Finding 'Nino's: Ian goes in search of an old-school pizzeria on the Hill and encounters something even better

Dec 9, 2009 at 4:00 am
Anthonino's Taverna wasn't our original destination. I can't recall what was. Suddenly, an hour before our planned departure, I craved pizza. Or, rather, I craved a pizzeria. I wanted checkerboard tablecloths, candles in old Chianti bottles with wicker bases and fat shakers of red pepper flakes and grated Parmesan last filled during the Clinton administration. The quality of the pizza wasn't irrelevant — those who claim there's no such thing as bad pizza haven't eaten enough pizza — but more than anything else I wanted that old-school-pizzeria vibe.

I had no idea whether Anthonino's would meet my requirements. I still can't say why it was the first possibility to enter my mind. I'd never been there, though I'd driven past its location on the Hill often enough to suspect it would be a friendly neighborhood spot. I didn't even know if it served pizza. Whatever the reason, after checking the menu online — confirmed: pizza — we were on our way.

Anthonino's is a child by Hill terms: It opened in 2003. The look is timeless — hardwood floor, pressed-tin ceiling, handsome mahogany bar — though the décor is idiosyncratic. A Venetian canalside scene is painted on one wall. Hung from the ceiling is a giant, smiling fish, orange with white stripes. (Nemo? I won't be ordering the grouper then....) There are no Chanti-bottle candles nor tablecloths, checkered or otherwise. The vibe is casual, and if there is a more welcoming staff in St. Louis, I have yet to encounter it.

The menu reflects both the Italian and the Greek heritage of owners Anthony and Rosario Scarato. The selection tilts toward the former, with numerous pizzas and pastas available, while the Greek board focuses on the cuisine's best-known dishes, like saganaki (flaming cheese), dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves) and gyros. There is some crossover — and not simply because of the similarities between the two Mediterranean cuisines. You can, for example, have your pizza topped with gyro meat. I was in a more traditional mood that first visit, so I opted for the "Sicilian" pizza: pepperoni, salami, red onion and roasted red pepper.

First, an appetizer. It's difficult to capture the appeal of a joint like Anthonino's without lapsing into cliché. So I'll say this: It's the sort of place where as soon as you sit down, an order of fried calamari chased with a cold beer sounds like the best idea in the world. That calamari is tender, lightly battered and fried properly crisp. A squeeze of fresh lemon and a dab of spicy-sweet marinara sauce: simple, perfect. The beer selection is about what you would expect from a restaurant with a revolving Budweiser sign above the bar, though three Schlafly brews are available on draft. The seasonal selection, the Winter ESB, paired well with the squid.

(The wine list is brief and budget-oriented, though at $7 a glass, the Writer's Block syrah from California's Steele Winery is a surprisingly flavorful deal.)

Anthonino's might not have been the pizzeria of my dreams, but the pizza came pretty close. The crust was thick, with a slight chew and a teasing sweetness. The sauce was lightly applied beneath a blanket of melting mozzarella. The toppings were ideally proportioned, with both the bracing snap of the red onion and the gentle sweetness of the red pepper complementing the meat's savory and spicy notes. Another beer, and I was ready to declare our dinner a success.

Our return visit began with an order of the eggplant dish baba gannoujh, served chunky rather than puréed and very heavily seasoned with tahini. Spread across freshly toasted pita bread, it was delicious. I resisted the urge to order another pizza and instead ventured into the dinner entrées. What the menu describes as a pepper-coated steak lacked not only a coating of black pepper but any discernible black-pepper seasoning. That aside, it was a very good cut of meat, the exterior bearing an attractive crosshatch char, the interior tender and, as requested, medium-rare.

My companion's chicken piccata was even better: The breading of the pounded scallop had been fried to a rich, milk-chocolate brown color — so rich that, in truth, I expected the interior to be dry. Instead it was wonderfully moist and nicely accented by the dish's traditional topping of whole, briny capers.

In the tradition of the Hill (and, really, of Italian American restaurants everywhere), your entrée comes with a side of pasta in red or white sauce. At Anthonino's the pasta isn't the standard spaghetti but a plus-size orecchiette (the ear-shaped one). In a light red sauce, it makes for a straightforward, tasty dish, though when paired with a big hunk o' meat, it made for more food than even a professional eater like yours truly could even consider finishing. I did prefer this side of pasta to the one pasta entrée I tried, ravioli that were so thin as to be translucent, the ground beef inside of them underseasoned.

Aside from the pizza, my favorite dish might have been the gyro. This is impressive even before you take a bite, strips of thinly sliced meat and roasted red pepper spilling out of a warm, folded pita, the whole thing wrapped in aluminum foil and looking like nothing so much as an exploded burrito. The meat — spit-roasted lamb and beef, as is standard — was fairly lightly seasoned, relying on the natural gaminess of lamb for flavor. Tangy tzatziki sauce and a generous serving of red pepper and crumbled feta cheese rounded out a truly terrific sandwich.

Clearly Anthonino's isn't the old-school pizzeria I'd craved. I'd say it exceeded my expectations, but since I chose the place more or less at random, based on false assumptions, it's not really fair to say I had any expectations. It was a bad guess that turned into dumb luck.

And the next time I want to satisfy my urge for an old-school pizzeria? Well, maybe I'll just swing by Anthonino's with a homemade Chianti-bottle candle. They can charge me corkage, if they like.