Benedetto's was never broke. But the Buzzetta family fixed it anyway.
After operating the always-popular Italian bistro Benedetto's for twelve years at Le Château Village in Frontenac (a luxe shopping destination that makes the Plaza Frontenac across the street feel like the Galleria in comparison), the restaurateuring clan headed by patriarch Benedetto Buzzetta decided to pack it in this past summer and head for lower ground: downtown Clayton, a less rarefied but more urbane address. They slapped a new name on their shingle, settling on Limoncello (after a lemon-stoked Italian liqueur), but they're happy to let folks know that the new place is just like the old in many respects: The restaurant's subtitle, on the front door, the business cards, the mirror behind the bar, reads "A Benedetto's creation"; and a little nook of Limoncello's front room (in plain sight for passers-by on the sidewalk) is bedecked with a surfeit of recognition Benedetto's received over the years -- plaques, certificates, even a couple of medals.
Benedetto's son Paul Buzzetta attributes the changeover to "wanting to try something different. We've always been a gourmet type of setting, and we felt that we wanted to do a new ambiance for our clientele, with the same quality food. We weren't tired, per se. We just wanted a new adventure, at least as far as ambiance."
They've got one. Two-month-old Limoncello is a handsome and hip establishment that breaks free from Benedetto's stuffy and floral past life and also stands apart from cookie-cutter Clayton décor. The bar area up front boasts a cushioned bench that runs along the storefront window, with overstuffed pillows providing seatback support -- a clever seating arrangement that gives off whiffs of a Moroccan vibe. In the center of that front room, a handful of high-tops allow for standing-room-only drinking (which I happen to like, because businessmen in suits look their best when standing and drinking; position them on barstools and they look shlubby). The main dining room in back sets white linen-topped tables against an eye-pleasing color scheme of mossy green and black. The far wall houses the restaurant's wine collection in a latticework of black-trimmed cubbyholes, while two semiprivate circular dining alcoves set off to either side of the dining room accommodate larger parties.
The kitchen staff remains the same, led by Benedetto's wife, Rosalia, and their son-in-law Maximo Contreras. It's strange to see a family-operated restaurant in these environs, let alone a family-cooked one, but Rosalia and Co. do a great job of turning out Italian dishes that are at once rustic and refined. Veal and seafood -- shrimp, scallops, lobster, calamari, a fish of the day -- abound on the menu, as does limoncello, which imparts its tangy sweetness to many a dish. The half-dozen pastas include a pair of abundant (if predictable) seafood linguines, one in a white wine-mushroom sauce, the other in marinara; a bold pappardelle tossed with sautéed onions, red pepper flakes and prosciutto; and a house-special bucatini alla casa nostra, in which the long, hollow noodles (seldom offered in area Italian joints) are tossed with olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, roasted bell pepper, cherry tomatoes and an audacious dash of mascarpone cheese.
While a lunchtime appetizer of stuffed mushroom caps, four arranged on an oversize plate, looked like a bit of a letdown (your basic brown and fried) and appeared to be a bit greasy, they tasted dandy and conveyed a great crunch. In the same vein but better still was a fried artichoke appetizer served at dinner, in which a trio of breaded artichoke hearts were swathed in blankets of melted mozzarella. A quartet of lobster ravioli in a tomato-infused cream sauce, meanwhile, looked and tasted like little sunbeams on a plate. My only complaint -- with all these appetizers, as a matter of fact -- was that they could have used one more morsel apiece, although the prices are moderate at under $10 a plate.
I'm running out of superlative imagery to describe scallop dishes in this town. This is both a testament to how air freight has revolutionized the seafood industry -- you really can have fish caught off either coast this morning in time for dinner in St. Louis tonight -- and how Midwest cow country has caught up to the finesse of fruits de mer. So regarding Limoncello's simply drawn appetizer plate of my favorite mollusks, here goes: These scallops were so thick, they had a beginning, a middle and an end. They were as tall as a toddler. If I had the money, I'd just go around to different high-end eateries downing scallops like these on a nightly basis.
The salads at Limoncello, though thoughtfully served on chilled salad plates, need a lighter hand with the olive oil. Because of this, the Caprese salad didn't taste as good as it looked (it also could've used redder, softer, better-ripened tomatoes). The Caesar came off bland and basic, with the same rectangular-cut pieces of romaine and sprinkle of Parmesan seen everywhere.
For the main course, served with a side scoop of vegetable or pasta, a strip-cut bistecca arrived a fine and true medium and resonated with a palette of garlic, olive oil and lemon. Grilled salmon blushed like a schoolgirl on the inside, so fragile and soft it nearly resembled carpaccio and made me swear to myself that I'd never again claim that salmon could be done at home just as easily and well as at a fine restaurant. Gamberi limoncello was the only disappointment; there was nothing particularly wrong with it, but it came off merely as shrimp cocktail on a bed of lemon-butter rice.
When the dessert tray came around, a white chocolate layer cake tasted remarkably like ready-to-eat Pepperidge Farm 3-Layer Cake (yummy but far from yowza), while a slice of cheesecake, decorated on top with a pageantry of chocolate cream, pistachio bits and icing doodles, looked like a Mardi Gras parade and tasted just as festive.
While certain family members toil in the kitchen, Benedetto himself is a permanent fixture in the front of the house, tending to his clientele like a mildly perplexed grandpa. His unhurried presence counteracts that of the service fleet, which seems to number into the dozens. With so much coming and going among the runners, servers, bussers, hostesses, captains and certain black-clad young women desperately trying to make themselves useful by refilling a water glass or removing a plate -- all of this negotiated between tightly spaced tables -- the dining room can feel like an airport terminal. And the move to Clayton has led to a few Lindsay Lohan fashion victims dolling about. But so what if a little 90210 has crept into the Buzzetta family business? These are small prices to pay for one of the better meals in the 63105.