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Dining Review: Trattoria Marcella - Ladue News: Food & Dining

Dining Review: Trattoria Marcella

Unbeatable Value

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Posted: Thursday, August 27, 2009 12:00 am | Updated: 10:12 pm, Tue Aug 9, 2011.

It’s much more common to see ‘hot’ restaurants crash and burn than to watch them enjoy a long, steady success. But Trattoria Marcella is one of the rare few that offers the complete package, and has from its beginnings.

The family-run spot has certainly made subtle changes to its menu over the years, and now the Komorek brothers have wisely adjusted to the times by adding numerous dishes at a more reasonable price point. The emphasis is on ‘rustic’ Italian, also known as ‘cucina povera,’ or homestyle, with such new offerings as potato gnocchi with sausage, chicken limone, meatball risotto and trattoria steak, all hovering around the $10 mark.

That may sound too good to be true, but for once, it isn’t. The quality here is consistent, and the quantities are still big. So as counterintuitive as it sounds, diners can get the same Trattoria Marcella culinary skill at prices they can hardly duplicate in their home meals. Of course, they can also still get their favorite costlier dishes too.

We started our meal with something old and something new: fritto misto ($10), the most popular appetizer on the menu, and carta di musica ($12), an innovative Sardinian dish. Both could easily be shared by four. The fritto misto is a delectable mix of fried spinach and fried calamari, a process that yields delicate, oil-infused spinach leaves that melt in your mouth and crunchy ringlets of calamari. The squid here is sliced to order, we were told, which could explain why it was so tender and sweet.

The carta di musica, which means ‘sheet music,’ is a paper-thin crust, about a foot long, topped with creamy white-bean puree and marinated tomatoes, and dotted with chunks of goat’s cheese and sprigs of parsley. The whole thing is drizzled with red chili oil, and delicious. It’s worth ordering just for its uniqueness: the crispy base works remarkably well with the creamy topping in both texture and flavor.

Another cost-saving innovation is the large salad, which at $11.50 or $12.50, depending on type, will feed four to six. Five of us shared a Caesar salad and still had leftovers. It was well done, with romaine torn into the right size and a light, creamy anchovy dressing not too heavy on the garlic. It was topped with several large shavings of fresh parmigiano reggiano.

Many pastas are hand-rolled in the kitchen, and delicious. An order of farfalle Allesandra ($10) was a generous portion of bow ties tossed in a light cream sauce tinged with lemon, sliced black olives, tiny bits of asparagus and smoked salmon. There was plenty of salmon, but I think it could have had more asparagus to balance the dish texturally.

An order of meatballs ($10) was noteworthy, not only for its flavorful and gigantic main attraction (the pork and beef balls), but for the bed of creamy polenta they sat on. The dish also was topped with a delicious tomato sauce that wasn’t fussy with mushrooms, onions or other ingredients, but delicious in its simplicity, slightly sweet, not too thick, and concentrated with tomato flavor. It was served on a wooden plank, hollowed out to accommodate the creamy polenta, but I’m not a fan of wood dishes, as they impart an unpleasant ‘wet wood’ flavor.

We also sampled two specials, Sicilian steak and monkfish ($24 and $25 respectively). The steak was good, if not exciting. The large strip steak came dusted with light bread crumbs to give it an outer crispness. It was served with smashed potatoes. I highly recommend the monkfish, if it is offered. It came prepared scampi style, with breading and a flavorful, light garlic-lemon sauce. The fish itself was flavorful and firm, a ‘poor man’s lobster.’

Desserts included tiramisu, a chocolate cake offering and gelati. We had hazelnut gelato and tiramisu, both excellent. The gelato had bits of nut and a light, creamy flavor; the tiramisu was creamy and not too heavy on the liqueur.

Trattoria Marcella is a solid St. Louis favorite for obvious reasons. The only way to beat great food and generous portions (not to mention excellent, knowledgeable service) is to add amazing prices to that lineup, which is exactly what Trattoria Marcella has done.


SCAMPI STYLE MONKFISH

Serves 4

Ingredients

For roasted garlic lemon sauce:

1 ½ cups white wine

3 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Juice of 1 ½ lemons

1 tbsp. roasted garlic paste

2 ½ tbsp. butter

salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

1 tsp. cornstarch

For monkfish:

4 long bamboo skewers

2 lbs monkfish tail, cleaned and cut into 2” cubes

4 cups breadcrumbs, well seasoned with chopped parsley, salt, pepper, fresh chopped garlic and Parmigiano Reggiano and then toasted

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

1. Soak skewers in water for 10 minutes to keep from burning.

2. To make sauce, reduce wine by half in a pan, then add chicken stock, lemon juice, garlic and butter. Bring to a boil, then thicken with corn starch mixed with ¼ cup cold water.

3. Skewer fish cubes and coat with oil, then dust with bread crumbs.

4. Grill fish over hot coals or under broiler in a hot oven. Turn once; cook 3 to 4 minutes per side.

5. Top fish with sauce and serve with sautéed spinach or grilled vegetables.

MEATBALLS WITH CREAMY POLENTA

Serves 6

Ingredients

For meatballs:

3 cups day old bread, cut into 1” cubes

1 cup milk

1 lb. ground lean sirloin

½ lb. ground lean pork

½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano

3 whole eggs, beaten

3 tbsp. flat leaf parsley, chopped

6 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

For tomato sauce:

6 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil

2 (28 oz.) cans whole, peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand

1 tsp. minced garlic

salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

For polenta:

    1 quart chicken stock

    1 ½ cups polenta

½ cup 40% whipping cream (heavy cream)

    ¼ cup Parmigiano Reggiano

    3 tbsp. unsalted butter

Directions:

For meatballs:

1. In a large, shallow bowl, soak bread cubes in milk. Break up using fingers.

2. Add ground meats and cheese. Mix well, but do not over-mix, as meat will become tough. Add parsley, salt and pepper, then form into large meatballs.

3. Brown meatballs in oil in a hot skillet. When browned, add to sauce pot and simmer until cooked through.

For sauce:

Heat oil over medium heat. Sauté onion until translucent (8 to 10 minutes).

Add basil and garlic and sauté briefly.

Add tomatoes and juice. Simmer until slightly thickened.

For polenta:

Bring the stock to boil in a large saucepan, then add cream. Whisk in cornmeal and lower heat.

Cook until firm, then add butter, cheese, salt and pepper. Continue stirring with a wooden spoon until polenta pulls away from the side of the pot.

Serve hot with meatballs topped with tomato sauce.

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