Walking into Rossino's, it becomes apparent that you have arrived at not just a restaurant but a destination. First, you descend the stairs to the grottolike entrance. Then you walk in the place, and if you haven't been here before, you try to find your bearings.
That's because it's possibly the most dimly lit restaurant in which you'll ever eat. Going from the sunny outdoors to the inside, it seems virtually black within, and until your eyes become accustomed to the darkness, you may feel like holding your arms out in front of your face to avoid stumbling into a column.
Rossino's is extra-dark because it's literally underground, in the basement level of the Melrose Apartments, 206 N. Sarah St. at West Pine. There are no windows to speak of, and table candles in red plastic holders are pretty much the only source of light. Even at lunchtime it seems like midnight.
Adding to the challenge of journeying to your table are the many black pipes that descend from the ceiling, waiting patiently for the chance to bonk the heads of unwary visitors. Even the shorties have to be ready to duck. The Russo family, who own Rossino's, have kindly padded many of the pipes so that if you do smack into one, the injury will be more to pride than to cranium.
There is enough light, though, to enjoy the fun decor, which includes a fascinating clutter of old signs, photos, advertisements, mirrors, paintings, books, trophies, license plates, wine bottles and a trumpet. It seems that the decorators for Friday's and Houlihan's must have gotten their inspiration here. Look closely and you'll find some hidden treasures, like the recessed kitchen door that's as hidden as the entrance to the Batcave, or the French advertisement for glass that's framed behind broken glass.
The hodgepodge of memorabilia is the product of artist and former owner Tom Zimmerman. He painted many of the old-fashioned signs himself and collected many of the other items from garage and estate sales. The clever restaurateur, who passed away in 1986, could also be cryptic. Witness the huge sign that reads "BARKING" on the patio and the "George M. Cohan" plaque affixed to the street side of a door to the kitchen. Both are just for fun, though many still ask co-owner Nancy Zimmerman whether Cohan really used to live in the Melrose apartment building that rises above Rossino's.
The building was completed in 1903, just in time for the World's Fair a year later. The basement restaurant opened in '44 and was called Melrose. New owners renamed it Parente's five years later, and then, in '54, the Russo and Gianino families took the place over and combined their surnames to call it Rossino's.
So Rossino's is a St. Louis institution -- and more: They claim to be the first restaurant to serve pizza west of the Mississippi. "It's the first pizza house in the Midwest," says Nancy Zimmerman. "I would say everyone else is a copy; even though Imo's advertises they're the first, they're not."
First-generation Americans Roy and Nina "Nani" Russo brought their children and grandchildren into the business, and now it's three generations of strong women -- Nani Russo, Nancy Zimmerman and Nina Hardie -- who run the joint and break a sweat there every day. Nani, whose moniker means "grandma" in Italian, has a beautiful smile and is fond of fixing homemade desserts, like almond-butter cake with whipped cream and strawberries, for the male regulars she calls her "boyfriends."
But first they'll have to plow through some other swell courses, like the classic Italian salad with salami, provolone, olives and a sweet vinaigrette; the distinctive rectangular pizza made with mozzarella or provolone or both; the hard- to-find chicken-liver-and-mushroom pasta; or maybe another pasta made with Rossino's uniquely tangy and rich marinara.
Not only has Rossino's been around for nearly 50 years, they claim to have engendered nearly the entire community of Italian restaurants in St. Louis. Nancy testifies to the following stupefying ring of connections
"The Pasta House guys worked here before they started on their own. Mike Faille (Talayna's) is my uncle; he started here making pizzas when he was 15 years old. Mike Del Pietro was my brother-in-law; we started them in business. He worked for us as a waiter for 20 years. We used to own half of Portabella. We used to own Deli D'Italia, which we sold lock, stock and barrel to Bob Candice (Candicci's) and started him off. And the grandfather of the Bartolino family worked for us. About 35 restaurants have come out of Rossino's, including Charlie Gitto's -- that's my Uncle Charlie. He worked for us also."
From the dim recesses of the first pizza parlor in the West emerged a family of Italian restaurants that would blanket St. Louis. But it's still the first, Rossino's, that has the most character.
-- Byron Kerman