The caesar salad at Bartolino's Osteria is an impressive sight: a wedge of romaine lettuce standing upright atop a large, discus-shaped crouton, the wedge itself topped with both shaved and lacy, pan-crisped Parmigiano-Reggiano as well as a few anchovy fillets curled into commas. A tangy dressing dots the plate around this lettuce tower.
How do you eat it? I tipped it onto its side and went to work with knife and fork. Except for the welcome presence of the anchovies, all too rare on caesar salads these days, the salad was unremarkable. Not bad — just, you know, a caesar salad.
It might seem odd to begin a review with a caesar salad. Even when outstanding, a caesar salad is usually nothing more than a footnote to the rest of one's meal. But as I consider my visits to this six-month-old Clifton Heights restaurant, I keep returning to that caesar.
Actually, calling Bartolino's Osteria a six-month-old restaurant, while factually correct, is misleading. The restaurant did open in February on the ground floor of the new Drury Inn and Suites at the intersection of Hampton Avenue and Interstate 44. But the history of Bartolino's dates back to 1969 — the original location, a brisk walk south on Hampton from the new spot, closed at the end of last year — and founder Bartolino Saracino's involvement in the St. Louis restaurant scene goes back even further.
I never dined at the original Bartolino's, so I approached its new incarnation with no associations whatsoever. I was intrigued that the restaurant now calls itself Bartolino's Osteria. Traditionally, an osteria is the most casual of the three Italian restaurant types, following the ristorante and the trattoria. In Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, Fred Plotkin defines an osteria as "a tavern or humble restaurant where wine is served as the main attraction and tasty food is prepared to wash it down. In certain cities there are now very upscale restaurants that call themselves osterie, so if there is a pricey menu displayed, you are not in a real osteria. These are great places to meet and enjoy the company of Italians you would never encounter in your customary travels as a tourist."
If this definition is reasonably accurate, then the new Bartolino's looks nothing like an osteria. The restaurant is quite large, with multiple dining rooms as well as a patio. The décor is simple, with a rustic, white-wall elegance resembling a spiffed-up Olive Garden. Seating includes both stand-alone tables and very cushy booths. Overall, the vibe might not be stuffy — if anything, service is too relaxed: servers tended to gather in knots and chat — but it's far closer to upscale restaurant than humble neighborhood joint.
Same with the menu, from Sicilian-born ex-ecutive chef Gianfranco Munna. Pasta dishes range from $14 to $20; most entrées fall between $18 and $21. Grilled meats cost more, with the rack of lamb priced at $33 and the "Tuscan" veal chop at $36.
I ordered the latter, medium-rare. It is served in what the menu describes as a "cognac-shiitake mushroom ragout." This sauce did have the flavor of cognac, but this seemed a secondary note to the presence of whole, softened garlic cloves and, especially, al dente sliced onion. The chop itself, bone-in, was a poor cut: fatty and gristly. The side dishes, roasted-garlic mashed potatoes and grilled radicchio, were well executed but unimaginative.
The roasted-garlic mashed potatoes and another dull side, balsamic-glazed carrots, accompanied a thick pork chop rolled in peppercorns, topped with crisp pancetta and served with a Barolo wine sauce. A simple dish, and more effective for it. The only downside is that the server didn't ask for a temperature preference, and the chop was on the dry side of medium-well.
These two dishes are listed under the "Griglia" portion of the menu. There are separate listings for seafood, chicken and veal entrées. From this last category I had the veal braciola: a piece of veal beaten thin and stuffed with roasted garlic, pine nuts, chopped egg, pancetta, seasoned bread crumbs, and both mozzarella and Provolone cheese. The veal is braised first in olive oil and then in tomato sauce. The dish sounded impressive, but the presentation was pedestrian — there were stewed potatoes and, yes, a vegetable medley on the side — and the tomato sauce was bland. The flavor of the stuffed veal was strange. Not quite veal, not quite the sum of its stuffing. Frankly, it reminded me of hot-dog meat.
Pastas were a mixed bag. Like the pork chop, tortellacci agli champignon benefited from its simplicity: large tortellini stuffed with veal in a cream sauce heavily flavored with veal demi glace. The dish also featured pancetta, button mushrooms, saffron and Parmigiano-Reggiano, but the flavor of veal dominated. Not a subtle dish, by any means, but satisfying.
The "chef's signature risotto" was a flop. It is served in what the menu describes as a "paper cone." This isn't so much a "cone" as a sort of bowl made by twisting two ends of a piece of parchment paper. The risotto sits under a cap of melted mozzarella cheese, so that when it first arrives at your table, the dish looks something like a super-sized piece of wrapped candy.
Underneath that cheese cap is a bevy of ingredients: baby shrimp, leeks, eggplant and red wine. Oh, and arborio rice, of course, though the dish is so goopy with cheese that you might question whether there really is any rice there. At any rate, like the braciola, the flavor was less than the sum of the parts, and lacked the elegance, not to mention texture, of a great risotto.
An appetizer order of two arancini suffered much the same problem: The fried rice balls were so larded with mozzarella and Boursin cheese that the rice seemed to vanish amid the goop. On the other hand, fried artichokes stuffed with goat cheese showed some restraint; the cheese added a tangy note to the artichokes' bite. The batter was unremarkable, and the artichokes were wrapped with flimsy slices of bacon that didn't add much to the overall dish. A third appetizer, fried calamari, distinguished itself in its preparation: The squid was cut into large, thick rings rather than the standard smaller pieces.
The wine list is perfunctory, with a few reasonably priced bottles as well as a few splurges among the more elegant Italian varietals. Desserts were especially disappointing. The cannoli had no flavor, and the tiramisu was little better than whipped cream dusted with cocoa powder.
In a way, those desserts were a fitting end to the meal. Like the caesar salad, what began with promise ended with, at best, an ordinary, satisfying dish. And while I walked into Bartolino's Osteria expecting a meal to live up to the surroundings, at the end I stepped back outside, unsurprised to find myself in a hotel parking lot.