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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2003 02:20 pm

That’s Italian!

The Hill offers a taste of Old World charm in modern-day St. Louis

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“The Italian Immigrants” sculpture standing near St. Ambrose

St. Louis is a city with many faces, a rich urban tapestry with each neighborhood having its own distinct personality and history. Under the shadow of the celebrated Arch--and within easy reach of the lush Missouri Botanical Garden and Busch Stadium--is "The Hill," an area known as much for its toasted ravioli as for its rich Italian heritage.

Your senses will immediately let you know when you've arrived on the city's southwest side. Red, white, and green colors are seemingly everywhere within a 15-block radius, from the fireplugs dotting the street corners to the banners topping the light posts. Narrow streets and small storefronts are surrounded by rows of tiny brick bungalows. And then there's the aroma of Italian meats and spices drifting out from the many restaurants and markets.

The neighborhood's cozy and charming character hasn't been manufactured for the benefit of tourists--it's a genuine expression of the people who live and work there. Ask Tom Savio, owner of Milo's Bocce Garden, a red brick building sporting a green awning. The corner bar, which serves such lunch items as meatball sandwiches, is a place to go for bocce ball, the Italian game of outdoor bowling. The bocce courts are on a large, enclosed patio, where newcomers are welcome to play or to watch the league teams that compete from April through November.

"I don't have to interview babysitters," Savio says. "I know all these kids, I know their parents, I know their grandparents. Everybody knows everybody."

While the neighborhood has seen a dip in population in recent years, a new generation is now moving in to rejuvenate the area. But for the most part, "the major nucleus is still here," Savio says.

Time hasn't changed much since Italian immigrants settled in this community in the early 1900s. A statue honoring the first settlers near St. Ambrose Catholic Church was donated by a collection of local groups, each identified by the name of an Italian village. The church serves as the social center, sponsoring both religious and cultural events, like the procession for the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Columbus Day Parade, the Giro della Montagna Bike Race, and Hill Day.

"The Hill has a lot of character and charm," Savio says. "People are amazed at what it looks like. People from the county love to come to the city," though the reverse may not hold true, he adds.

The neighborhood was once called Fairmount Heights, the highest point in the city, where German and Irish immigrants worked in the clay mines. Later Italians seeking their fortunes in America worked those same mines, making the Hill their own. While the area has spawned baseball heroes like Yogi Berra, it's most famous for its food.

Step inside one of the locally operated markets, like John Viviano and Sons, Volpi's, Urzi's and Di Gregorio's Italian Foods. Cases are filled with homemade sausages, prosciutti, pepperoni, and cheeses. Shelves are lined with pasta, olive oil, tomato sauces, sardines, and spices. Cash registers ring up orders of stuffed cherry peppers and Kalamata olive salad, and customers carry out their groceries in recycled boxes.

Volpi Foods is a perfect example of the rich history shared by many local businesses. It's now run by Lorenza Pasetti, whose father was the nephew of founder John Volpi, who had moved from Italy to St. Louis more than a century ago. Volpi was a salumiere, a maker of dry-cured meats. Today, the company sells 14 kinds of meats to cutomers throughout the U.S. and Asia, including salami, coppa, pancetta, and prosciutto. Hams are still hung behind the store for the ten months it takes to become prosciutto. The business also makes its own rolota, or stuffed meat, wrapping thinly sliced prosciutto in layers of whole-milk mozzarella.

You really can't go wrong in choosing a place for dinner, with more than 25 restaurants serving up traditional dishes like fried calamari, cannelloni, mostaccioli with meatballs, lasagna, chicken spiedini, and lobster ravioli. Favorite eateries include Cunetto House of Pasta, Favazza's, Trattoria Marcella, Giovanni's, Zia's, Mama Campisi's and Charlie Gittos, which claims to have invented toasted ravioli in 1947. The city's best-known appetizer, according to legend, was created when a cook accidentally dropped a ravioli into a pot of oil instead of water. These deep-fried pillows of pasta--stuffed with meat, cheese, or mushrooms and coated with milk, egg, and bread crumbs--are served as an appetizer or as a main dish with marinara sauce and grated Parmesan cheese.

For a slight change of pace, Guido's Pizzeria and Tapas offers Italian food with a Spanish twist. Owner and chef Miguel Angel Carretero serves up specials like Spanish-style lamb chops, as well as traditional Italian fare like breaded artichokes, pizza, and lasagna. Tiny bakeries like Vitale's and Amighetti's tender freshly baked, tiny Italian cookies, as well as pizzelles, biscotti, cannoli, spumoni, and homemade bread crumbs.

How to get there: From Springfield, take I-55 to I-44 W, then take the Kingshighway exit. From downtown St. Louis, take 1-64 west to Kingshighway south and turn west on Shaw.

What to do: The best way to explore the Hill is on foot. Park your car on the street (a nice plus: there are no parking meters). Watch or play a game of bocce ball at Milo's, do some grocery shopping at one of the local markets and bakeries.

Where to eat: There are more than 25 eateries to enjoy, from family-friendly pizza joints to upscale Italian restaurants. Order toasted ravioli as an appetizer. For dessert, try tiramisu, a blend of cocoa, marscapone cheese, and cookies soaked in Sambuca and espresso.

For more information:www.the-hill.com; www.shopviviano.com; www.volpifoods.com; www.stlouis.missouri.org/thehill.

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