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Gonna miss Rossino’s when it closes up shop? Failoni’s will get you through.

Mar 22, 2006 at 4:00 am
In a month's time, Rossino's will be no more. The Central West End institution has occupied the basement space of the Melrose Apartments on Sarah Street since the 1950s, dishing out its famous — to the regulars, anyway — homemade lasagna and square-edged pizzas served up on cookie sheets. Now in her sixties, Russo family matron Nancy Zimmerman started working at Rossino's before she was a teenager. She's ready for retirement. Zimmerman's father, Roy Russo, became a partner in the business in 1954; it opened ten years earlier as Melrose Pizzeria, said to be the first joint west of the Mississippi to sling pizza pie.

Rossino's is the sort of place that engenders intense nostalgia the moment you step down into its low-slung environs. Though it's been conducting swift business for more than half a century, there's a ramshackle ambiance to it: the downright dark interior, the kooky bric-a-brac that clogs every inch of wall space. Folklore has it that countless wedding proposals have occurred here. Its impending demise is going to hit the regulars hard; many of them have eaten here daily or weekly for well over a decade. It'll also stab at the hearts of those (like me) who've only visited a handful of times. If we're not losing a part of our lives, we're certainly losing an old-school icon. It always felt nice just knowing it was there.

So what now?

Try Failoni's. It's got everything I'll miss about Rossino's. Family business? Check. Italian eats? Check. Friendly prices? Your wallet will thank you. Happily cluttered walls? I lost count of Sinatra posters and pics. Unfussy? Feels like old times? Neighborhoody? Yes, yes and yes. Decades-old pedigree? How's 1916 suit ya?

That's when the Failoni family purchased from the Lemp Brewing Company the business that's housed in this pile of bricks, located along the industrial stretch of Manchester on the southern fringe of Dogtown. It's been in the family ever since (that would be 90 years come June), surviving Prohibition — during which it's said to have operated as a speakeasy — and an interval during the late '70s and early '80s when food wasn't served because the grandma who'd been doing the cooking passed away. Today the family business consists of Alex Failoni, wife Rosemary, and adult children Victor, Alex Jr. and Rosetta.

They pretty much take turns waiting on tables and working the kitchen. On Thursday and Friday nights, Alex Jr. breaks out a karaoke machine and wows patrons with his Sinatra covers (which he croons while pouring drinks and popping open beers). Thursday nights are standing-room-only, and customers start showing up in the early afternoon, an instant Mardi Gras-in-miniature. Reservations for Fridays can be required a week or two in advance, and there's just one seating, with music and impromptu dancing closing out the night.

Failoni's doesn't dazzle you with its food. Meals there are solid and satisfying — like Mom's, but there's more to it than that. And moreover, I have no idea how they do it. You can see the kitchen from the dining room, and it doesn't look like anything special, just a cramped, short-order setup. Yet by the end of my second visit, I found myself thinking: This is the best restaurant in St. Louis. A friend of mine put it this way after a few bites of lemon garlic chicken: "What do they have back there — Italy?"

It takes more than a glance at the menu to see beyond the standard blue-collar bar fare: zucchini sticks, crab Rangoon, chef salad, Greek salad, burgers, chicken Parm.... When you look more closely, you see flickers of distinction. The flash-fried spinach, for example. Failoni's is made from scratch, and with care. Usually flash-fried spinach means little leaf splinters that register almost invisibly on the tongue, like one of those breath-mint wafers that dissolve on contact. At Failoni's you get a bowl of whole spinach leaves, liberally sprinkled with shavings of Asiago cheese and a good amount of balsamic vinegar. We couldn't get enough of the way the watery sweetness of the spinach matched the balsamic bite for bite, with a smoky oomph from the cheese.

When the house was out of mini tacos one afternoon, our waitress — the sort of kindhearted person who makes you want to reach out and pat her hand while you're ordering — suggested an off-menu plate of taquitos instead. I braced myself for the expected frozen-food fallout. What I got was anything but. Flour tortillas were rolled around savory pulled pork, then deep-fried to a golden-sun crisp. If these little treats had ever been subjected to a freezer, I'll eat my Del Taco carry-out sack.

I tried the Sicilian salad: tomatoes, red onions, anchovies, blue cheese. No lettuce, but somehow you don't miss it. The abundance of perky tomatoes more than made up the difference, and the ample-size anchovy slices are a treat. It's a perfectly balanced salad that I'd go out of my way to order again, though I can't say the same for the one smudge I found on Failoni's record, the tuna steak salad. Here was lettuce, and it was iceberg, and it was wimpy. The tuna was dry — and that was about all else there was to it.

I typically try to avoid ordering chicken when I go out, mostly because restaurants disrespect the bird, seemingly preparing it for folks who subsist on boring, bland food (and who probably own Friends on DVD and order Bacardi-and-Diet-Coke at bars). Failoni's made me a chicken convert. An off-menu chicken salad club, laden with mayo, studded with bits of celery and garnished with fresh lettuce and tomato, was yummy. Sorry, but there's no other word for it. And that lemon garlic chicken entrée was to die for. The lemon tang of its brothy sauce struck a soaring high note without tasting overly acidic. The boneless, skinless breast was grilled to perfection. Juicy, not tough, and nicely charred with grill marks on it. You can choose from a list of about five sides; I had two, cooked beets smacked with vinegar, and string beans. The beans took a gracious, mild backseat to the bracing yet sweet flavor of the beets.

On Tuesday nights Failoni's offers a pan-fried chicken dinner. Breasts and drumsticks alike boasted a thick, crunchy, brown crust, yet not a whisper of greasiness, while the meat was hot and juicy. I don't know how Alex Jr., who mans the stoves on Tuesdays, manages this magical feat.

One other scheduling quirk bears mention: Failoni's is essentially a weekdays-only operation, though they are open for parties on Saturdays.

Desserts aren't made on the premises, but by the time the sweets rolled around, I didn't care. The tiramisu was a classic specimen. Spumoni was coated in a hard chocolate shell with nuts and maraschino cherries studded within: divine. Next time I intend to try the tartufo: a dessert of chocolate ice cream with chocolate-dipped raspberries that plays on the fact that tartufo is the Italian word for truffle.

Every once in a while, I fall in love with a place to the point where I start inventing reasons to go back. Whose birthday's coming up? When's the next holiday? It's five o'clock somewhere! Rossino's was that kind of place. And so is Failoni's. (Except on the weekends!)