Charlie Gitto's sticks with the St. Louis Italian basics and nails them

Jan 13, 2011 at 4:00 am

Does St. Louis need another Charlie Gitto's? At this midweek lunch hour, the evidence suggests that it does. The four-month-old Chesterfield iteration of the Hill institution, which already has satellites downtown and at Harrah's Casino, is packed. On a computer at the host's stand, the hostess and two managers arrange patrons, servers and dining tables as if plotting naval exercises off the Korean peninsula. Through a maze of business suits and family reunions, ladies who lunch and solo diners reading Christmas Kindles, bow-tied busers adroitly maneuver, trays with soups and salads balanced on the flats of their palms.

I nod at the hostess but don't bother to ask for a table. Instead I head straight for a seat at the bar, order a beer and some toasted ravioli ("the original," the menu proclaims beside a stylized logo denoting it as a specialty) and ponder what all the fuss is about.

The bar is a triangular wedge between two separate dining rooms. It's an attractive space, dark but not gloomy thanks to warm wood accents. I prefer it to the dining rooms, which are stuck somewhere between casual and formal: neutral carpets, unassuming décor, each table adorned only with silverware rolled inside a black napkin, windows that overlook a parking lot and the busy stretch where Olive Boulevard turns into Clarkson Road.

(In defense of the space as a whole, if I didn't know this Charlie Gitto's used to be a Pizzeria Uno, I never would have guessed it. A cool touch: To the left as you enter the restaurant is a coffee and dessert bar.)

My beer is a Bell's Two-Hearted Ale, a terrific craft brew you won't find on draft at many restaurants around town. A sign that this edition of Charlie Gitto's won't be rooted in tradition? Maybe — though the bartender pours the beer into a chilled glass, deadening its distinctive aroma and flavor.

Perhaps I should have opted for wine from the list of Italian varietals, both familiar and not, because my lunch treads a resolutely old-school path. The toasted ravioli are toasted ravioli, a pleasant crunch yielding to the soft filling, somewhat granular, vaguely meaty. My entrée is another specialty of the house, chicken "Nunzio": sautéed boneless, skinless chicken breast topped with Fontina cheese and crab meat in a lemon-butter sauce. At dinner you can order this with veal instead of chicken, and you probably should: The chicken gains some flavor from its pan-searing but mostly acts as ballast for the tart, rich sauce, the mildly nutty cheese and the lightly sweet crab. It's a satisfying dish, though it does give the lie to that old-fashioned notion that simply by topping something with crab (or lobster), you elevate it to some ethereal height.

There are few surprises on the menu, but the kitchen handles its roster of Italian and Italian American classics — you know it well, of course: veal Parmesan, chicken spiedini, shrimp scampi — with aplomb. The saltimbocca (veal or chicken, take your pick) strikes a tasty balance between the meat itself, the Fontina, verdant sage and the salt and funk of prosciutto, all of it focused by a bright lemon-white wine sauce.

Served on the side (on a separate plate, in fact) of both this and the chicken "Nunzio" are oven-roasted potatoes and green beans. With the "Nunzio" they arrive piping hot; with the saltimbocca, lukewarm. This is one of the few missteps I was to experience here. The squid in an appetizer of fried calamari and rock shrimp are chewy, and neither seafood was fried long enough — the batter is mushy. (The citrus-chipotle aioli served with them, though, is a keeper.) Lobster bisque is indulgently rich but contains only a few specks of lobster meat and little depth of flavor.

The most impressive entrée might be the pork "osso buco," a mighty, twin-boned shank served atop risotto Milanese and roasted vegetables. The shank's exterior is a gorgeous mahogany. This yields to tender meat, luscious with fat, its natural piggy flavor nicely rounded out by the jus puddled around the plate. The risotto is creamy, each grain of arborio rice precisely al dente. So rich is this risotto that, for a moment, you can forget that this isn't (and isn't meant to be) true osso buco, with bone marrow plucked from the hole in the veal shank that gives the dish its name.

Bucatini amatriciana is as humble as the pork shank is striking, yet it is probably the best dish here: tubular pasta tossed in a spicy tomato-pancetta sauce. There is little more to the dish than that, yet it squarely hits that sweet spot of rustic simplicity and full flavor. The thin hole that runs through each strand of bucatini helps soak up the sauce, but you will want to have a slice of bread around to sop up the rest.

Service deserves a special mention. Like the space, it's neither too casual nor too formal. In this case, however, the fit is right. At one table I overhear a server recalling the exact way a woman wants her lunch — already a once-a-week special — prepared. At another, when someone asks for tomatoes in her Caesar salad, the server acknowledges the request without so much as the hint of a curled lip. These are small things — insignificant, really, when taken individually — but they are indicative of the level of comfort Charlie Gitto's engenders among its diners.

Which is why, while my instinct is to shrug my shoulders at this Charlie Gitto's, I can't. Yes, the food — though fine on its own merits — is yet one more version of a cuisine of which St. Louis already has a glut. But as a business, Charlie Gitto's works. It isn't inexpensive, but people still throng its tables.

St. Louis probably doesn't need another Charlie Gitto's. But it could certainly use more restaurants that make people feel satisfied (not just full) as they walk out the door.