Once More, With Feeling

Roberto Zanti finds culinary success the second time around

Roberto's Trattoria

9416 Gravois Avenue, Affton

Eggplant spiedini $4
Tilapia Fiorentina $18
Halibut special $22
Pennette alla corsara $15
Farfalline with shrimp $13
Panna cotta $5

314-631-4321. Hours: lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; dinner 5-10 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

At some point during the past year, during a quiet moment in his new restaurant, Roberto Zanti had to say to himself, "What goes around, comes around." Fifteen years ago at age 29, fresh from the Italian seaport town of Taranto, Zanti opened his first restaurant in the exact location of his new venture, Roberto's Trattoria. Back then the place was called Zanti's and drew a large, dedicated following, owing partly to Roberto's outsize, charming manner. In 2000 Zanti and his wife moved the operation to Concord Plaza. As another saying reminds us, things change. They divorced. He got the '92 Taurus. She got the restaurant.

Driving around last January and down to his last $300, Zanti noticed that his old spot, which had spent some time as a Bosnian coffeehouse, was once again for lease. "I said no way," Zanti says in his thick Southern Italian accent, recalling his disbelief. "I kept driving and saying 'Eh, you never know. America is the country of opportunity. But you need money.'" Zanti and the building's owner agreed on a price, and with the help of friends who knew how to build things, Roberto's Trattoria surfaced five months ago.

Those who know Zanti's cooking from the old days, especially his sauces and his use of whatever fresh fish his supplier flew in that day, are back in force. To them, the interior of the restaurant is less important than the food on the plate. Everything about the long, narrow, two-level dining room is strictly functional, with only a single bright rose on each table puncturing the monochrome hues of the gray walls, black-and-white-clad servers and white tablecloths. Tables on both levels are arranged in neat, orderly rows, as if reinforcing the adage that form follows function. (My dining companion had to hold herself back from rotating the tables a quarter-turn: "It would just change the whole feel of the room.")

The location itself -- a short strip of businesses along busy Gravois Avenue -- bespeaks utilitarianism; the minimal parking in front is designed for brief visits. Next door is the Ten Mile House Tavern; across the street is a sports bar. No valet parking or cozy neighborhood streets around here. It's a busy area, and if you're not being attentive you'll zoom right past the place. All of which was true before, of course. "But I kind of like this location now," Zanti says, sounding like a man giddy with newfound opportunity.

Watching and listening to Zanti, you get the impression that he's happiest in a kitchen, that he is driven by the art of cooking. By his own admission, he loves to play with sauces, whether a spicy marinara, a simple garlic, olive oil and white wine sauce or a sober but heady Sicilian mélange of capers, kalamata olives, tomato and onion. Order a side dish of linguine tossed with olive oil and you'll find flakes of red pepper spicing up the sparse accompaniment.

Appetizers range from the expected (toasted ravioli) to the splendid (fresh mussels and calamari in a broth of white wine and garlic). Fried calamari is simple, as it should be; nothing more than lightly coated squid, pan-fried and served with a wedge of lemon. The eggplant spiedini appetizer was an unexpected little joy: a slice of eggplant stuffed with seasoned ground veal and spinach, then covered with a tomato béchamel sauce.

Zanti takes pride in adapting recipes, especially seafood, from his coastal hometown of Taranto, situated along the inner arch of Italy's boot. Zanti's mother, for instance, used to serve that aforementioned Sicilian sauce with cod. Here, as a special one night, Zanti spooned it over a thick slab of fresh halibut, lightly dusted with flour and sautéed in olive oil and white wine, then finished under the broiler. The halibut is so fresh and perfectly prepared that Zanti says most people don't care what he puts on top of it. "When I call the fish company, I tell them I don't care what kind of fish they have and I don't care how much it cost, just send me ten or twenty pounds of whatever you got in this morning," he says.

One fish he gets in daily is tilapia. Not your basic Italian staple, but one whose mild flavor works beautifully when prepared "Fiorentina" style: garlic and white mushrooms sautéed in butter, lemon and olive oil, poured over the broiled fish and served atop a bed of fresh spinach, in the style of Florence.

Pasta servings are large but not obscenely huge. In some other local Italian eateries, one could imagine the farfalloni (same as farfalle, only bigger bowties) with shrimp and mushrooms in a pesto cream sauce overflowing a helmet-size bowl. Zanti gives you enough, but not too much. Pennette alla corsara, with its sliced filet mignon, mushrooms, onions and red bell pepper, paired well with a red-wine reduction sauce with Gorgonzola cheese mixed in.

The wine list is lean (26 bottles) and priced along the lines of most other local wine lists, which is to say two to three times wholesale. Some interesting Italian wines can be found, such as a refreshing white La Cala Vermentino from Sardinia for $22. Frustrating, however, was the lack of wines listed as available by the glass, though many were. Most desserts are made in-house. If we had room, we would have tried the tiramisu or the panna cotta with berries or the mascarpone mousse crêpes or the cannoli with homemade sweet ricotta filling. If he has time, Zanti goes as far as making the cannoli pastry shells.

Taking those extra steps is what places Zanti's ahead of most local mid-priced Italian restaurants. Zanti learned that while running his old restaurant. But as the old saw goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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