Meatball Hero 

Todd Sanders' 10th Street Italian is a Provel-free zone

Scenes from an Italian restaurant:

Tuesday, 8:22 p.m. Todd Sanders, the apron-swaddled owner of 10th Street Italian -- an almost alarmingly modest ten-week-old walk-in eatery in downtown St. Louis -- asks his last two customers of the night if they live in the neighborhood.

He's surprised, perhaps not surprisingly, to hear that they don't. In fact, they're west-county folk who've made the trip east for some of his takeout just because they've heard good word of mouth. Sanders smiles and takes this as his cue to iterate his three guiding principles in opening this little trattoria:

"No Provel. No Alfredo sauce. No toasted ravioli."

A lifelong St. Louisan, Sanders came to his culinary calling not through such local specialties (if you want to call them that) nor through bloodlines (he's not Italian). He came to it through tomatoes.

"I became an avid tomato grower," Sanders will say a few days later by phone. "I've got up to sixteen different varieties growing in my backyard in Kirkwood. Then I had to do something with all of them, so I went on a quest to make the best marinara." Virtually all of his recipes are signature inventions, developed through "lots of reading, cooking and experimenting."

The business side of things came to him organically, too, a byproduct of eighteen years spent in the country-club industry. "Get out by 40 was my personal goal," Sanders says. In hatching his escape, he noticed that St. Louis' Italian dining options fell into two columns: pizza joints, and full-on pricey sit-down restaurants. He wanted to do something different, something in between. "A mom-and-pop pasta shop," he says. "Salads, sandwiches, pasta. Everyone said I was insane."

He looked for a locale in Kirkwood but quickly realized that would mean "strip-mall hell." His old friend Pablo Weiss, who owns Kitchen K across the street, told him about this storefront, a few paces off Washington Avenue, downtown's main dining drag.

"This really isn't a side street," Sanders says. "It's a retail corridor. We've got a grocery store, an art gallery, a home-décor shop. It's the street you take to get from [Interstate] 40 to 70. Now, Eleventh Street -- that's a side street."

Wednesday, 12:47 p.m. A young man, dressed in standard-issue grad-student garb (which is to say: jeans, polo shirt, sneakers) splays the academic contents of his Jansport pack across the square four-top he has commandeered in the back corner of the eatery.

10th Street Italian is a clean, well-lighted place, conducive to studying. Pale yellow walls crisply offset black, Eames-style molded plastic chairs. (Two Sanders rules: No linoleum. No stainless steel.) The atmosphere registers somewhere between Bread Co. and Meshuggah. The art on the walls is for sale, and there's no smoking. Place your order at the counter and serve yourself at the soda dispenser (Sanders had enough of waiters back in the country clubs), but rest assured a friendly staffer will almost always deliver your food to your table.

Thursday, 12:29 p.m. A woman, out to lunch with a large party, unapologetically chows down on what looks like five pounds of spaghetti and meatballs.

In this age of carb-phobia and fusion-food hijinks, spaghetti and meatballs seems headed for the Smithsonian. 10th Street Italian brings it back in a big way, and not just because of the huge portion (which will do nicely as leftovers through the rest of the week). The noodles, cooked just a heartbeat past al dente, find their soulmates in a quartet of soft, yielding meatballs. (Sanders: "What's with these rock-hard things people are serving as meatballs these days?") Following his wife's recipe, they're mixed by hand with red pepper flakes, basil, oregano, parsley and -- the truest homemade touches of all -- grated Parmesan, bread crumbs and whole milk. His journey toward marinara nirvana, meanwhile, landed him pretty close to the holy grail: The sauce is light but well-seasoned, present but absolutely not overbearing.

Likewise, the garlic cream sauce, served with penne, is absolutely not Alfredo. It's not even a sauce, really, because it doesn't appear poured over the pasta. Instead, it clings to it, coalesces its stark whiteness (more cream, less butter) around each individual piece. It tastes glorious and scrumptious.

More Mom's-cooking emanates from the four-cheese manicotti (more like three-and-a-half: ricotta, fresh mozzarella, Parmesan, then shredded mozzarella on top) and the cold pasta salad: delicious but not swaggering, a terrific sidekick, the Tony Randall of pasta salads. Clearly a time-intensive labor of love for a side dish (it's served alongside the dozen hot and cold sandwiches, unless you want a bag of chips instead), the elbow macaroni is tossed in-house, alla giardiniera: carrots, fennel, cauliflower, roasted red peppers, fresh parsley, cracked black pepper and just a touch of house vinaigrette. The sweet Italian sausage, available with spaghetti or on a stupendous, workingman's-style hot sandwich, is the real deal; it comes from DiGregorio's on the Hill.

Thursday, 7:45 p.m. Checking out the contents of the counter's refrigerated display case (which also contains some Moretti beers and Italian-label white wines), a woman points to a row of cardboard takeaway containers, the kind usually used to pack soup, and asks, "Is that tiramisu in a cup?"

It is, although it's flavored with sambuca and Kaldi's coffee instead of marsala and espresso, rendering it lighter and airier (though less aromatic) than traditional tiramisu. Tradition is bucked almost as often as it's revered here. Witness the Italian tuna salad sandwich, proffered on Fazio's Italian white bread: The tuna, which Sanders buys packed in olive oil, is mixed with Sicilian olives, celery, roasted red peppers, lots and lots of basil mayonnaise and a noticeable amount of lemon juice. The Tuscan BLT, on barely toasted focaccia, substitutes pancetta for standard bacon (and also makes use of that basil mayo, this time a bit too liberally).

There are a few instances where the innovations don't carry through. The house's roasted tomato soup, rumored to be a favorite among those who have already become regulars, lacks resonance; it's strangely thin and tangibly missing both a bass note and a grace note. Same goes for "Grandma's chili," chock-a-block with red beans and served over spaghetti as a lunch special one day; though stick-to-your-ribs hearty, its flavor was staid.

Back to Tuesday, 8:22 p.m. Sanders points the west county couple toward his "dinner for two" menu. Two side salads or cups of soup, two pasta dishes and two homemade chocolate chunk cookies for $18. For ten bucks more, he'll throw in a bottle of Ca del Sarto pinot grigio or Castelvero barbera.

"I don't want to cross the $10 threshold with my food prices, and I don't ever want to offer a bottle of wine over $25," Sanders says. "I actually take a hit on the wine, but I believe people should be enjoying wine with their dinner, and I wanted to sell wines that Italians themselves would have with supper."

Sanders' wine costs aren't his only hit. So is 10th Street Italian, a little gem of a place.

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