If someone mentions Italian food and St. Louis in the same breath, the next words out of his/her mouth will be “the Hill.” It’s St. Louis’ historically Italian neighborhood and features a seemingly endless number of old school, red sauce restaurants.
You know the ones—giant portions, entrees drowning in sauce, Chianti bottles in straw baskets. The works.
There’s nothing wrong with those places. Hell, Aziz Ansari made one of them look incredible in Master of None. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the sandwich shops on the Hill either. However, sometimes you just want something more.
Luckily, St. Louis also features a number of restaurants pushing the boundaries and expectations associated with Italian cuisine in America. These pockets of creativity include I Fratellini, Pastaria, Sardella and, of course, Randolfi’s Italian Kitchen.
Chef-owner Mike Randolph’s Italian venture occupies the Good Pie’s former space on the Loop. Much like his other restaurant Público, Randolfi’s aims to take familiar dishes and elements and tweak them. It also aspires to have the same welcoming atmosphere and warmth, splitting the difference between casual and fine dining. In Randolph’s restaurants you are a friend—not just a customer.
The soft lighting and wood fire pizza oven make it an ideal venue for a romantic evening. That last sentence is accurate, but I am, admittedly, patting myself on the back for taking my girlfriend there for her birthday.
Okay, self-congratulation over.
I started my dinner with a cocktail, because why not on a Tuesday night. Jeffrey Moll’s cocktail program is extensive and changes periodically depending on the season. The menu also contains a great idea in this era of mustachioed mixologists and craft cocktails. There is an explainer that lists some of the more unique and less known spirits such as Aquavit.
I ordered an Easy Peasy, which starred some excellent Japanese whiskey. It also included a touch of stone pine liqueur, something I’m endlessly fascinated with. The cocktail didn’t try to hide the taste of the whiskey, which I appreciate. It was pleasantly tempered by a hit of citrus and accented with just a hint of pine floral aroma.
In short, it’s a good cocktail.
When it came to selecting an entrée, I was pulled in so many directions. Ultimately, the dish that caught my eye was the white Bolognese alla pappardelle with pancetta, pork, liver and cured egg yolk.
The birthday girl really wanted it, though. It’s stupid and childish, but I hate ordering the same thing as someone else. The Bolognese was out, but the meatball con spaghetti alla chitara was in.
I considered the frutti di mara alla clamshell, and, honestly, it was probably the more interesting dish.
Nevertheless, there’s something alluring about the straightforwardness of meatballs. There’s nowhere to hide with them—no amount of truffle oil, foam or pork belly is going to save your ass. If you fuck up a meatball, people are going to know it.
The dish was a riff on the classic Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs, but it was on a different level. The sizable meatball included pork and lamb, as well as garlic, chili and chive.
Two things set this apart from so many other mediocre renditions: freshly made pasta and proper consistency. It’s easy to forget the difference fresh pasta—cooked to al dente—makes when you’re used to dried noodles. The meatball was also tender; it sounds easy, but too many people are content to overcook meatballs.
It had a touch of smokiness that I seriously envied because I can never seem to achieve that in my kitchen. Additionally, and maybe I’m crazy, but there seemed to be a note of citrus in it. Mind you, it wasn’t overpowering but just enough to brighten the overall taste. Again, assuming I’m not crazy, it worked perfectly. I’ll be keeping it in mind next time I whip up a batch of meatballs.
The white Bolognese was particularly inspired, though.
I eat a lot of pasta. I find it to be the perfect utility meal, with endless options. Gradually, I’ve added a respectable variety of sauces and techniques to my home-cooking repertoire. Even considering that, I don’t know that I’ve ever had anything quite like it. I had a similar experience when I ate at Público.
I was excited, perhaps unreasonably so, to see the addition of an egg yolk to the pasta. A runny egg yolk improves almost anything—pasta, burger, leftover pizza, you name it. Those who disagree are clearly Philistines and Charlatans, and they’re not to be trusted.
The cured egg yolk, pork and pancetta brought a balanced mixture of salt and fat to the dish. It’s hard to ask for more than that as a meat eater. However, the liver added an earthiness and richness that wouldn’t have been achieved otherwise. My girlfriend noted that it was reminiscent of a good pâté. If you’re searching for a wholly unique pasta dish, I recommend a visit to Randolfi’s for this Bolognese.
I would be happy to eat here any time. Though, if I were faced with a Sophie’s Choice between Público and Randolfi’s, the former would probably win.
Regardless, it’s clear that Randolph’s restaurants are a positive, innovative force in our local dining scene. You should eat at his restaurants—not just as a customer but as a friend.