One day, when three-month-old Sauce on the Side has expanded from its modest original location downtown to become a local, regional or maybe even national chain, the story of its founding will be printed on the back of its menu. It goes a little something like this.
Brendan Maciariello, Ryan Mangialardo and Daniel Porzel wanted to open a restaurant. But what kind? The three friends considered that hippest of hip casual concepts, the gourmet burger joint, but the idea just didn't suit them. Then one morning Mangialardo awoke with a single thought on his mind: Calzones.
He called Maciariello. "Calzones."
"I'm hungry," Maciariello replied. "I'm down for calzones."
"No," Mangialardo said. "What do you think about doing a calzone shop?"
Further research led Mangialardo to realize that few restaurants nationwide, let alone in St. Louis, specialize in calzones. So the trio had a concept; now they needed a name. They thought about Di Mattoni, Italian for brick, in reference to the brick ovens in which they would bake their calzones, but rejected it as too evocative of a mom-and-pop place on the Hill — they envisioned a contemporary fast-casual establishment, something that could eventually be replicated in other locations.
They needed something catchy.
What makes a calzone a calzone? Why is it inaccurate to describe one as a pizza turned inside out?
Because you serve the sauce on the side.
As with most successful fast-casual enterprises, the Sauce on the Side concept is simple. You choose one of fourteen different calzones or build your own from an extensive list of meats, cheeses, vegetables and fruits. The outside of each calzone is brushed with oil, the type of which varies according to filling; ditto the sauce (served on the side). So, for example, the "Costanza" — stuffed with pepperoni, eggplant, roasted garlic, basil, mozzarella and ricotta — is brushed with a garlic-honey oil and served with the house red sauce. You order at the counter. About fifteen minutes later, your calzone arrives at your table (or in a to-go box) baked to a glistening golden-brown.
Slideshow: Sauce on the Side photos
The concept is smart, and the execution is sharp. The dough is the first key to baking the perfect calzone: too heavy and a dish that's already a meal in itself can be overwhelming. Across my multiple visits, Sauce on the Side's dough was uniformly excellent, substantial enough to support the fillings of each calzone but with a pleasantly airy chew even at the corners, where the ratio is 99 percent dough to 1 percent filling. The flavor is light and unobtrusive, a template for both the fillings and whichever oil accents the pie.
The second key is the quality of the ingredients that go inside the calzone. Here Sauce on the Side distinguishes itself both with the individual foods and how the kitchen brings them together. The aforementioned "Costanza" appears to be a take on the classic pizza calzone, with pepperoni, garlic, basil and mozzarella, but the addition of eggplant, with its distinct astringent character and a hint of roasted sweetness, adds an unexpected touch of sophistication. The house red sauce supplies just the right acidic bite of fresh tomato to balance the gentle sweetness of the garlic-honey oil.
The "Five-O" nods at Hawaiian pizza with its combination of pancetta, pineapple, red bell pepper and mozzarella, but smoked cheddar adds another level of flavor, while the smoked-chile oil brushed on top provides a spike of heat. (As with nearly all of the calzones, ricotta adds texture.) On the side: a tangy, sweet barbecue sauce.
The majority of the calzones don't imitate pizza styles. The "Duke" features pulled chicken and applewood-smoked bacon, with mozzarella, cheddar and a fresh corn salsa. The smoked-chile oil treatment imbues the calzone with an enjoyable Southwestern flair, though the sauce — a mix of barbecue sauce and ranch dressing — adds little besides a generic tang. (Its color, a disarming salmonish hue, doesn't help either.) As its name suggests, the "Pancho Villa" finds its inspiration south of the Rio Grande: chorizo and jalapeño with yellow bell pepper, smoked cheddar and mozzarella. With the smoked-chile oil and a side of moderately spicy queso, it's the hottest calzone on the menu.
The "Figgy Piggy" is one of the more intriguing calzones, melding savory bacon with sweet figs. Balsamic-glazed onions accent the meat and fruit, while a blend of mozzarella and Boursin provides the creamiest of counterpoints. This receives the garlic-honey oil and the house red sauce.
Only the "Carmen" struck me as problematic, and then only slightly so. The ingredients list — prosciutto, capicola and baby spinach with Parmesan and Fontina cheeses inside a crust brushed with garlic oil with a rich garlic butter sauce served alongside — sounded tasty, but a base dominated by cured meat proved a tad too salty.
Vegetarians need not fret: If you're disinclined to build your own calzone, you can choose the mushroom-heavy "Magic Carpet Ride" or the vegetable-packed "Garden" or one of the various salads, which Sauce on the Side offers in either a small or meal-size portion. A nice touch for a fast-casual operation: Beer (a good selection of bottled, mostly craft beer) and wine (a brief list) are available.
As for Sauce on the Side's future, Mangialardo admits that the team designed each aspect of the restaurant with multiple locations in mind. Still, he says, "We're in no hurry." The focus now is building the strongest possible team at the downtown location.
Based on the crowds thronging the modest space during the weekday lunch rush — you will wait in line to order, and you might have to wait while your calzone bakes for a seat to open up — the trio appears to be well on its way.
Slideshow: Sauce on the Side photos