Under the Hampton Sun

Find a foodie paradise in south St. Louis

To walk into the Pitted Olive is to be transported from Hampton Avenue in St. Louis Hills to the fabulous kitchen of a fabulous friend, someone who has smartly escaped the workaday world for the slow and sumptuous pleasures of Napa Valley, or perhaps the Italian countryside. Reprising Under the Tuscan Sun, embarking on A Year in Provence.

The walls of this gourmet deli and café are done in soothing, autumnal tones — a splash of burnt orange here, a swath of mossy green there — accented by sections of ecru faux-brick façade, bringing a bit of the outdoors inside. Toward the back, through a window-size aperture trimmed with dark-green shutters, you can glimpse the bottles resting sideways along the racks in the walk-in wine cubby. Issues of Bon Appétit and Gourmet are strewn casually about, and a blackboard notes not only the day's specials but also the "chef's hot new restaurant tip" (hip Benton Park bistro Niche, complete with the restaurant's phone number). The contents of the deli case are a feast-in-waiting: ceramic bowls heaped with salads (potato, Greek, spinach with strawberries), trays of handcrafted sweets (crème brûlée and sticky toffee pudding cozied into tiny tinfoil ramekins), bottles of white wine, platters of sliced meat loaf and pork roulade.

These details all add up to the unmistakable fact that the Pitted Olive isn't merely somebody's new business venture; it's a deeply felt attempt at acquainting people with the pleasures of good food.

Assuming the role of my fabulous imaginary friend in the kitchen is Mike Holmes, head chef and proprietor, who comes out from behind the deli cases and greets me as if we have, in fact, met before. We may indeed have: He's worked in kitchens from the Lynch Street Bistro to Harry's West to Spiro's to Truffles. Members of his staff have put in time at Monarch, SqWires and Trattoria Marcella. The Pitted Olive is Holmes' two-month-old baby, and his long-awaited stab at striking out on his own.

"After Truffles I just had to start working for myself. I had to," he'd tell me when I called later. And it turns out the Pitted Olive was in fact inspired by a trip to Napa six or seven years back. There he found "this little place on Highway 29 that was like Annie Gunn's, lots of prepared foods ready to carry away, lots of specialty wines from the region": the legendary Oakville Grocery.

Holmes initially signed a contract for a building in Florida, next door to his vacation condo. When that fell through, he found a space in downtown St. Louis, on Olive Street (hence the name). That deal also collapsed. The third location — this tiny stand-alone storefront on Hampton — proved the charm. He stuck with "Olive" even though it had lost its double-entendre luster, reasoning that it seemed to work as a catering concept. (The catering side of the business has yet to take off, but in view of Holmes' résumé it'll be interesting to see what develops.)

The menu comprises six cold sandwiches, seven hot ones, four salads and three vegetarian entrées. (In addition, lunch and dinner entrées are listed on the blackboard and sitting in the deli case, where they await reheating for a sit-down meal or packaging-up for take-out.) For breakfast there's oatmeal, omelets, and a brioche egg sandwich. On my first visit, Holmes took my lunch order himself, something he says he does whenever a lull at the register allows it. He then walked it back to the kitchen, visible behind the deli cases, and bellowed, "Order in!" with evident zeal and pride.

A bowl of the soup of the day — chicken, corn and black bean — possessed all the warmth and heartiness of a slow-simmered chili, only brothier. Not much later, out came a Chinese chicken salad liberally studded with tender breast meat and accentuated by julienne-sliced carrots and green and red bell peppers, a whiff of fresh mint and, rather than croutons, a handful of roasted peanuts that provided satisfying crunch.

The soup and salad were served with a not-greasy wedge of herb focaccia — the same bread that serves as the building blocks for Holmes' towering, Thickburger-high muffaletta, piled to dramatic proportions with salami and ham and capped off with a chunky olive salad and a hefty blanket of provolone. Like all the breads Holmes uses, the focaccia comes courtesy of Breadsmith Bakery. The focaccia is also the listed bread for the chicken and goat-cheese sandwich, but when I ordered this creation on a subsequent visit it came on brioche, whose eggy sweetness muted the flavors of the chicken salad and the two thick slabs of peppered bacon within. The brioche did better by the Carolina pulled-pork sandwich, which was fun and sweet and used coleslaw as a topping.

One night at the Pitted Olive I actually allowed myself to eat dessert first. As I waited for my Greek salad (romaine lettuce and plum tomatoes in a saline sea of feta, kalamatas and marinated artichoke hearts) and andouille and chicken gumbo (redolent with spicy sausage, delicious roux and, evidently, not much else), I tucked into a homemade brownie so weighty I could almost feel the butter and sugar entering my bloodstream. It was a lovely confectionary brick and a straight shot of cocoa all at once. I followed that up with a cloudlike lemon custard tart, outlined with sliced fresh strawberries and anchored by a hefty pastry crust beneath.

I'm sure someday I'll make my way to the Pitted Olive just to pick up a few bottles of wine. Holmes curates the ever-changing collection, a brief but rounded array of everyday-drinking varietals, from a serviceable Kenwood white zin to trendy, pleasant labels like Relax and Toad Hollow, to half-bottles of pricier brands like Steele and Dierberg Vineyard.

And maybe some other time I'll grab a quick breakfast and try that brioche egg sandwich, which comes with "frizzled" ham. Maybe I'll catch up there with a south-city friend one afternoon over Kaldi's coffee. Something tells me I'll find lots of excuses to make my way to the Pitted Olive. It's rare to find a friend who really loves to cook.