Built for Comfort

Tim Mallett strikes again

Ellie Forcella Italian Taproom

34 S. Old Orchard Avenue, Webster Groves

Toasted cannelloni $5.75
Grilled-chicken Asiago fettuccine, small $8.95
Grilled-chicken Asiago fettuccine, large $11.95
Grilled Sonoma steak $12.95
House-made cheesecake $4.50

314-336-5757. Hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; dinner, 4:30-11 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 4:30 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat. (limited menu 2-4:30 p.m.)

There's no shortage of the quick-bite-to-eat type of restaurant in St. Louis. We are busy people, after all. National chains such as Applebee's and O'Charley's sprout up in every strip mall, dashing off quick, cheap meals in contrived, upbeat settings. ("Neighborhood Grill & Bar"? Puh-leeeze.) Homegrown chains such as Krieger's and Culpeppers offer similar quick options -- and even manage to feel real. Now restaurateur Tim Mallett, the man behind Big Sky Café, Remy's and Blue Water Grill, has entered the modest-meal fray with Ellie Forcella Italian Taproom. The fourth and largest restaurant in Mallett's miniempire represents a bit of a departure from his other, more upscale enterprises but does so with the company's trademark creative twist and works hard to balance quick service, good food and a casual, unaffected atmosphere.

Unaffected, yes. Completely theme-free, hard to say. There's a lot going on at Ellie's, enough to confuse even the most attentive diner. First, there's that name. Ellie is Mallett's young daughter; forcella is Italian for "wishbone." To drive the point home, one wall in the restaurant is dominated by a massive Picassoish painting by Mallett's wife, Kimber, that depicts the little girl, a big wishbone and a clutch of chickens against a futuristic blue background. Then there's the food, a menu dominated by pizzas, pastas and Italian-influenced entrées. And the "taproom" element: a list of eleven draft and 32 bottled beers (and a game room upstairs).

Ellie Forcella is located in the big building across Old Orchard from Big Sky Café that used to house the J.P. Field's restaurant (and, before that, Streetside Records; before that, a lumberyard). The space has been transformed into a cozier setting, albeit one that seems somewhat self-consciously eclectic -- from the retro signage outside to the high beamed ceilings and fireplace in the dining room, which, with its dark woods and cushy red vinyl booths, achieves a mood somewhere between those of a steakhouse and a ski lodge. The large red globe that hangs over the fireplace contrasts nicely with the warm amber light that bathes the room from glass cylinders that hang from the ceiling by pencil-thin cords.

The bar area to the right of the entrance is attractive, so woody and clubby that polo shirts should be provided when patrons enter. Upstairs is a game room with two pool tables, a pair of dartboards and a huge bookcase (like the bar, another J.P. Field's holdover). Above that there's a small open loft area from which diners can look down over the whole shebang. On busy nights, the din is noticeable, especially if the music takes a raucous turn. The bar also features live bands on weekends.

Musings about muddled décor didn't stand a chance against the grilled Sonoma steak. Thick, exquisitely tender medallions of beef were dry-rubbed with Italian spices, grilled and then doused with a generous ladle of a red-wine reduction. Accompanied by a mound of garlic mashed potatoes, the dish was simple and flavorful. Too bad there was no green vegetable on the plate (though the server did offer spinach when queried about the lack of nutritional balance). For $12.95, this is a fine deal.

This may be the one local Italian restaurant that doesn't offer toasted ravioli. (More power to 'em) Ellie's does come dangerously close, though, with toasted cannelloni. The cannelloni, stuffed with ground beef and sausage, isn't house-made but is breaded on the premises. Cut into big chunks with a cup of spicy marinara sauce on the side, the appetizer makes for a fun change of pace -- assuming fans of toasted ravioli are amenable to variations. (What's next, toasted manicotti?) Other twists on the appetizer theme include pan-seared scallops, fried tomatoes with Gorgonzola cheese, mushroom and sun-dried tomato bruschetta and Parmesan-fried calamari.

On the restaurant's Web site, executive chef Dominic Weiss is quoted as saying, "I want spaghetti. Not designer pasta -- just spaghetti." But like the rest of Ellie Forcella, Weiss' pastas are somewhere in between. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a Good Thing. Grilled-chicken Asiago fettuccine, for example, bustled with chunks of chicken breast, asparagus and artichoke hearts in a cream sauce punched up with black pepper and Asiago -- a sizable improvement on many a restaurant's flavorless Alfredo.

The menu is rounded out with sandwiches, house-made meat loaf and small pizzas. A good lunch value is the "lunch flight," which consists of a basic house salad (with real croutons!), a cup of soup (the Tuscan vegetable is spicy and vibrant) and a choice of pasta, toasted cannelloni or half a pizza, for $7.95. Four small wedges of the garlic-chicken-and-asparagus pizza seemed just right with the salad and soup.

Ellie Forcella takes its wine more seriously than most quick-eat joints, offering a dozen each of white and red, several of which are Italian selections. More than half of the wines are available by the glass. The house red and white are offered by the glass ($3.50) -- and, more festively, by the pitcher ($15). Presumably you get more wine for the buck that way. (Otherwise why bother with the contrivance of pouring a bottle into a pitcher?)

Desserts are somewhat predictable, including tiramisu, cheesecake (a Bailey's Irish Cream cheesecake with Oreo cookie crust on one visit, which seemed a bit slim at the going rate of $4.50 per slice) and the too-typical chocolate overload, represented by a Giuliani chocolate-chip caramel fudge brownie (yeesh). Panna cotta parfait, layered with fresh fruit sauce and devil's-food cake, sounded tempting, but there just wasn't room.

Besides, it was time to mosey upstairs for a game of pool.

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