How long has it been since you found good French fries and good pizza at the same restaurant? Uh-huh. Let’s up the ante a little: How about good French fries, good pizza and occasional truffle oil -- all at a reasonable price?
As Shakespeare might have said, "Get thee to Onesto."
On a quiet corner of the south St. Louis neighborhood officially known as Princeton Heights -- although the menu insists it’s "in the heart of SoHa," probably meaning east of Hampton and south of Holly Hills, two storefronts house the creation of Vito Racanelli, Jr.. The word is the Italian for "honest." The entrance room looks like a cross between a deli and a takeout pizza spot, a few stools for waiting tucked to one side, But beyond that lies the rectangular dining room, warm and inviting with cocoa-colored walls and two large windows on the street.
The menu straddles the line between modern and traditional. Instead of bread, a plate of garlic knots, each slightly bigger than a shooter marble, glisten with olive oil and radiate the joy of allium as well as their recent sojourn in the oven. Try not to overindulge; you’ll need the space. Caponata is chunky and full of olives, savory rather than semi-sweet, the flavors frolicking on the tongue. Arancini, or a rice ball, about the size of a Fox Park softball, is large enough to share, the rice not overcooked, flecked with green and stuffed with ground beef before it’s fried and topped with a touch of Bolognese sauce.
Chopped salad, one of many items available in either single or what Onesto calls family servings, includes cherry tomatoes, marinated artichokes, salami, pepperoni, mozzarella balls, and fire-roasted artichokes along with the lettuce, and the chopping is fairly coarse, much nicer than some we’ve seen with half-inch dice.. To keep things balanced, the balsamic vinaigrette isn’t overly sweet. We were curious about the salami roll, pizza dough wrapped around salami, pepperoni and provolone. The dough crisps nicely in its cylinder, and the serving is again a generous one, good for sharing, or perhaps a light entree. That aforementioned truffle oil appeared in an appetizer special one night and a drizzle of it topped local white asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, quite yummy.
Local pizza aficionados know that the Racanelli family’s roots are in Bari, Italy, and its members arrived in St. Louis by way of the Bronx. Consequently, this is a provel-free zone. That’s fine by us; provel has its place, but it’s certainly not on top of every pizza sold in St. Louis and environs. We tried two different pies, one traditional and one more contemporary. The latter featured house-smoked chicken, pepper bacon, roasted jalapenos, caramelized onions, cheese and the house’s own barbecue sauce. A little sweet, mostly from the onions, some from the sauce; a little hot from the occasional jalapeno, it all worked well. The more traditional carried mushrooms, sausage and anchovies over the first-rate crust. Unlike many sausage pizzas, this one was neither dripping with grease nor bearing dry pre-cooked sausage. The fennel in the sausage was a pleasant additional note.
Meatball parmigiana, like the eggplant and chicken parm, is available as a sandwich or a plate with a side of pasta in red sauce. The meatballs are first rate, moist and full of flavor, tender without falling apart. The smoker also is used for turkey, and slices of white meat are key to a sandwich that begins with whole-grain bread and is adorned with Cheddar cheese, pepper bacon, and a cranberry mayonnaise, an outstanding combination. Sandwich sides are a choice of salad or fries, and those, too, are excellent, skin-on fries of proper temperature, crisp on the outside, creamy inside. They put to shame those found next to the majority of hamburgers around town.
Next time, we’ll investigate the pasta dishes; we almost succumbed to the lasagna on our most recent visit.
The wine list has a good selection by the glass, and a number of impressive Italian bottles, led by a rose, rapidly (and deservedly) becoming a summer favorite in many places. Onesto’s rose offering is from the Bastianich family, operator of splendid restaurants in New York (Becco, for instance) and Kansas City (the remarkable Lidia’s), and partner with Mario Batali in such places as Babbo and Lupa. It’s dry and crisp, fruity and extremely refreshing. Make sure the bottle has a good chill, and the $26 restaurant cost will be a bargain.
At the end of the meal, there’s a good tiramisu, rich and creamy, but we were surprisingly taken with what might seem to be a cliche. A large chocolate chip cookie is baked to order and topped with vanilla ice cream. The ice cream is soon at the perfect temperature to be spooned up with a little of the warm, gooey-crunchy cookie, whose slight saltiness turns out to be a great compliment. Surprisingly delightful.
Service is exactly what you’d expect at a neighborhood pizzeria, that near-extinct tradition, amiable and pretty alert. There are also some tables outside, if it ever stops raining.
5401 Finkman Ave. at Macklind
Lunch & Dinner Wed.-Mon.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Good