Confession: I’m fascinated with restaurant makeover shows.
I’ve watched every single episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares in both the British and American series. The British version is way better. Chef Ramsay is still fierce, but softer spoken. He acts more like a mentor. I think the American producers tell him to go bananas on the American series. In contrast to Robert Irvine’s Restaurant Impossible, Ramsay works with the restaurant longer, focuses more on food and service than interior design, and doesn’t rush to complete a giant overhaul on a fixed budget.
Nevertheless, I’ve seen most of the episodes in the earlier seasons of Restaurant Impossible. I’m most fascinated with employee dynamics and how Irvine tweaks the restaurants’ menus. The first ten minutes of the show are the most interesting. Viewers learn about what led to the restaurant’s struggles and Irvine tastes the food. Every once in a while he’ll perk-up and admit that a dish actually tastes pretty good. Most of the time, though, he dramatically gags, heaves, spits out food, and compares food to things like salt and paste. “Could everything on the menu really taste that bad?” I’ve always wondered. Of course, all of the customers rave about the restaurant’s new food when it reopens to diners and media. I’ve also wondered if the new food’s really that good.
As far as I know, the only restaurant Irvine visited within Minnesota, North Dakota, or Iowa was Bronk’s Bar in Lake City, Minnesota. It closed in 2013, less than a year after the makeover. I’ve always wanted to dine at a Kitchen Nightmares or Restaurant Impossible graduate. Imagine our surprise when we learned we dined at one quite by accident.
On a recent date night, we found ourselves near The Hill, a historic Italian neighborhood in St. Louis. There are many Italian restaurants and specialty shops in this district and everyone has their favorites. Sometimes, I run across people online complaining about they don’t feel certain restaurants on The Hill are authentic. While I kind of understand their point about how red sauce and cheese-centric menus may not be authentic to all Italian communities, accusations about food authenticity sometimes bother me.
Moving to a new community means one has to adapt recipes according to what’s available and affordable. We’re all influenced by what our friends and neighbors are enjoying, and by what’s popular and plentiful. The topic of food authenticity remained at the top of my mind during the week. It felt like an uncanny coincidence when I watched Anthony Bourdain and Chef Preeti Mistry of Juhu Beach Club speak about the topic on the Bay Area episode of Parts Unknown. Mistry serves her own take on Indian food. She made the distinction between tradition and authenticity and expressed that when people say her food is not authentic, they’re also saying her experiences aren’t authentic.
So how’d we end up at a Restaurant Impossible alumna, anyway?
Cunetto’s was packed. A friend highly recommended we dine there. When we found ourselves near The Hill, we showed up at 7 p.m. on a Saturday evening and quickly realized it’s like a Northwest Steakhouse on The Hill. Cunetto’s doesn’t accept dinner reservations. Next time we’ll show up at opening. Our GPS led us a few blocks away to Mama’s On the Hill. A Twitter friend recommended a restaurant with “Mama’s” in the name and I thought this was it (she actually said Mama Toscano which is open until 4 p.m.).
Mama’s On The Hill (formerly known as Mama Campisi’s) was busy, too. The inside of the restaurant reminded us of being in someone’s home and tables were filled with couples, families with small children, and birthday parties. We figured we’d wait at most places we visited, so we hunkered down and waited for 30-minutes until a table opened.
There are many toasted ravioli origin stories. Mama’s On The Hill claims their original restaurant invented it. The servers at Mama’s on the Hill (MOTH) lead into this story to sell you their toasted ravioli upon greeting you at the table. When MOTH was featured on Restaurant Impossible, Irvine learned that the kitchen really served a frozen variety. Supposedly, it’s homemade now. We passed due to a fried-food overload the evening before.
I’ve seen the Restaurant Impossible episode and read the review STL Post-Dispatch restaurant critic Ian Froeb wrote shortly after the makeover when we got home (‘Restaurant Impossible’ leaves a mess in Mama Campisi’s Kitchen). Honestly, our meal was pretty good. Was it perfect? No, but it was pleasant.
The menu is Provel-heavy. Dishes that we’re used to enjoying topped with mozzarella are topped with Provel, such as chicken parmesan and manicotti. My eyes widened at the sight of Provel-covered tilapia. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but I’m not ready for that jelly. However, we did learn that we like raw, shredded Provel. There was plenty sprinkled throughout the chopped side salad.
Thankfully, the chicken marsala sauce did not resemble the cheap soy sauce Froeb described encountering in his Post-Dispatch review soon after the make-over two years ago. Jake’s spaghetti and meatballs were fine, but I liked my dish better. My biggest quibble was with the bread basket. After the long wait, we were hungry and wished it contained more than four small slices. We also wanted an excuse to enjoy the flavored olive oil.
In conclusion, we can now check “Dining at a Restaurant Featured in Restaurant Impossible or Kitchen Nightmares” off of our list, even if we dined at one quite by accident. Fortunately, our experience wasn’t a nightmare.
What we really want to know is this: What are your favorite restaurants on The Hill? What dishes shouldn’t we miss? There are so many options and we don’t know where to start. We’d also love to know if you have any experiences dining at a restaurant featured on Ramsay or Irvine’s make-over shows.