It's a Beautiful Day

Dec 9, 1998 at 4:00 am
Il Vicino translates as "the neighborhood," and the new pizzeria-with-a-twist that recently moved into a corner space at the northern edge of the Clayton business district fits in well with its surroundings. By day it's full of business-dressed folk in search of an alternative to generic fast food for lunch; in the evening, especially on the weekend night we visited, it seems to draw lots of families, many of whom walk over from the adjoining residential areas.

The aforementioned twist is the use of a wood-fired oven, whose flames are visible behind the long and curving Euro-style bar. This isn't a first for St. Louis -- one of the original St. Louis Centre restaurants made some hay with this approach, then spent a year or so in the musical-chairs spot now occupied by Ramon's Salsa Grill -- but the relatively small size is actually a plus, allowing the kitchen to work at a more controlled pace.

You'll be greeted when you walk in by a very tangible, very appetizing aroma of oregano. The decor cleverly reinforces the wood-fired pizza ovens through its use of a textured ochre that looks a lot like unbaked dough, along with rich cherry paneling.

You order right inside the door, at the near end of the bar counter, but your food is delivered to your table, associated with you by a large number placed in a Plexiglas table tent. Even as the evening progressed and the 20-or-so tables in the room started to fill up, the line at the door seemed to move quickly, but the counter-service/table-delivery approach does have a logistical flaw of forcing you to order dessert at the same time you order your meal, lest you have to wander back through the line (and pay again) if you decide to go for a sweet as an afterthought.

The menu features 11 pizzas and two calzones, although any of the pizzas can be converted into a calzone, which is essentially just a pizza turned over into what looks like a croissant from Land of the Giants. There are also a few sandwiches, as well as a selection of salads and soups that can be used to construct a fairly large meal.

The zuppa minestre ($2.50) worked very well as a starter and is hearty enough to pass for a light lunch in and of itself, chock-full as it is of beans, broccoli, chickpeas, carrots, tomato and rotini pasta, with a big hunk of focaccia served on the side. The bread was also a good platform on which to try the three-pepper (one of which being the fiery habanero) olive oil that sits as a condiment on every table.

As for the pizzas, we sampled the quattro stagioni ($6.95) in the open version and the feta cheese-and-prosciutto for the calzone ($7.50). Both featured airy crusts and a touch of minimalism in terms of use of tomato sauce. The quattro stagioni included thin strips of prosciutto, artichoke hearts and kalamata olives that were almost plumlike both in color and flavor, with a good portion of fresh oregano providing a clue as to why the restaurant smells the way it does. The feta cheese gave the calzone a more pungent flavor than the mozzarella-cheesed pizza, and the calzone benefited highly from the use of roasted red bell peppers.

Irregular temperature regulation is no doubt inherent to the wood-fired technique, but both the pizza and the calzone had fairly significant charring on the bottom. This added a smoky flavor and didn't really intrude on the overall success of the dishes, but it may be jarring for some who are used to the more standardized ovens of local and chain pizza parlors.

A half-dozen-or-so wines, all under $20, are available both by the glass and the bottle, and these, too, are ordered right at the counter. Other drink choices include coffee, tea, soda and plain and flavored mineral waters, along with a microbrew called Wet Mountain.

The decor is decidedly stylish, but Il Vicino is the kind of neighborhood that even Signore Rogers would love.

TIDBITS: While we're on the subject of Euro-cafes, the new Mediterranean restaurant Yia-Yia's is now open at 15601 Olive, just north of the Clarkson/Olive exit off I-64 in Chesterfield. n

41 N. Central (Clayton)
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun.-Thurs; 11 a.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat.
Pizza: $4.75-$7.50