Opening a new restaurant on the Hill, St. Louis' fabled Italian enclave, involves conquering biases coming from every direction. The traditionalists would have you believe that only the established places could ever be true to the old ways; the nuovos find the classic veal and pasta dishes old and worn-out. And then there's an entire generation of suburbanites who think that it just doesn't get any better than the Olive Garden.
Enter 23-year-old Larry Fuse Jr., a Hill native who polished his skills at Café Mira, Brazie's and the St. Louis Country Club before setting his sights on the old Rose's bocce-garden building, closed as a restaurant for more than a decade and, as of last year, co-owned by his father and Tom Caputo and home to the offices of the latter's construction company. After four months of top-drawer interior renovation and red-tape navigation, Lorenzo's Trattoria was born late in 1999.
Judging from the money poured into the space and the choices made for the short, thoughtful printed menu, Fuse and his backers are certainly not averse to risk. Fuse says that his primary goal was to have "something different on the Hill," and he's certainly succeeded at developing a style that falls in the somewhat neglected middle ground, for that neighborhood, between mama-and-papa spaghetti house and jacket-and-tie white linen.
Although no one on the dining room staff appeared to be a day over 30, Lorenzo's drew our immediate affection right through the door because of the warm but not fawning greetings from hostess, maitre d', bartender and waiter alike. In part this probably stems from the fact that manager Joe Dougherty spent time at the great finishing school for St. Louis restaurant staff, Tony's, but it was pleasing to see that he and the rest of the staff had taken the meaning of "hospitality" to heart, even to the point of our waiter's recognizing that a Blues sweatshirt meant that we were subsequently off to the game and that our meal needed to be timed accordingly.
An etched-glass reproduction of the restaurant's logo -- a stylized fork and linguine -- greets diners on their arrival and is visible throughout the 15-table dining room, which is framed by sponged, custard-colored walls. Lighting is fairly dim, with Empire-style ceiling fixtures and wall sconces; a single large fixture dominates the center of the room and a glassed candle lights each table. I would have preferred just a bit more light, especially because several of our dishes included darker sauces and gravies, and it was sometimes difficult to see all of their ingredients and elements. Italian folk songs and opera and instrumental music are audible but not intrusive, rounding out the atmosphere.
And starting with the appetizers, it immediately became clear that Lorenzo's is a world away from the standard primavera-tutto mare-marinara-marsala crowd. No toasted ravioli in sight; rather, the starter here is a plate of five fabulous homemade rectangles of pasta plumply stuffed with a piquant goat cheese served in, but not saturated by, a gently acidic broth of tomatoes, basil and pancetta. Fuse's approach to scampi involved interlocking five of them together, tail-up, over a salad of white cannellini beans and roasted peppers, all citrused mildly with a lemon aioli. The calamari-and-zucchini combination, in a tomato-saffron vinaigrette over spinach sauté, worked well enough in terms of the balance of flavors, and the squid rings were almost potato-chip crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, but the zucchini had gone a tad limp.
The veal-shank preparation known as osso buco ("bone with a hole") is one of the great transformations of a tough, bony cut into a culinary marvel, and Fuse modifies tradition ever so slightly by flavoring the underlying bed of risotto with saffron, then punctuating the accompanying gremolata parsley garnish with orange instead of lemon. Even more impressive, Lorenzo's supplies an authentic osso buco spoon, a long two-sided utensil resembling something like a letter opener, designed to truly let you suck the marrow out of life.
And it appears that Fuse has an affinity for oranges, as illustrated by their addition to one of two homemade gnocchi (potato dumpling) dishes. In this one, the potatoes were rolled out and wrapped around ricotta cheese and then flavored with orange zest, resulting in a slightly bitter citrus bite for both the huge serving of dumplings and the accompanying broccoli rabe. It wasn't a dish I could really embrace -- the flavor combination just didn't match my tastes -- but it was certainly an interesting and adventurous effort. (Speaking of dishes I can't fully get my arms around, Lorenzo's also offers a fascinating variation on liver and onions that features provimi calf's-liver sauté, caramelized pearl onions and crispy pancetta as an upgrade from common bacon.)
Fuse also does interesting stuff with fish, as illustrated by the grilled salmon and the snapper over polenta. In the former dish, the salmon itself was left largely to its own devices, grilled medium and served on a bed of spinach tortellini and pieces of portobello mushrooms and sauced ever so lightly with a lemon vinaigrette. The snapper was a bit bolder: Again, the fish was kept discrete from the sauce, but the dish featured a more involved accompaniment of spinach, tomatoes, olives and carrot, and the grilled polenta added a smoky, earthy finishing touch.
Even the house salad that comes with all entrees deserves special mention -- it's a sizable, diverse collection of field greens, dressed with balsamic vinaigrette and highlighted by shredded Asiago cheese, crisped prosciutto and pistachios.
The dessert list is short and filled with Italian standards -- tiramisu, spumoni, cannoli, ricotta cheesecake and an Italian variation on crème brûlée -- and main portions are so large that even with our hefty appetites, we only found room to try one. The tiramisu is a faithful rendering of the classic: espresso-soaked ladyfingers layered with mascarpone cheese, not overly sweet and featuring generous utilization of both the cheese and the chocolate.
Roughly 50 wines are available in bottles; most are Italian reds, with prices ranging from approximately $20-$60. Almost two dozen are available by the glass.
We witnessed some interesting social phenomena during our visits. For one thing, the place appears to be a lightning rod for Jesuit priests (not that I have J-dar or anything; I knew two of them from a past life and overheard the third introducing himself to one that I already knew) -- the renowned president of the local Jesuit university even made a newly svelte appearance, leading me to wonder, given the huge portions available, whether he might soon emerge as one of the new spokespersons for Bodyshaper.
But even more intriguing was the older gentleman who showed up with what appeared to be a wife and daughter and subsequently left the table to take both his aperitif and his after-dinner drink at the bar, a reminder of a much more genteel time.
Lorenzo's and owner Fuse, on the other hand, definitely have an eye toward an innovative and profitable future. Run over to Milo's if you're looking for a bocce game, and look elsewhere for a plate of linguine with clam sauce, but head for the Hill and this new restaurant if you've been searching for a new and different variation on Italian.
LORENZO'S TRATTORIA, 1933 Edwards (the Hill), 773-2223. Pastas: $10.50-$13.50. Entrees: $14.95-$18.95. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon-Fri.; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 5-11 p.m. Sat.
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