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STL: Review of Trattoria Marcella [long]

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My beau and I dined at Trattoria Marcella the other night – initially he wanted to hit up Cunetto’s, which is the bane of my existence.

Called around noon on Thursday, no problems getting a reservation for 7:30 that night.

Ample street parking nearby, in a fairly safe area. A little far from the blocks associated with “The Hill”, slightly further west than Lorenzo’s (where I had the worst butternut squash ravioli ever).

Overall, the ambiance and service were above average – points for attention to detail. For example, although only the two of us were dining, we were at a 4-top next to a party of 4. The wait staff had already removed the two extra settings closest to the other party; which allowed us a bit more privacy. We also lingered and ended up closing the place, but didn’t feel rushed at all by the staff. Crowd seems more “neighborhood” and less “yuppie” – we’re in our early 20s and were probably the youngest couple there. The place isn’t too loud, with the exception of a rather raucous/drunk party of 8-10 in the center of the dining room. The space is a bit cramped; if we actually were a party of 4 the accommodations would have been way too small. No gimmicky décor or whatnot here. We BYOB’d it (fyi, they have a 15 dollar corking fee) although they do have a fairly interesting wine list. I will note, after seeing the wine list, we felt the corking fee was a bit high – their least expensive bottle starts at 20. Now, the markup on most of their wines isn’t huge (eg mount pleasant 2001 norton for 35) so I guess they have to recoup that cost somewhere, but we probably won’t be doing BYOB here again – it was a very special bottle of wine (1990 spanish red, gift from beau’s fr.).

The menu, when compared to other places in The Hill, is fairly short. No pasta con broccoli here, but there were a decent number of dishes we wanted to try to choose from.

We started off with a field greens & calamari fritti, which were both unimpressive but not bad. The field greens were dressed in an oversweet balsamic vinagrette, although the red onions were blanched which is always a pleasant surprise. The calamari was above average for fried calamari – not too greasy, light crispy batter, rings were not overcooked and rubbery. A note, the calamari comes with flash-fried spinach. According to my beau’s fr., Trattoria Marcella was the “first place in St. Louis” to do flash-fried spinach. Who knew?

Now for the ugly… the entrees. We ordered the chicken risotto (sundried tomatoes and okra?) and the fresh tortellini (cheese stuffed, spinach and porcini mushrooms in a butter sauce). The risotto was varying degrees of cooked, from underdone to overdone. It was also rather salty, even for sundried tomatoes, and had a slight flavor of canned chicken broth, with a somewhat "boullion" salty/umami aftertaste. To be fair, the risotto in St. Louis continues to disappoint me. I had an excellent truffle risotto at Tony’s a few years ago, but the rest (including a Tony’s redux) have been consistently bad. The tortellini was oversalted, almost to the point of being inedible. Or rather, the sauce was oversalted – ironically, the all-cheese filling of the ravioli was fairly well balanced in terms of its flavor profile. The sauce was devastatingly salty, and not in a clearly intentional (anchovy or caper based, for example) way, just improperly seasoned. The spinach was sort of slapped on, it looked like they had braised/sautéed whole leaves rather than chop the spinach, which didn’t really go with the petit nature of the rest of the dish. I found one slice of porcini in the entire dish, although it appeared to be fresh, not rehydrated. Overall, our entrees were underwhelming and disappointing.

We ended up ordering dessert. Again, there’s not a huge selection, but all of it sounded so good. We got the chocolate bombe and chocolate chip cheesecake. The bombe is more of a mousse with a dusting of nuts and a chocolate glaze, but was outstanding. The chocolate chip cheesecake was also very good. I’m not a big fan of the soggy graham cracker crust; the cheesecake had a 50/50 mix of crust and chocolate chips on the bottom. The chocolate used in both desserts was also good-quality, which is a good sign. Overall, two excellent desserts, although I’m not sure if they are made in-house. We made the right decision to stay for dessert, not go to Ted Drewes.

The bill ended up coming to about 80 (before tip) for both of us including the corking fee. For the expense (both entrees were around 16.00/ea) the food was subpar and didn’t live up to the expectations we had.

I’ll probably give the place another shot, considering I have heard many good things about it and maybe we just got an odd night. Or the night the salt shaker broke.

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  1. First of all, that area is so safe, it's almost suburban. I lived about .25 mile away (on Eichelberger) four years ago. The Hill is also completely safe. There are certainly iffy areas in STL as in any big city-- but nowhere near there, Dogtown or Delmar. Explore, enjoy. I can almost guarantee you will not be killed.

    I hope they're not slipping. I ate there about once a week, but it was four years ago and i sat at the bar and got to know everyone. Some of the best Italian food ever. Now you shouldn't have to be a regular at any restaurant to get a good meal, but i'd definitely give them another shot.

    1. RL-outstanding report. Thanks for taking the time; you've set a new standard for the stl board. From your comments I assume you're not from stl, in which case you'll likely be disappointed by most italian in this town if you're expecting a creative approach and the use of seasonal ingredients. I haven't been to trat. m. for at least 5 years, but they were still doing the calamari-flash fry spinach schtick then. I think the owners are related to the slay restaurant dynasty who came up with the idea at least 15 years ago. They've gotten some seriousness mileage out of it. If you get a chance and are in KC, try Lidias for non-midwestern style italian.

      4 Replies
      1. re: mister

        yep, I'm a transplant from the east coast (phl/nyc/bos). Moved to STL in 2005. A good amount of the comments comes from my professional background as well -- I work in food (fwiw in chemistry not in a "restaurant" setting) and have undergone extensive sensory training (food tasting/evaluation = huge huge part of my job). So I do, by habit, look at food through a more critical standpoint. I've been known to throw around the word "mouthfeel".

        The beau and I actually had an excellent dinner at Gian-Tony's a few months ago, but for us the fun of st. louis dining has been trying everything. I mean, when the food is good, it's very good. But when it's not good, it tends to be very bad.

        1. re: rllevy

          I have to agree with you last statement. When it's bad...it's really bad. We had the opportunity to try out Hubert Keller's new SLeeK. We were sadly disappointed. My $28 pork tenderloin was grossly under seasoned and my husbands sweet breads were way over cooked..and under seasoned. The truffled mashed potatoes were good...as well as the mushroom fricassee...but nothing was amazing. The service was lacking and the loud music from the casino filtered in through the big open doors. When we informed the server that the dishes were under seasoned she apologized by saying that the cooks in kitchen were inexperienced and just 'out of college'....that they are still learning! WHAT!!!!!!!! I just dropped over $100 bucks on kids who are "STILL LEARNING". Seasoning food is a basic skill. I was shocked at the response. As we were leaving my husband commented that he's had better food at Applebee's back in the day. At least they seasoned their food properly.

          1. re: CheesemongersWife

            yeesh, good to know -- we thought about doing my birthday dinner there. we've done niche the past two years (back in '05 we sat amid the boxes and ate guo bin from 569 dine) and it's our all-purpose "special occasion" place with advance notice, but I do want to explore a bit more. we're thinking about an american place -- cross it off the to-do list finally this year.

            1. re: rllevy

              If you want something really neat...try Erato On Main in Edwardsville. Go during the week and get the chef's tasting menu. AMAZING!!!!!!!!