My wife and I bought our first house last month. I won't bore you with a discussion of what a personal milestone this is. But there are practical implications: Our kitchen isn't fully operational yet, and as of this writing it has been three weeks since our last home-cooked meal.
Yeah, yeah. I'm a restaurant critic. Even at my busiest, though, I don't eat out three meals a day, every day, for weeks. I rely on my time at the market and in the kitchen to keep me connected to food. I rely on our leisurely meals — two, sometimes three, hours of talk and wine at the dining-room table — to keep me sane.
Regardless, our kitchen isn't ready, and we've been working our way through new joints, old favorites and an embarrassingly high number of grab-'n'-go sandwiches. So when my wife texted me one day to suggest dinner at Guido's Pizzeria & Tapas, I thought, "Well, of course."
Guido's might not be my idea of home cookin', but when I'm there, it feels an awful lot like home.
I can't remember when we first went to Guido's. Probably not long after we moved to St. Louis seven years ago, probably on the recommendation of a city lifer who couldn't wrap his head around the notion that we wanted to live here but who figured we should at least eat well while we did. I certainly can't say how many times we've been back since then — to celebrate a birthday with friends or to grab a bite when we've worked late and so many other kitchens have closed. We even — and sticklers will want to note my bias here — had our wedding-rehearsal dinner here, introducing Marylanders and Texans to t-ravs and Provel.
The conversation went something like this:
Relative/Friend: "This pizza is...interesting."
Me: "It's St. Louis-style. With Provel cheese."
(There followed my usual rant on the subject.)
Relative/Friend: "I actually kind of like it."
Me: "You're disinvited from the wedding. You can leave your gifts at the hotel's front desk."
But now an admission from the darkest depths of my food-loving soul: I actually kind of like Guido's St. Louis-style pizza, too! The crust is a sliver thicker than the usual cracker-thin style, and that extra body makes all the difference, its slight chew lessening Provel's mouth-coating slickness to a point where I can imagine — almost — that it's truly cheese.
Usually, though, I opt for mozzarella, and our recent visit proved why: With mozzarella, Italian sausage and fresh basil, Guido's pizza ranks among my favorites in town: tangy, salty cheese; mildly sweet sauce; verdant basil; mildly spicy sausage with the autumnal note of fennel. The flavors are so pure as to be elemental.
Guido's offers a whole range of Italian fare, but we never make it past the pizza. The reason we return again and again — besides the friendly neighborhood-joint vibe, the colorful display of Spanish soccer scarves around the bar and affordability — is for the tapas. No quotes here, which might be another reason why my wife's suggestion seemed so appealing. After reviewing several restaurants that serve "tapas," I needed to return to the mothership. And while Guido's has no pretensions of being a tapas bar in the Spanish sense, owner and chef Miguel Carretero and his parents Segundo (front of house, including wine) and Genoveva (executive chef) hail from Madrid, and Guido's tapas are as close to the real deal as you can find in this town.
It's a rare visit when we don't order albóndigas or patatas bravas — or, most likely, both. Albóndigas are meatballs, small- to medium-size here and very tender. They are served in a light white-wine sauce with onion and garlic and a few pieces of potato. Two bites and each meatball is gone, leaving behind only a hint of spice and sweetness, and I remember again that tapas are meant to be ephemeral, a snack, merely a part of a larger experience, not the focal point.
Patatas bravas are nothing more than sautéed spuds served in a picante sauce, yet here too the simplicity's appealing. The potatoes retain a crisp, golden-brown exterior more akin to the result of deep-frying than of sautéing, while the sauce is just peppery enough to whet your appetite for a glass of wine or beer — which, come to think of it, is another key aspect of tapas often lost in its American translation.
(Speaking of wine, another reason to love Guido's: You can order a glass of a decent, everyday wine from the list of mostly Spanish and Italian varietals for as little as $5.50.)
You can expand your palate at Guido's. Yes, there is fried calamari (calamares a la romana), and it's good: lightly battered, fried crisp, served with lemon wedges and a spicy tomato sauce. But there's also calamares a la plancha, large hunks of squid seasoned with chile, paprika and lemon and broiled: chewy and spicy, with an alluring blend of a distinct charred flavor and squid's own light taste.
Or if you like, you can return to old favorites, as we often do: Queso frito con salsa de escalona is a wedge of breaded and fried goat cheese with a red wine and shallot sauce. Each wedge is the size of a small slice of pizza, its breading on the thicker side, a rich shade of brown and very crisp. Though you might object to coating goat cheese with so much breading, it does smooth out the cheese's strong flavor, allowing it to pair better with your drink. At any rate, the appeal of fried cheese is universal and needs no more defending from me. (You didn't think T.G.I. Friday's invented the stuff, did you?)
We often nosh on either the empanadas or croquetas caseras — the latter are probably more interesting, thumb-size bites of breadcrumbs, egg, olive oil and minced chicken (or ham, if you prefer) that crumble in your hand and have a texture like a less gooey mozzarella stick. Sometimes we want nothing more than plates of Serrano ham, Spanish chorizo and Manchego cheese. True, you could assemble this spread of cold meats and cheese at home with little difficulty — and maybe save a little money in the process. But when home doesn't yet feel quite like home, for me, at least, Guido's is the next best thing.