Cucina Confidential: Racanelli's upscales the ante in the Loop 

When I reviewed the new Syrian restaurant Ranoush a few weeks ago, I suggested that its unique charms — typified by a belly dancer twirling among its diners — fit right in with the funky, manic Delmar Loop.

There is, however, another side to this iconic stretch: a steadily encroaching gentrification of its bohemian roots by corporate chains. I don't mean this as the introduction to an anti-capitalist screed. In fact, I've written positively in this column and elsewhere about a few of these chains (Noodles & Company, Chipotle). In general, though, I do root for locally owned businesses to succeed, and from my vantage point — my office window overlooks the Loop; specifically, it overlooks a Foot Locker — it's fascinating to observe how these businesses are reacting to "foreign" competition.

Witness the radical transformation of the Market in the Loop. This was a dowdy but charming curiosity, a food court/mini-mall that was home over the years to a Chinese takeout stall, the headquarters for a local political campaign, a bead shop, Bob's Seafood and the late, lamented Big V's Burger Joint, among others. Out back were the stalls that housed the University City farmers' market and Mama's Coal Pot, quite literally a barbecue shack.

If the Market in the Loop had an "anchor tenant," it was (at least after Bob's Seafood moved to its current, larger location near the intersection of I-170 and Olive Boulevard) probably its outpost of the local pizza chain Racanelli's. Racanelli's is about as close as St. Louis gets to authentic New York City-style pizza, thin-crust slices so oversized that they drape over the edges of their paper plates, gooey with more melted mozz than any human being needs, slick with orange grease. That the Market in the Loop location seemed to do most of its business in walk-up demand for individual or a couple of slices only reinforced the NYC vibe.

In late 2007, Racanelli's owner John Racanelli decided to gut the Market in the Loop building and replace it with Racanelli's Cucina. This new restaurant opened in November of last year, and though the exterior appears basically the same, the interior is wholly different, with a modern design featuring an open kitchen at one end of the dining room, high ceilings and classy black-and-white photographs of New York City scenes. The dining room occupies the western half of the restaurant. At the back of the eastern half is the bar area, with a few tables and the requisite flat-screen TV sets, and the entrance to the large covered patio. The front of the opposite half is walled off. Behind this wall, accessible only from the building's exterior, is Racanelli's Express, serving the same menu of pizza and calzones as the old Market in the Loop Racanelli's.

Pizza is also the main focus of Racanelli's Cucina. Here, though, the pizza is cooked in a brick oven. The crust is very thin — even thinner than the regular Racanelli's crust — but the pies are more restrained, emphasizing the toppings rather than the goopy cheese. There are fifteen "Cucina Original Pizzas," or you can build your own from a decent-length list of toppings. Each pizza has a twelve-inch diameter and seems roughly enough for one very hungry diner or a party of two with modest appetites.

As I mentioned, the crust is very thin, though it was just thick enough to support all of the toppings on the "U City Hula": grilled chicken breast, crumbled bacon, pineapple chunks, barbecue sauce, and mozzarella and fontina cheeses. The key to a pizza like this is the barbecue sauce: It doesn't have to be especially spicy or smoky, but if it's too sweet, it will overwhelm everything else. The sauce on the "U City Hula" had a subtle, lingering kick. It and the bacon provided a necessary accent to the chicken (bland and on the tough side) and the surprisingly flavorless pineapple.

The "Calabrese" offered the promise of a more refined pizza: fried eggplant, garlic and basil, with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. The acidic note of the eggplant gave it a spark, but it was essentially a straightforward, satisfying cheese-and-tomato pizza. What held it back — what held each pizza I tried here back — was the crust. Though light in the most literal sense, its flavor was rather flat, deadening the impact of its toppings.

Of the pizzas I tried, my favorite was the one most similar to "regular" Racanelli's: the "Pepperoni Supreme." Here the cheese was applied more liberally, while the pepperoni added enough spicy, porky goodness that I hardly minded the crust.

Besides pizza, Racanelli's Cucina offers pasta and sandwiches. From the latter board, I ordered the bacon cheeseburger. This came with very thickly sliced bacon and cheddar cheese atop an eight-ounce patty formed into a mostly even thickness. As happens much too often, the patty was closer to medium-well than medium — are cooks not learning how to tell temperature by feel? — but an aggressive seasoning of salt allowed its rich flavor to shine through. The burger came with very good steak fries, which had a crisp — almost crunchy — exterior and a soft interior.

Pasta "Fiorentina" was unmemorable: orecchiette pasta in what the menu claimed was a "tomato and roasted garlic broth" but which tasted like lightly seasoned pasta water. Spinach and portobello mushroom added body but no flavor. Only sun-dried tomatoes, buried beneath the orecchiette, added any character.

Starters include lightly breaded fried calamari. A nice touch: These came with a decently spicy dipping sauce rather than plain tomato or marinara sauce. Crab-stuffed mushrooms were more cream cheese than crustacean. Desserts include two standards, tiramisu and a flourless chocolate torte, as well as the "Johnny's Famous Poundcake Sandwich," which tops pound cake with a chocolate-hazelnut spread (think Nutella), strawberry jam, whipped cream and powdered sugar.

Surprisingly, for a relatively casual restaurant, Racanelli's Cucina has a wine list with several bottles priced from north of $50 to as high as $115. There are no real steals, even among the by-the-glass options, but on Wednesdays many of the most expensive bottles are discounted 40 percent.

The wine list aside, Racanelli's Cucina appears to be appealing to the countless tourists who stroll the Delmar Loop daily. The average family will find something for everyone on its menu, while the brick-oven pizzas will appeal to those who seek a meal just a tad bit classier than what many other Loop restaurants offer. I suppose it will succeed on those merits, though I can't help but think that what has made the Loop such a part of St. Louis culture is that so few of its denizens like to walk the middle of the road.

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