St. Louis Standards: Roberto's Has the Prime Stuff

The south county trattoria has been an beloved institution for more than three decades

May 18, 2023 at 6:13 am
click to enlarge The Roberto's crew has made its name by delivering superb hospitality.
Braden McMakin
The Roberto's crew has made its name by delivering superb hospitality.

Roberto Zanti might never have gone into the restaurant business were it not for an act of teenage rebellion — and the unintended consequences of his father's punishment.

"When I was 14 years old, I skipped school, and my father found out," Zanti recalls. "He grabbed me by my ear, took me to a restaurant and said, 'Here. If you don't want to go to school, you can wash dishes.' And you know what? I loved it. I was the richest kid on the block."

The passion that experience ignited in Zanti all those years ago has been the backbone of Roberto's Trattoria (145 Concord Plaza, Sappington; 314-842-9998), the beloved south county institution that has been the area's go-to for upscale Italian cuisine since 1990. Founded as a way to bring to St. Louis the traditional dishes Zanti experienced growing up in the fishing town of Taranto on Italy's far southeastern coast, Roberto's has endeared itself to diners over the years thanks to its high-quality, traditional cuisine, as well as Zanti's penchant for making his guests feel like dear friends.

For Zanti, those two things — excellent food and warm hospitality — are what define Italian cuisine. That's why he was so surprised the first time he came to the United States and found that the former was lacking. A member of Italy's Merchant Marine, Zanti vividly recalls docking in Boston and being so excited when he saw a restaurant emblazoned with an Italian flag and a sign that read "Ristorante Italiano." Excited for a taste of his homeland, Zanti was dismayed when he went inside and saw that there was nothing Italian about the place — at least, it didn't have the sort of Italian food he was used to eating. He and his friends left and went to another place with an Italian flag as well as a photo of Italy's national soccer team on its building. Convinced it would be a better experience, Zanti was positively crestfallen when he looked at the offerings.

click to enlarge The egg ravioli appetizer at Roberto's.
Courtesy Photo
The egg ravioli appetizer at Roberto's.

"It was a disaster," Zanti says. "That's when I thought that if I came here and just made a little plate of spaghetti I could do good."

Not long after those experiences in Boston, Zanti came to St. Louis to visit with his brother. Here, he met his now ex-wife and moved with her back to Italy but found himself again in St. Louis a few years later so she could be closer to her family. Not long after, he began working at his brother's restaurant, eventually unexpectedly finding himself as its owner. With the reins in his hands, he transitioned the eatery's cafeteria-style format into the bastion of traditional Italian cuisine he'd dreamed of opening ever since that visit to Boston. He was confident in his food and was sure the dining public would turn out in droves. It would prove to be much slower going.

"We had a really rough start," Zanti says. "I went through a lot of pain because the American palate was not quite like where I am from. Also, I knew nobody here. I wasn't born here. I didn't go to high school here. I suffered a little bit because of that."

Zanti kept his head down and continued to offer food he believed in. After 11 years in its original location near Gravois and McKenzie, he moved the restaurant to south county's Concord Plaza and ran it there until he lost the restaurant in a divorce. Unwilling to give up — and with the support of his loyal customers — Zanti resurrected the concept as Roberto's in 2003, moved the business back to Concord Plaza in 2006, and has been steadily winning the hearts of his guests ever since.

"We don't cut corners," Zanti says. "What we use is all prime stuff, and you can really tell the difference in taste on everything. I think we attract people that think more like me; I don't mind paying a dollar more as long as it's good, but what gets me mad is when you go somewhere and it's not good. I am not happy, and I won't go back."

However, it's not just quality ingredients that make Roberto's such a special place. Zanti is well-known for his warm hospitality, which he describes as the insistence on treating his customers as friends. It's what has kept his regulars coming back for generations, including Matt and Jamie Hines, who purchased Roberto's from Zanti in January.

click to enlarge Matt and Jamie Hines purchased Roberto's from Roberto Zanti (center).
Braden McMakin
Matt and Jamie Hines purchased Roberto's from Roberto Zanti (center).

"My wife and I have been having date nights here for almost 10 years," Matt Hines says. "I have been coming here for over 20 years and have known Roberto for almost that entire time because he works the floor and is very good at what he does. It's one of the only places I've ever walked into where I've felt like my dollar is important. Everybody who walks through the door feels appreciated, and the servers and ownership go out of their way to make sure you feel that way. That's what has always meant the most to me, especially when you are spending this kind of money on a meal. It always felt like a different touch than I could get at 90 percent of the other places in town."

For Hines, the chance for him and Jamie to carry on Zanti's legacy has been a longtime dream — and something they have been discussing for several years. When Zanti finally decided he was ready to get out of the day-to-day operations of the restaurant last year, he knew he could trust the Hineses to be good stewards of what he had created. Now that it's in their hands, he and the entire Roberto's team have been thrilled with the smooth transition.

"I trusted Matt," Zanti says. "I've known him for a long time, and I trust him in a way I wouldn't trust anybody else. That restaurant is my baby. I love Matt like he is my own kid, and he has been doing an excellent job."

The Hineses feel humbled that they have been able to take over such a storied space and are committed to doing things exactly as Zanti has done them all these years. Much of this commitment stems from their own love for the place; as Hines sees it, Roberto's offers some of the best food he's ever eaten. More importantly, though, he believes there is nowhere that is more committed to genuine hospitality and making its guests feel like they're at home. That welcoming approach is why generations of diners fill its dining room every night, some of them celebrating the most important milestones of their lives. He takes that very seriously.

"We have 50- and 60-year anniversaries on a weekly basis, and that's not an exaggeration," Hines says. "We have 80th birthday parties, 90th ones too; one recently was 101."

click to enlarge The Ahi tuna appetizer at Roberto's.
Courtesy Photo
The Ahi tuna appetizer at Roberto's.

Zanti echoes this sentiment.

"One lady had her college graduation, her graduation from law school, her 30th and 40th birthdays," Zanti says. "I can name people who had their rehearsal dinner here and then every year after that they have their anniversary and want their special table where they sat 20 years ago. It's wonderful."

These are the reasons Hines and his wife plan on keeping everything exactly the same as when Zanti owned the place — something that will be easy to do considering that Zanti remains a presence in the restaurant. He continues to work the floor, give his thoughts on specials and hold court over the room he spent over three decades building — and Hines wouldn't have it any other way.

"Jaime and I are very humbled to be able to have this opportunity," Hines says. "It's actually quite an honor because it's hard to find something like this. It has a neat atmosphere, wonderful clientele and employees, and great food. Let's put it this way: I smile every day I walk into work."

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