Tasty tour of St. Louis

A food writer samples some of the city's most famous dishes

Remember the 1944 film, "Meet Me in St. Louis"? Who could forget Judy Garland as a blonde, much as we try? The opening scene takes place in the kitchen of the Smiths' upper-class home; the servants are busy cooking homemade ketchup, that most American of condiments, while the youngsters of the family are in a tizzy over the upcoming 1904 World's Fair.

Popularized for the first time at the fair, and still among American favorites 100 years later, are ice cream cones, hamburgers, hot dogs, and iced tea.

A recent whirlwind trip to St. Louis with several food writers revealed dozens of new culinary specialties.

We started modestly at BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups on South Broadway. The three-story brick establishment has a history as colorful as a bag of M&Ms. Since the mid-1800s, it has served as everything from boarding house to brothel. Breakfast was all I was looking for, and I ordered a pair of fresh, light beignets topped with a blizzard of powdered sugar.

The other end of the spectrum includes the tony Tony's, certainly the finest upscale restaurant in town and possibly the most famous one, as well. Under subdued lighting, and surrounded by museum-quality fine art, a blissful serving of carpaccio - the finest, thinnest slices of beef tenderloin, anointed with truffle- flavored olive oil and capers - was most memorable.

A tasting at the Ritz-Carlton dining room included sea scallops as large as marshmallows napping in a silky beurre-blanc sauce sprinkled with caviar.

For chocolate lovers, nothing beats Bissinger's French Confections. The company began in 17th-century France, where the "Candymaker of the Empire" served the sweet teeth of the likes of Napoleon and Josephine and the Rothschilds. Even mad King Ludwig of Bavaria went crazy over the creamy delights. Now you can, too, at their elegant store on Gratiot Street. Try the raspberry or blackberry cremes, if they're in season. You'll never look at another Hershey's Kiss again.

Ask any kid about the coolest place in town, and he'll direct you to Ted Drewes Frozen Custard on Old Route 66. Since 1929, it's been an oasis for parched families.

For decades, Joe and Ann Lemons Pollack have been grazing on and writing about the cuisine of St. Louis. They are the authors of "Beyond Toasted Ravioli" and "Beyond Gooey Butter Cake" (Virginia Publishing Co., $14.95 and $16.95, respectively).

Of the food scene in St. Louis today, Ms. Pollack says: "It is continuing to expand," "There's more ethnic, more spiciness, more contemporary styling. Eaters travel and become exposed, they see what's going on in other places, and adventurous chefs - both young and old - want to challenge themselves and their customers."

At the same time, she adds, traditions such as brunch remain strong. "St. Louis has always been a good brunch town because it comes after church. It's a familial meal - Mom's day off."

One type of food that hasn't really taken off in St. Louis is German cuisine. This is surprising, Mr. Pollack explains, because many of the city's residents are of German descent, and local German restaurants have become more sophisticated and more appealing. Still, he says, there are no outstanding German restaurants here.

Despite all of the cosmopolitan influences, a local creation, Toasted Ravioli, is still the city's best-loved dish. But the question of who invented it remains a mystery.

"Several restaurants on The Hill [the city's Italian section] claim it as their own," says Pollack, "but this is the sort of question that causes fights to break out in bars on otherwise quiet nights, and we have no intention of getting involved."

At Charlie Gitto's on The Hill, our small group of food writers peeked in the kitchen while chef Gitto was making "the original" Toasted Ravioli.

He deftly rolled out sheets of fresh pasta and daubed it with teaspoonsful of meat stuffing. He topped it with another layer of pasta and cut out perfect squares of ravioli.

After frying the ravioli in the hot oil, he served it with marinara sauce.

We devoured it.

St. Louis may not be New York or Chicago, as the Pollacks write, but its cuisine is definitely worth sampling. And one of the things, they say, is the food shopping: "We can drive from our favorite farm stand to our favorite international grocery store in less than half an hour."

If you're one of those snobby East or West Coast foodies who think the St. Louis arch is just an oversized McDonald's in the works, this city will surprise you.

Recipes for two uniquely St. Louis dishes - Toasted Ravioli and Gooey Butter Cake - are at right. Who knows, by the time this city hosts its next world's fair, the whole country might be eating them.

Toasted Ravioli

2 large eggs
1/2 cup canned evaporated milk
1 cup Italian-style bread crumbs
1-1/2 cups best-quality marinara sauce
4 cups canola or vegetable oil for frying
24 fresh bite-size ravioli, thawed if frozen
Freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese

In a shallow bowl, beat together eggs and evaporated milk. Put bread crumbs in another shallow bowl. Meanwhile, heat marinara sauce in a small saucepan over low heat.

In a small heavy kettle (about 5 quarts), heat 1 inch of oil over moderate heat until a deep-fat thermometer registers 350 degrees F. While oil is heating, dip ravioli in egg-milk mix to coat, letting excess drip off; dredge in bread crumbs, shaking off excess. With a slotted spoon, gently lower 4 ravioli into oil and fry, turning occasionally, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer fried ravioli to paper towels to drain.

Fry remaining ravioli, and drain on paper towels after cooked.

Transfer fried ravioli to a platter and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Serve with warm marinara sauce for dipping.

Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer or 2 as a main course.

Gooey Butter Cake

1/2 cup butter
3 eggs
1 box yellow cake mix
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract
4 cups confectioners' sugar, plus a few tablespoonsful for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch cake pan (a 9-by-9-inch pan will also work). Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat and pour into a medium-sized bowl. Stir together the butter and 1 egg (lightly beaten) into cake mix. Put mixture into greased cake pan.

In a large bowl, mix cream cheese, almond or vanilla extract, confectioners' sugar, and the remaining 2 eggs. Beat for 3 minutes with an electric mixer set on medium-high speed. Spread over top of the cake mixture.

Bake cake until the top is golden, about 35 to 50 minutes, depending upon the size of your pan. Remove cake from oven and allow to cool. Dust top with confectioners' sugar. Cake will be a bit gooey. Serves 8 to 10.

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