When Michael Del Pietro opened Sugo's Spaghetteria in Frontenac four years ago, he anticipated the exact sort of establishment that eager but cost-conscious restaurant-goers would crave during the long recession. Sugo's clean design and autumnal palette evoked a modern (even urbane) spot, yet prices were reasonable and portions generous: meatballs as big as tennis balls, a single serving of lasagna plentiful enough for two (or three) to share. If the menu was predictable, the kitchen executed it with enough finesse to distinguish it from an old-school red sauce/white sauce joint.
Since then Del Pietro has opened a second Sugo's (in Overland Park, Kansas) and two Sugo's clones called Babbo's Spaghetteria (in Chesterfield and Columbia). He has turned the space adjacent to the original Sugo's into Via Vino Enoteca, a wine bar. And most recently he has debuted two further riffs on the Sugo's concept: Pazzo's Pizzeria in downtown Kirkwood and Tavolo V east of Skinker Boulevard in the Delmar Loop.
Tavolo V is the more striking of these two ventures, in appearance as well as in execution. It's a single large dining room with very high ceilings, a bar to one side and the partially open kitchen at the back. A single mural covers most of one wall: the city's skyline, each building built out of words, superimposed over a map of the metro area. (A classic "St. Louis is America's biggest small town" detail: The artist, Grace Bonwich Thompson, is the daughter of my Post-Dispatch counterpart, Joe Bonwich.) The restaurant space is part of a garage that has been renovated and subdivided into a retail strip; each storefront has a garage door, and Tavolo V's is opened when the weather is pleasant.
At the heart of the menu is the Sugo's template of pasta and Neapolitan-style pizza: There are those two fat meatballs of grass-fed beef and Berkshire pork over spaghetti in a tomato-cream sauce. There is that slab of lasagna. Bathed in a thin broth flavored with mushrooms and a splash of truffle oil, the "Funghi" pasta tosses spaghetti with shiitake, crimini and portobello mushrooms, along with olive oil, garlic (both roasted and raw) and spinach. As you'd expect, it's earthy, and, in the Sugo's spirit, nearly as filling as one of the meat-based pastas. The garlic and spinach add bright, sharp notes to cut through all that funk.
Tavolo V features more vegetable-based dishes than its sibling restaurants. These are to be found mainly among the selections of hot and cold antipasti. So in addition to fried calamari — tender, lightly breaded and tossed in a mildly spicy, arrabbiata-like tomato sauce — there are fried baby artichokes and a "crudo" of raw zucchini sliced lengthwise thinly, seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper and topped with lemon zest and shaved Parmigiano. One misfire: a pan-fried spinach "patty" that looked like (and had all the subtlety of) an up-from-frozen spinach casserole.
There is a brief, often-changing selection of traditional entrées: a couple of chicken dishes, a fish of the day, a risotto of the day. The chicken scaloppine is very lightly dredged in seasoned breadcrumbs, the exterior more crisp than crunchy, allowing the tender meat to carry the dish. This comes with simple sides of gnocchi and sautéed spinach. The fish on my visit was a piece of roasted Copper River salmon topped with a few slices of portobello mushrooms and served on a bed of sautéed spinach. Again, the preparation is straightforward, but it's a good piece of fish, the skin side adding a bit of texture to the flavorful fish.
The Neapolitan-style pizza selections at Tavolo V and its fellow newcomer, Pazzo's Pizzeria, largely overlap. At Pazzo's, however, they are the restaurant's main focus, the menu rounded out with a few pasta dishes (meatballs again!) and antipasti. The space, located in the retail and residential development across from Kirkwood's city hall and catty-corner to the Amtrak station, is more colorful than Tavolo V — the walls feature vivid greens and purples.
As befits a Neapolitan-style pizza, a Del Pietro crust is very thin. The kitchen's oven doesn't quite match the wood-fired intensity of a Neapolitan rig; the crusts get crisp but lack that beloved hallmark of Neapolitan pie: blistering. You can build your own pizza from toppings both standard (pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms) and deluxe (shrimp, apple). The basic pizza I configured — with tomato sauce, mozzarella and pepperoni — nicely balanced the spice of the pepperoni with the tang of the cheese.
Specialty pies include "The Pazzo's," which comes topped with olive oil, shrimp, pancetta and what the menu claims is goat cheese — though on my pie it had the taste and texture of shredded mozzarella. The "Margherita" I ordered promised fresh mozzarella but delivered the same grated-mozzy substance, which served as a bed for the roma tomatoes and basil. Assuming the kitchen sorts out the cheese choices, the calibration could use some tweaking, as well — in the form of a lighter hand. With such thin crusts, the inherent saltiness of the cheese can easily overwhelm other flavors.
At both Pazzo's and Tavolo V, service is friendly and efficient. On the other hand, the menus at both restaurants showed signs of heavy wear. I've come to expect the former at a Michael Del Pietro restaurant, but the latter — as (seemingly) with the cheese, a rare lapse in attention to detail — was a disappointment. Over the three-plus years since Sugo's debuted, Del Pietro's only problem is one most restaurateurs would kill for: How far can I tweak this concept without losing my customer base? How many variations on the theme before they start growing bored?