Cini? What's that? It's the nickname of arancini, the small fried balls of rice wrapped around fillings. They serve as an appetizer or bar snack in Italy. It's also the name of the Gabriele (Giovanni's, Il Bel Lago) family's new spot just south of the flying saucer building on Grand at I-64. The feel is a combination of fast food and family dining in a slightly edgy modern decor, which will fit right in with their anticipated expansion to Ladue.
Ordering at the counter seems a pretty simple act. But the paper menus at the entrance confuse, needing further explanation of the routine at the restaurant. Cini (say CHEE-nee) are indeed an appetizer, except they won't arrive first, but rather go onto your tray as your order is put together in front of you. The main courses are create-your-own, starting with pasta, salad, and/or a piadina. The latter is a flatbread similar to a large flour tortilla. Then it's mix-and-match on the chosen base, with almost everything displayed on the tray line to ponder.
The results? The cini, about the size of a ping-pong ball, were hot and tasted fresh despite the steam table, but it was hard to tell one filling from another, except the four-cheese with its characteristically stretchy mozzarella. Two orders, asking for one of each of the three fillings, came out garbled, with only one specimen each of the cheese and of the sausage. Of the offered dipping sauces, the tomato was sparkly with flavor, very slightly sweet but with a little zing of heat and acidity; the other, Parmesan, was thin and lacked much cheesiness.
Perfectly al dente penne pasta was almost room temperature on one visit. On the next, most of it came from a bowl on the steam table, and the rest arrived steaming hot from the back. Investigation revealed that the steaming hot portion and the sauce brought things to almost warm enough. Diavolo sauce was as red and spicy as Old Scratch himself. There was also a lot higher sauce-to-pasta ratio than expected, with some of it pooling in the bottom. But wasn't the same sauce with the cini; they're using two different tomato sauces, which is nice. Little meatballs tasted good, firm but not rubbery, a little garlic and lots of beefy taste. Slices of steak were chewy but not impossibly so and had good flavor They were the best of the meats we tried. Don't choose any of the extras offered, unless you're prepared for cold ingredients like mushrooms and onions piled on top of the bowl of pasta.
Piadini are warmed quickly in a closed grill, although not cooked until browned, as they are in Italy. Then the fillings are arranged. Chicken fritti turned out to be chopped fried chicken on top of the piadina, topped with a little more of the diavolo sauce, some fresh baby spinach and a spoonful of a fresh tomato-onion-basil relish. They offered pasta to put it as well, although that seems superfluous. It would have been the equivalent of rice on a burrito, because the whole thing was carefully rolled up and wrapped just like a burrito, although this one was the size of a coed's forearm. The result was nothing more than okay. A side of fried calamari with slices of pepperoncini showed expertise, the breading light and dry, the squid nicely tender.
Dessert cini feature the rice wrapped around a bit of chocolate that's hazelnut-flavored, then rolled into crumbs of vanilla wafers or Oreo cookies before they're deep-fried and showered with powdered sugar. They arrived fairly hot, but the insides were merely warm, and chocolate gooeyness thereby significantly reduced, unfortunately. Done correctly, these could be a signature dish, like Herbie's chocolate fritters, but tinkering is needed.
Employees are remarkably pleasant, and it's nice to see a large refrigerated case of fresh ingredients handsomely arranged behind the kitchen. But attention to details and a clearer explanation of the concept are in order for Cini to grow.
374 S. Grand Ave.
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good