Send in the Marinos

Longtime Pasta House man Tony Marino opens up his own place in Ballwin

Tony Marino's Steaks and Chops

15037 Manchester Rd.

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tue.-Fri.,
4-10 p.m. Sat.,
4-9 p.m. Sun.
Call 636-227-4800

Selected menu items:
Portobello Wellington $7.95
Sea scallops $7.95
Maple-leaf duck breast $14.95
Prime rib $15.95
Homemade ravioli $10.95

Tony Marino. Tony Marino. Why do we know that name?

Well, it could be the guy who fronted Mike Shannon's downtown for many years -- great schmoozer, lots of celebrity juice, the kind of guy Jerry Berger would call "boniface." But then we heard that Tony Marino was working at Eau, O, D'oh or whatever the new restaurant at the Chase Park Plaza is called, which seemed to fit, given the buzz that's been generated over there.

And then we were at Phillips-Selkirk Auctioneers for their inaugural fine-wine auction a few weeks ago, and there was Jamie Komorek, one of the rustic peasants who's cultivated Trattoria Marcella into a top local restaurant, chattering on about his brother-in-law Tony Marino.

Wow. This guy gets around.

Except that it turns out there are actually two Tony Marinos, one who relocated here recently from Kansas City as part of the crew from PB&J who came in to open Eau and the other the Shannon's guy, Komorek's kin and owner of the four-month-old Tony Marino's Steaks and Chops in Ballwin.

Because Shannon's was once a Pasta House Co. property and because the St. Louis Tony Marino was a Pasta House employee for 10 years at Shannon's and for 10 additional years before that, it's no coincidence that his location on Manchester Road was itself a Pasta House for many years and, before that, a Rich & Charlie's, dating all the way back to 1973. The décor of the new restaurant has a decidedly '70s-retro feel to it, with a recurring motif of wavy red, yellow, tan and army-green in the artwork, drapes, upholstery and woodwork. Table settings feature the formality of white linen, tempered by a casual covering of butcher paper, and we noted several tagalong children busily scribbling with house-provided crayons.

It's also no surprise, given Marino's work history, that his own restaurant is part steak-and-chop house, part Italian, with unexpected variations like duck breast and tequila-laced shrimp tossed in to keep things interesting. Complementing the casual atmosphere, the prices are midrange, too: Except for some of the more elaborate meat dishes, entrées tend to hover around the $15 point, with pasta prices even lower.

Our two experiences there were very good and not as good, with the strain of serving a full 130-seat restaurant on a holiday weekend apparent on the second trip. More on that in a minute.

The first visit, both the relatively straight stuff (prime rib with a "Szechuan" peppercorn rubbing for a touch of spiciness at the edges) and the stuff with a bit more flair (a nightly special of honey-spice butternut-squash soup; duck breast with sun-dried cherries) were executed virtually flawlessly, with only a couple of penalty points to the duck. Our waitress duly noted that the kitchen's preferred preparation is medium-rare. The danger there, though, is that the margin of error toward undercooking is extremely slim, and a couple of the thick slices had been left in the "rare" category -- not an attractive state, especially in texture, for duck. Most of the dish, though, was done such that a knife slid right through, and the use of barely sweet, mostly tart sun-dried cherries added an enjoyable set of flavors.

That squash soup, too, was a lap-up-every-drop special -- perfectly smooth and pumpkin-colored, with a touch of currylike spicing complementing the gently sweet finish.

The food flaws on the second visit, although relatively minor, were magnified by the 45-minute lag between appetizer and entrée delivery, coupled with audible bickering by the waitstaff. We were seated close to the kitchen door, and a contentious discussion about who should be assigned which table took place well within our earshot. This wasn't the first time this had happened to us lately, and restaurant managers and staff should be reminded that such behavior can spoil a mood very quickly.

As for the food itself, the portobello Wellington appetizer was excellent in concept, substituting the meaty mushroom for actual beef, but the wrapping was slightly gummy rather than flaky, doing nothing to collect or enhance the enticingly smooth wine sauce on the mushroom inside. A sea-scallop appetizer in a nest of fried angel-hair pasta suffered, conversely, from the blandness of the scallops themselves, which were described on the menu as "seared" but showed no sign of browning. And the New Zealand lamb chops -- four, quite thin but still perfectly cooked to the medium-rare order -- were dominated by the saltiness of soy in a combined marinade of it, olive oil, citrus, garlic and peppers, with the remaining flavors getting lost in the shuffle.

The best of this particular evening was a homemade ravioli, stuffed with ground veal and served with wilted arugula in a veal reduction enhanced by the ethereal herbaceous flavor of vermouth.

On both visits, our sides were hefty portions of gratinée potatoes and peas flavored with bits of prosciutto -- the latter a simple, elemental dish combining garden freshness with hammy smokiness. Miniloaves of bread were fresh from the oven, served with a plate of rosemary olive oil and grated Asiago.

Something on the order of 80 wines are available, with many regions and varietals represented and most prices falling in the moderate to high-moderate range; many of the wines are offered by the glass.

As with the main menu (which, in addition to the items we tried, includes several more pastas and three risottos, as well as an almost-two-pound beef-rib chop among the meat choices and a couple of fish selections), the made-on-the-premises desserts include standards like cannoli and crème brulée but also venture into seldom-found delicacies, such as a poached pear with toffee sauce. This turned out to be a real treat -- an ultraripe pear whose sweetness was concentrated by the poaching process, with the sauce contributing a candy-apple type of finish.

We'd like to attribute the weak performance on the one visit to a holiday meltdown, which can happen to the best of us. And, after all, even with only a few months under its belt, the place was full (as it had been, by the way, on our first visit), so Mr. Marino has obviously maintained a significant fan club. But to maintain that level of popularity, the restaurant needs to tighten up on attention to detail.

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