The inspiration for the new half-cookbook, half-neighborhood memoir The Hill: Its History -- Its Recipes struck St. Louis book publisher Brad Baraks not while devouring a sausage sandwich at Adriana's, nor did it strike him while playing a game of bocce at Milo's. It came to him -- as most glimmers of genius do -- while on vacation. On a trip to Hawaii, Baraks happened upon a cookbook that focused on the indigenous cuisine of a small area of the Aloha State.
"I thought, 'We could do a Hill cookbook just like this one,'" says Baraks. "Then I thought, 'Well, somebody else must have done one already.' And then I found out that nobody had."
Hence, a 200-page hardcover coffee-table book was born. It contains dozens of recipes from the kitchens of four legendary Hill restaurants -- Dominic's, Giovanni's, Cunetto's House of Pasta and Charlie Gitto's -- many of them signature dishes such as Veal Nunzio, Linguini alla Pavarotti and Veal Saltimbocca alla Giovanni's. There are also more than twenty home recipes from Hill residents, many of them brought over from the Old World generations ago, plus loads of historical details on the institutions that give the Hill its character: restaurants, bakeries, churches and high schools.
Baraks, who runs locally based G. Bradley Publishing, chose local author and historian Eleanore Berra Marfisi to write the tome. A St. Louis native and longtime Hill resident whose previous books -- Italian Roots, American Flowers and Dolci: Italian Sweets -- made her the right woman for the job, Marfisi took up the challenge. Yet it was the author's street cred on the Hill that helped most in putting the book together.
"We wanted the book to have the feel of a family photo album or an old yearbook," says Marfisi, "and that meant getting people to open up, loan photos and share stories. Since I live in the neighborhood and everybody knows I have an open-door policy, neighbors would pop in with a photo or two they found, and then we'd sit at my dining room table and they'd tell me stories about the people in the pictures. Really, I think that's how we got our best material for the book."
Baraks is betting that the book will appeal to people far beyond St. Louis' city limits. "We chose Dominic's, Giovanni's, Cunetto's and Charlie Gitto's to include in the book because we knew that they were the Hill restaurants best known on a national scope," says Baraks. "And the Italian-American experience is something that Italian-Americans all over the country hold very dear, whether or not they've ever lived in or been to the Hill."
Marfisi says she's seen how the book attracts even those who may have never watched a single episode of The Sopranos, too. "I was doing a signing recently, and a group of Jewish women came up to me and told me that the book reminds them exactly of their parents' lives, as Jewish immigrants to America. On a broad scope, the book is about how poor, indigenous people created the tight-knit communities that this country was built on in the last century."
Marfisi and Giovanni's owner Giovanni Gabriele sign copies of The Hill: Its History -- Its Recipes from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 27, at the Sur La Table at Plaza Frontenac (Clayton Road at Lindbergh Boulevard). Call 314-993-0566 for more information.