When the fire hydrants begin to look like Italian flags with green, red and white stripes, you know you’re on “The Hill”.  With an Italian American style all their own, featuring Provel cheese and fried ravioli, there’s an unmistakable St. Louis flair in this town’s Italian flavor.

Settlement of what’s now called “the Hill” began in the 1830’s, but the area boomed later that century with the discovery of rich clay mines. The expansion of clay pits and plant production brought Italian immigrants from northern Italy and Sicily to St. Louis and they settled north of the city on the Hill, named for being close to the highest point in the area. Able to find work within the neighborhood, the immigrants, first, bought houses and, then, started businesses — grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, barber shops and tailor shops, to name a few.

With the growth of Italian immigration came the growth in the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The Parish of Our Lady Help of Christians, was founded in the downtown area of St. Louis in 1900 to serve primarily Sicilian immigrants and the Parish of St. Ambrose was founded to serve the northern Italian immigrants. By the time the new church of St. Ambrose was built in 1926, the parish had already been an influence in the area for over 20 years. The structure is modeled after Sant Ambrogio Church in Milan, in the Lombard-Romanesque style of brick and terra-cotta. It became a parish church for the area in 1955, after 30 years of focusing on those of Italian heritage. When Our Lady Help of Christians Parish closed in 1975, St. Ambrose became the center of Catholic life among many Italian-Americans in the St. Louis area.

The neighborhood is still predominantly Italian, about 75 percent of the population, and St. Ambrose Catholic Church is still the center of the community. A statue of “The Italian Immigrants” at the entrance of the church demonstrates the bond between the immigrants and their religion. The Hill is also one of the city’s most tight-knit communities. Just as they did a century ago, families on the Hill greet each other warmly at church, local bakeries or while working on their front lawns. 

The Hill has flourished over the last century and somehow managed to repel the decay, neglect and suburban flight that have wracked other neighborhoods. Of all the ethnic-immigrant settlements in St. Louis in the late 19th century and early 20th century (including German, Irish, Czech and Polish), The Hill is the only one that remains intact. The Hill’s streets are virtually free of litter and crime. Its homes are modest but impeccably maintained, and these homes recall an era that predates the three-car garage and bedroom for every child. Some homes, according to Rosolino Roland DeGregorio, a local historian, are framed with free lumber that immigrants hauled in wagons from the disassembled 1904 World’s Fair exhibits.

Yards are lovingly embellished with small flower and herb gardens, fountains, brightly painted flower pots, strings of lights and statues of the Virgin Mary. Across from the Missouri Baking Co., Salvador Palmeri, an immigrant from Sicily, hoses the alley behind his home every day because, he said, “I like to keep it clean.” His wife, Josephine, paints ceramic flower pots and animal figures for a patio menagerie. “I love the area,” said Frank DiGregorio, 49, who arrived from Italy as an 8-month-old baby and helps run family-owned DiGregorio’s Imported Foods. “I can walk up and down the streets and talk to Italian people. It’s a community. We’re a small town in a big city.” Bill Holland, who married into the family that runs the 101-year-old John Volpi Co. Inc., an Italian meat company, said, The Hill is St. Louis’s only 24-hour neighborhood, a fragile ecosystem that has been immune to urban blight and whose anchor is St. Ambrose Catholic Church.” He said the neighborhood has a healthy balance of homes, businesses and entertainment that spins positive energy around the clock. “When the restaurants shut down at midnight, the bakers all come in at 2 a.m.,” Holland said. “We start our business at 6 a.m. There’s always something positive in the neighborhood.”  http://www.thehillstl.com/history.html

The Hill is located south of Manchester Avenue, between Hampton Avenue on the west and Kingshighway Avenue on the east. Its southern border runs along Columbia and Southwest Avenues. One city block of the neighborhood is famous for hosting the boyhood homes of Baseball Hall of Fame members and producing approximately half of the 1950 U.S. soccer team that upset top-ranked England in the World Cup.

The best way to visit the area is with a walking tour of the neighborhood which includes an Italian grocery in business for more than 50 years, a gift shop with a variety of Italian products, a ravioli store and an Italian meat market founded in 1902. Take a stroll down Baseball Hall of Fame Place, a renamed section of Elizabeth Avenue, (between Macklind Ave and Marconi Avenue) where Yogi Berra, Joe Garagiola and broadcaster Jack Buck grew up. You can find their homes, marked by granite plaques listing the names and dates of their inductions into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The streets are loaded with specialty shops, including Volpi Foods (5250 Daggett Ave.), opened by Giovanni Volpi in 1902, which continues to produce cured meats for the city (some argue they’re the best in the country). Viviano and Sons (5139 Shaw Ave.), opened by a macaroni factory worker, John Viviano to supplement his income, has blossomed into a neighborhood go-to shop, selling an array of Italian wines, olive oils and cheeses.

Lunch options are limitless, but will probably include an item made with Provel, the signature shelf stable cheese of the St. Louis Italian community. Amighetti’s (5141 Wilson Ave.), has been offering its namesake sandwich, a classic featuring Provel cheese, since 1921.

Two St. Louis restaurants are credited with the toasted ravioli appetizer’s invention in the 1940s: Charlie Gitto‘s (now a popular chain) and Oldani’s (now Mama’s) in The Hill neighborhood.

Dinner at Mama’s On the Hill (2132 Edwards Ave.), is a must. Opened under the name Oldani’s in 1940, Mama’s claims to be the birthplace of toasted ravioli and Mama will tell you all about it over dinner. Start with the two-pound meatball resting atop a mount of spaghetti soaking up Mama’s marinara sauce. Take Mama’s ultimate meatball challenge and, if you manage to finish the dish, Mama’s will pick up your tab and throw in a t-shirt. 

Charlie Gitto’s “On the Hill”   While there are other claimants, Charlie Gitto’s is generally recognized as the birthplace of the ‘toasted ravioli” when the restaurant was called Angelo’s. Toasted ravioli was invented here in 1947,” says Charlie Junior. “Louis Townsend was the guy who accidentally dropped ravioli in the breadcrumbs. He decided to fry them and brought them to Angelo, who thought it was a great idea, because he could quickly get them out to the bar. In the post-war era, the bars were really busy and Angelo served ravioli as bar food.”  Apparantly, this was much quicker than serving ravioli the traditional way.

Restaurants:

The Hill is known nationally for its great Italian restaurants. It’s often the dining destination of visiting celebrities, as well as, for out-of-town guests. Great places to try include:

Zia’s – A favorite of locals, Zia serves classic Italian dishes. Portions are generous, the atmosphere is simple but warm and prices are fairly moderate.

Lorenzo’s Trattoria – As a relatively new restaurant on the Hill, Lorenzo’s can’t rest on tradition. Actually, it does just the opposite, bringing modern twists to classic Italian dishes.

Rigazzi’s – Best known for its “fishbowls” of beer, Rigazzi’s offers everyday Italian dishes and pizza.

Adriana’s – The Hill’s own Yogi Berra’s famous quote “no one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded,” could easily be applied to Adriana’s. Its classic Italian sandwiches bring in a full lunch crowd.

Mama’s Two Pound Meatball

Shopping:

The Hill also has quite a few independent shops selling everything from cutlery to ceramics. Here are just three of the shops on the Hill:

Girasole – Girasole sells a wide variety of Italian products, including ceramics, jewelry, handbags, beauty products and books. Located at 2103 Marconi Avenue.

Bertarelli Cutlery – Although geared toward serving the restaurant business, Bertarelli can be exciting for anyone that loves to cook. Shop for new knives and other quality kitchen supplies or take your current knives in for sharpening. Located at 1927 Marconi Avenue.

Atomic Neon – Glassworks studio selling everything from simple glass bead necklaces to elaborate neon signs and art glass. All crafted on site. Located at 4140 Manchester Road.

Italian Recipes of St. Louis

St. Louis-Style Pizza

With its cracker-thin baking powder crust and square slices, there are those who’d claim this dish isn’t pizza. But to residents of St. Louis, it’s one of their city’s culinary icons. There are many “authentic” St. Louis Pizza recipes, but all seem to stem from one particular St. Louis chain: Imo’s, a “mom and pop” business with over 90 stores in and around St. Louis.

Crust

  • 2 cups King Arthur Unbleached Self-Rising Flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 tablespoons water

*No self-rising flour? Substitute 2 cups Unbleached All-Purpose Flour; add 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt and increase the water to 1/2 cup.

Topping

  • 2/3 cup pizza sauce
  • 1 cup grated or shredded sharp white cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated or shredded smoked provolone cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated or shredded Swiss cheese
  • Pizza Seasoning or dried Italian herbs

*To add smoky flavor without using smoked provolone, add 1 teaspoon Liquid Smoke flavoring.

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Lightly grease two 12″ round pizza pans, or a couple of baking sheets.

To make the crust: Combine the flour, oil and water, mixing until cohesive. Gather the dough into a ball, divide it in half and shape each half into a flat disk, the rounder the better.

If you have time, let the dough rest, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes; it’ll be easier to roll out once it’s rested.

Grease a piece of parchment paper about 12″ square or a piece of waxed paper. Place one of the dough pieces on the paper and top with another piece of lightly greased parchment or waxed paper.

Roll the dough very thin, 1/8″ thick or less. Place the dough on the prepared pans.

Top each pizza with 1/3 cup sauce. Mix the cheeses together and spread half over each pizza. Sprinkle lightly with Pizza Seasoning or dried Italian herbs.

Bake the pizzas for 9 to 11 minutes, until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown, and the edges and bottom of the crust are golden brown.

Remove the pizzas from the oven, transfer to a rack to cool very briefly, cut in squares, and serve hot.

Yield: two pizzas, about 4 servings total.

The Original Toasted Ravioli

Makes 12 to 14 appetizers.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
  • 2 pounds ripe fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut up
  • 2 tablespoons snipped fresh basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil, crushed
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 slightly beaten egg
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 -16 to 20 ounce package frozen meat-filled ravioli, thawed
  • 2/3 to 1 cup seasoned fine dry bread crumbs
  • Cooking oil for deep-fat frying
  • Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Directions:

For sauce: In a medium saucepan, cook onion and garlic in hot olive oil or butter until onion is tender. Stir in tomatoes, dried basil, salt and pepper. Cover; cook over medium heat about 10 minutes or until tomatoes are soft, stirring occasionally. Uncover and stir in tomato paste. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, about 20 minutes or until mixture reaches desired consistency, stirring occasionally. Stir in fresh basil Cover sauce; keep warm.

In a small bowl, beat together egg and milk. Dip each ravioli in egg mixture; then dip in bread crumbs to coat.

In a heavy 3-quart saucepan, heat 2 inches of cooking oil to 350 degrees F. Fry ravioli, a few at a time, in hot oil about 2 minutes or until golden brown, turning once. Drain on paper towels. Keep warm in a 300 degree F.  oven while frying the rest.

To serve: Sprinkle ravioli with Parmesan cheese, if you like. Serve with warm sauce for dipping.

Chicken Spiedini

Zia’s restaurant on the Hill uses provel in this grilled chicken dish. It’s a cheese made in the neighborhood that tastes like a blend of cheddar, Swiss and provolone.

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 pounds chicken breast tenderloins
  • 2/3 cup Italian salad dressing 
  • 3/4 cups seasoned fine dry bread crumbs
  • 3/4 cup halved fresh mushrooms
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped prosciutto
  • 3/4 cup shredded provel cheese or mozzarella cheese (3 ounces)
  • 1 lemon, quartered

Directions:

Place chicken in a resealable plastic bag set in a shallow dish. Pour salad dressing over chicken. Seal bag; turn to coat chicken. Marinate in the refrigerator for 2 to 24 hours, turning bag occasionally.

Drain chicken, discarding marinade. Place bread crumbs in a shallow dish. Dip chicken in bread crumbs to coat. On five to six long metal skewers, thread chicken, accordion-style, leaving 1/4-inch space between each piece.

For a charcoal grill: Grill skewers on the rack of an uncovered grill directly over medium coals for 10 to 12 minutes or until chicken is tender and no longer pink (170 degree F), turning once halfway through grilling.

For a gas grill: Preheat grill. Reduce heat to medium. Place skewers on grill rack over heat. Cover and grill as directed above.

For oven directions: Arrange skewers in a 15 x 10x 1-inch baking pan. Bake in a 375 degree F.  oven about 15 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink (170 degree F.)

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook mushrooms and garlic in hot butter until mushrooms are just tender, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add prosciutto; cook and stir 2 minutes more.

Remove chicken from skewers; arrange on a serving plate. Sprinkle the chicken with half of the cheese. Spoon the mushroom mixture over chicken. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Squeeze a lemon wedge over each serving.

Salsiccia Bread

Salsiccia is Italian for sausage and it’s a tasty part of the filling in this recipe from Di Gregorio Imported Foods, which also sells the salsiccia. 

Makes: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients:

  • 8 ounces bulk Italian sausage
  • 1/2 cup chopped peeled potato
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 of a 10 ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and well-drained
  • 8 ounces canned or homemade pizza sauce
  • 2 tablespoons drained, snipped oil-packed sundried tomatoes
  • 1- 16 – ounce loaf frozen bread dough, thawed
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil

Directions:

For filling: In a large skillet, cook sausage, potato and garlic until sausage is brown and potato is tender. Drain off fat. Stir in spinach, 1/3 cup of the pizza sauce and sundried tomatoes. Set aside.

On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a 12×9-inch rectangle, stopping occasionally to let dough relax a few minutes for easier rolling. Spread sausage mixture evenly over dough, leaving a 1-inch border on all sides. Starting from a short side, roll up dough into a spiral. Moisten edge and ends; pinch seams to seal. Transfer to a lightly greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise in a warm place until nearly double (30 to 45 minutes).

Lightly brush loaf with oil. Bake in a 350 degree F. oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until loaf is golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack; cool about 30 minutes before cutting. Serve with remaining pizza sauce for dipping. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note – Store leftovers, wrapped in foil, in the refrigerator up to 2 days. To reheat, bake wrapped loaf in 350 degree F. oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until heated.

Tiramisu

This recipe from Gian-Tony’s on the Hill.

Makes: 16 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons instant espresso coffee powder
  • 1 tablespoon amaretto liqueur
  • 1 tablespoon hazelnut liqueur
  • 2 -8 ounce cartons mascarpone cheese
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/2 cups whipping cream
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 tablespoons dried egg white powder
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 3 – ounce packages ladyfingers, split
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

Directions:

For syrup: In a small saucepan, combine the 1/2 cup sugar, the 1/2 cup water and coffee powder. Cook over medium heat until boiling. Boil gently, uncovered, for 1 minute. Remove from heat; stir in amaretto and hazelnut liqueur. Cool.

For filling: In a medium bowl, stir together mascarpone cheese, the 1/4 cup sugar and vanilla. In a chilled medium mixing bowl, combine whipping cream and the 3 tablespoons sugar. Beat with chilled beaters in an electric mixer on medium speed until soft peaks form. Fold 1/2 cup of the beaten whipped cream mixture into the mascarpone mixture to lighten; set both mixtures aside. In another medium mixing bowl, beat dried egg whites and 1/2 cup water to stiff peaks according to package directions, adding the 1/3 cup granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, while beating.

To assemble: Arrange half of the ladyfinger halves in the bottom of a 9x9x2-inch baking pan. Brush with half of the syrup mixture. Spread with half of the mascarpone mixture, half of the whipped cream and half of the egg white mixture. Sprinkle with half of the cocoa powder. Arrange the remaining ladyfingers on top of the layers in the pan. Brush with the remaining syrup mixture. Spread with the remaining mascarpone mixture, the remaining whipped cream and the remaining egg white mixture. Sprinkle with the remaining cocoa powder. Cover and chill 4 to 24 hours before serving. Makes 16 servings.

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