for more room between the tables. A few friezes and framed prints hang here and there about the saffron-colored room, and wall-wash lighting gives the space a suffused warmth. Co-owner Jamie Komorek, Steve Komorek's brother, manages the dining room and its employees. Even the bus staff is on its toes, ferrying small ciabatta loaves and lemony chickpea purée to the tables, refilling glasses and removing empty plates. The servers at Trattoria Marcella are refreshingly good-natured and well-trained. One pony-tailed waitress gamely indulged my dining partner's flirtations, while another chatted amiably about her recent Las Vegas elopement. Once a server slips into an oxford shirt, it seems, any whiff of attitude goes the way of the cummerbund.