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Review: Randolfi's Has Amazing Food. But Is St. Louis Ready for It? 

click to enlarge The "Pork & Apples" with coffee, roasted-apple vinaigrette and celery.

Mabel Suen

The "Pork & Apples" with coffee, roasted-apple vinaigrette and celery.

Our server at Randolfi's insisted that we try the sweetbreads Parmesan, and we were exceptionally glad we heeded her advice.

Of course sweetbreads aren't bread and they aren't particularly sweet, as I imagined the father behind me telling his perplexed five-year-old — instead, they're the delicate glands from the thymus and the pancreas. In addition to being a classic of French cuisine, they've lately become trendy at the type of restaurants that pride themselves on using every last piece of an animal.

Here, though, they were prepared as a riff, if you will, on veal Parmesan. Lightly dusted in breadcrumbs and fried golden brown, the sweetbreads' offal richness was cut by tart tomato sauce, while paper-thin shavings of funky cheese added an earthly depth. The presentation left us awestruck. It was a revelation of what Mike Randoph is trying to do at his latest concept — to evoke the "Sunday gravy" of his childhood by wrapping something esoteric in the comfort of red-and-white-checkered-tablecloth dining.

click to enlarge Chef Mike Randolph. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Chef Mike Randolph.

When I returned for a second visit, however, the sweetbreads were no longer on the menu. Which made me wonder. Beyond encapsulating Randolph's ambitions, the sweetbreads might serve as a different metaphor for the two-month-old restaurant, one that raises a very real question: Are people going to get it?

Randolfi's is not a literal, folksy Italian restaurant. It's evocative. Here, Randolph is offering his take on the Italian-American experience — bringing to mind the homey style of cooking once ubiquitous in this country: spaghetti and meatballs, manicotti, and, yes, veal Parmesan, even while elevating it. This may seem like an overly nuanced distinction, but I think it's an important one.

Now, don't get me wrong. Randolfi's is a superb, innovative addition to the city's dining landscape. I'm more excited by its menu than I am by most other places in town. And yet I wonder if his attempt at nostalgia will work in St. Louis, a city where — let's be honest here — Italian food, by and large, has never really evolved past those 1970s straw-covered Chianti bottles. Can we really be nostalgic for something that never went away?

Randolph had his reasons for opening the place. The grandson of Italian immigrants (the name "Randolfi" was Americanized at Ellis Island), he had long toyed around with how to honor his heritage. When his father passed away this spring, he decided the time was right to close his beloved Neapolitan pizzeria, the Good Pie, and realize his vision for a southern Italian trattoria.

click to enlarge Duck confit with olive, arugula and gnocchi. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Duck confit with olive, arugula and gnocchi.

That vision is a modernized time capsule of the quintessential Italian-American date-night restaurant, complete with red-and-white-checkered tablecloths (though I would have expected accordion music rather than the inexplicable Michael Bolton that blared over the sound system). But instead of getting kitschy, the chef reached out to the designers at the award-winning SPACE Architecture + Design to add polish. Modern, thin beams of wood on the walls evoke wood paneling, and black and white tiled floors are reminiscent of a Fellini film. Chocolate-colored walls bear vintage photographs of Randloph's family, and a black boar's head keeps watch over the space from above the bar.

Fans of the Good Pie will be pleased to know that the room's prominent feature — the domed Ferrara pizza oven — remains unchanged. Gladly, so does this pizza. The "Napoli" arrived speckled with textbook-perfect char, its crust giving enough pull without being chewy. The base of the pie was soft and thin, though it was able to hold up to the buffalo mozzarella, spicy salsiccia and rapini (a bitter green vegetable similar to broccoli). Randolph's pie-making skills clearly survived the transition.

Lemons and capers bring a razor-sharp bite to Randolfi's beef tartare. A cured egg yolk, reconstituted with rich aioli, serves as a dressing for the miniature cubes of silken raw beef. When spread on crusty sourdough from Union Loafers (the new bakery in Botanical Heights founded by former the Good Pie pizzaiolo Ted Wilson), it's positively luxurious.

The "Oysters Randolfi," meanwhile, is a sophisticated play on oysters Rockefeller. The bivalves are topped with prosciutto, fennel and a light breadcrumb dusting and gently kissed by the oven — they're more warmed than cooked, so the oyster remains moist and tender.

click to enlarge Seared tuna with smoked eggplant caponata. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Seared tuna with smoked eggplant caponata.

Randolph does magic with vegetables. An appetizer of carrots dazzles with its simplicity: A handful of the bright orange vegetables that looked freshly plucked from the garden are simply roasted and served alongside aromatic rosemary aioli. Even the sourdough crouton garnish is remarkable.

Another vegetarian first course, a plate of roasted cauliflower, is remarkably complex. The vegetable is covered in char to bring out an almost meaty flavor, then dusted with Parmesan cheese, capers and lemon. It's as satisfying as the beef tartare.

The Good Pie came to be known almost as much for its pasta as its pizzas, and Randolfi's offers an expanded repertoire. Spaghetti alla chittara is tossed in chicken-liver butter and lemon — the rich, slightly metallic sauce clings to the thick egg noodles like a glaze. Large, pillow-soft gnocchi (about the size of my thumb) serve as a bed for duck confit. Supreme oranges mingle with olive oil and duck fat to form a glorious jus.

I have never seen porcinis the size of the ones served on Randolfi's porcini pasta. These magnificent kings of mushrooms, served atop spaghetti alla chitarra, are the size of jumbo marshmallows. A simple lemon, butter and Parmesan sauce allows the porcinis to take center stage with just a slight touch of acid to complement their nutty flavor.

Randolph takes a whole, deboned Mediterranean branzino, rubs its meat with olive oil, lemon and fresh herbs, and roasts it in the wood-fired oven. If you close your eyes, you could be at a beach barbecue on the Amalfi coast. The pork entrée is equally impressive. A coffee-rubbed chop is wood-fired to give the meat an earthy depth, which is balanced by a sweet apple vinaigrette. This is how pork should be served.

click to enlarge Randolfi's in the Delmar Loop. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Randolfi's in the Delmar Loop.

Dessert is still a work in progress. I enjoyed the autumn-spiced ricotta cake and accompanying butternut gelato. However, the fruit in the roasted pear dish was undercooked and came with its core, giving me the unpleasant experience of repeatedly biting into hard pieces and seed. The chocolate pizza — fun in theory — arrived so overcooked that it was pocked with burnt char blisters. This exacerbated the bitterness of the dark chocolate ganache.

These minor stumbles are to be expected from someone who has opened six restaurants in roughly five years. And they are minor, especially in the context of the sheer magnificence that comes out of his kitchen.

However, I hope that Randolph hasn't made an even bigger stumble by misreading the readiness of the St. Louis dining community for an art-house version of old-school Italian. Randolph maintains that Randolfi's is approachable — the sort of place you can get a bowl of meatballs and a carafe of wine. And it is, sort of.

But if your idea of a family-friendly Italian restaurant includes mounds of Provel cheese and your server asking, "Red, white or garlic butter?" you may get turned off by its sophisticated ingredients and higher ticket prices.

To that end, he may have a tough hill to climb.

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