There aren't many St. Louis restaurants that have been around as long as Cusanelli's, a traditional Italian spot of the sort that once lived on a large number of street corners throughout the city, but it's an extremely low-key spot and one of the few establishments that seems to be thriving in a far-south neighborhood with more than its share of "for lease" signs. The location has been a restaurant and tavern for centuries, and Ulysses H. Grant supposedly left an unpaid bar tab--apparently not a great surprise--when he departed for the Civil War. The author Washington Irving stopped for 19th-century refreshment, too, at least according to a resident historian. Cusanelli's looks the way it has for generations, an unremarkable two-story white building at the corner of Lemay Ferry and Bayless Roads. It came to mind one day when we were looking for an early dinner before a visit to the Ivory Theater, less than 10 minutes away.
“This place hasn't changed in 30 years,” remarked a fellow a couple of tables away, just before he ordered fried chicken. Well, it had been longer than that for one of us. They've redecorated in the intervening years, and things seemed more casual than they once were. There was a faint memory of white tablecloths at one time.
There are two dining rooms, one near the bar, with smoking, and another, larger, across the entrance hall, plus a rear dining room that was occupied by a festive group, growing rapidly and arriving with gifts. Most of the employees we saw were quite young, with a sprinkling of more experienced types. All were amiable, keeping their pleasant affect as the dining room rapidly filled with diners, all of whom seemed to be folks who'd visited often in the past. Several barely glanced at the menu before ordering.
A house specialty is pizza, reminding us of the days when it wasn't unusual for a restaurant to announce PIZZA STEAK CHICKEN in its ads, the way the old Cusanelli's did in the rotogravure sections for the Cardinals and what then was called the Municipal Opera. And, well, if a restaurant can promote flatbread with toppings for a first course, why not a pizza for a first course? And, yes, a large; who can have too much left over cold pizza for a weekend breakfast? Cusanelli's Deluxe features sausage from its own recipe, onions, bacon, pepperoni and mushrooms, and it was a treat, heavy with a variety of charcuterie, piping hot and nicely spiced. Someone in the kitchen really cares. Relatively light on the cheese, with a thin--but not cracker-thin--crust and cut in the traditional squares, it's a little different than its cousins around town, but quite delicious. The sausage is a little lighter on the fennel than some recipes and that makes for a better balance of flavors.
Then came their dinner salad, old fashioned iceberg lettuce, pale tomato, a little red onion and grated cheese, just the thing for a blue cheese dressing the way it would have been umpty-ump years ago. Things were fresh, including the small croutons, but rather an ordinary, if satisfactory, salad.
This seems to have been The Year of the Fish Fry, and all the talk about local Lenten food made us think of the old St. Louis favorite, jack salmon, known in some other places as whiting. Ann's particularly fond of it, and having pretty much grown up in a fish-free zone, was quite proud when, as a kid, she became adept at boning jack salmon at the old Forum Cafeteria without sending the fish or anything else on the table a-flying. Of course Cusanelli's has jack salmon. And it arrived....boned. Yes, breaded and cooked, and then boned in the kitchen and sent out that way, with the requested side of cavatelli with red sauce. The fish was fine, not overcooked, with a nice crispy crust perfectly browned, although it cooled far too quickly because of its evisceration. The cavatelli retained a fair texture, and the sweetly traditional tomato sauce was just what one would expect.
Once upon a time, filet mignon was the dish to have here, and on this night, it felt that way, too. The 8-ounce filet had been rubbed with some peppery seasoning and cooked to rare, as ordered; clearly, this is a kitchen that understands “rare.” The beef had good flavor for a filet, even beyond the rub, and it put to shame some of the more expensive pieces of meat we've had over the years—not all, to be sure, but some. We asked for the mushrooms and brown gravy promised by the menu to be served on the side. The same large sliced mushrooms as populated the pizza arrived, and a small dish of gravy that tasted of beef broth cubes, something that didn't do credit to the good beef. There was a throw-back feeling to watching foil-wrapped baked potatoes go by, a tactic we thought certainly had not survived the 20th century. We chose fries which were okay, but unremarkable.
We saw a number of plates of good-looking fried chicken in passage, and a chap behind us raved about it to the server. The wine list is unremarkable, but the pours of the house offerings are old-style generous, almost to the top of the glass. A slice of apple pie finished things up. It was fresh and warmed, but could have come off the shelf at the A&P grocery store that once was a few blocks up the street.
705 Lemay Ferry Rd., Lemay
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good