5442 Old Hwy 21
Jan16 2009 5:00 PM
We made our reservation a day ahead. We printed out a Google map with directions; Angel’s Tom-Tom couldn’t locate it. According to its proper mailing address this place is in Imperial, though actually it’s in or very near Otto, five miles west of downtown Imperial. Most easily it can be described as near the intersection of Highway M and old Route 21 in Jefferson County.
We almost passed it as it is not a free-standing establishment. It shares strip-mall walls, parking and signage with a tavern, a pizza shop and a body shop supply store.
I was at first baffled. Being as we needed reservations I assumed a bit of high-falutin airs and snootiness, I’d even put on a button down shirt and tucked it into my jeans. Now here we were in a parking lot across the street from a towing service, miles form anything resembling a town.
We entered and found ourselves in a brightly painted green and red entryway. We were greeted and taken directly to our table in the less flashy dining area. There, subdued vertical striped wallpaper, stained wood chair rails and subtle prints of Italian themes adorned the walls. One the prints I didn’t care for and I have never liked. It’s a small poster/ad for the opera ‘Pagliacci’ I believe, depicting a really sad, singing circus clown. I’ve seen the print before and it always depresses me since: A. I don’t like opera, B. I don’t really like clowns, and C. The idea of a sad clown singing opera reminds me of abject depression and possibly insanity and that’s just a little too close to home.
Along one wall was a large mural of a mountainous coastline. I assume it is Italy or Sicily though since I’ve never been there I can’t be sure. It was a nice mural though.
The tables were quaint and covered with a deep green vinyl cloth. The carpet was well worn and a mix of colors that made it virtually unnoticeable. The dining area could hold around fifty people at the most.
Our server, Heather, introduced herself. She, like the ten or fifteen other visible employees was smartly dressed in black slacks, white shirt and black necktie. She took our drink orders, tea, tea, Coke and returned promptly. The tea was crisp and fresh. We were off to a good start.
I ordered the Cannelloni, Angel the ‘Tutto Mare’ and Adam the ‘Chicken Muddiga’.
Each came with a house salad. I didn’t think much about it at the time because I’ve become accustomed to house salads and had limited expectations.
The salads were delivered, lettuce topped with a vinaigrette with a nice sweetness unlike I’d ever had. Also included were a couple of rich olives, not the kind you get in a can, these were dark and full of flavor. There was also a pepper of some sort, a grape tomato and a chunk of artichoke.
I’ve never liked artichoke, so I’ve never actually tried it. I find it pointless to try something I know I won’t like and artichoke is just too strange. It’s been showing up on the Food Network a lot though and I recalled how much work it actually takes to dig out and prepare the sparse edible bits. It reminded me of a crab shack experience in Maryland where they gave us a big bucket of blue crabs, a hammer, some pliers and a ream of napkins and bibs. An eight ounce crab actually only yields about .001 ounces of edible meat. It, like artichoke is a whole lot of work for a tiny morsel. I decided (with Angel glaring at me) to try it. The vinaigrette was so spectacular I figured whatever it touched would have at least that going for it. I have to say I was surprised, it wasn’t disgusting. It wasn’t all that great either. It had the consistency and texture of well prepared calamari, which I don’t care for either. It had no strong distinct taste of its own that I could discern. I seriously can’t figure out what the fuss is about.
The olives were outstanding; Angel and I took Adam’s.
The bread was perfect; crunchy crust and light, moist innards. I dipped mine in light olive oil and pepper and later on the marinara sauce. We cleaned out one basket full and asked for more. By the end of the meal we had a few slices left over which we boxed and took with us. The next morning I turned it into some of the best French toast I’ve ever made.
There was a wait for the main course. If this had been a fast-food place or a chain restaurant I would have been annoyed, but here, where I could tell the food was made to order rather than in batches, it was not bad at all. (See ‘Ambiance’ below).
All the tables were filled with casual couples and families and the ample wait staff scurried around with orders, baskets of bread and drink refills. My tea glass never dropped below half full the entire evening. We watched orders being delivered and realized that we were in a real live, fine dining establishment. Everything looked good, smelled good and felt good.
The main courses arrived. My cannelloni came, two inch-round tubes of pasta injected with a seasoned Italian beef puree covered in cheese and a unique and bright marinara. There was nothing about it to dislike. The pasta was done to perfection. (I appreciate how hard it is to get large pasta consistently done from one end to the other.) The beef filling was subtle, yet savory, the sauce and cheese so delightful I wanted to strip to my knickers and go swimming in it.
Angel’s Tutto Mare contained no horse meat as I had assumed it would. It turns out that ‘Tutto Mare’ translates to ‘All Sea’. It was a bed of linguini covered with shrimp, mussels, clams, mushrooms, tomatoes and covered with a cream sauce. The smell was luscious though I didn’t actually try it because it contained mussels and clams. Angel picked all the sea-bits out occasionally sucking down a heavy noodle or two. There were no sea creatures left by the end of the meal, but there was a fair pile of pasta left, we took that home as well.
Adam’s Chicken Muddiga was more than he had imagined. The chicken was prepared well enough, Mudigga style (breaded) and covered with the promised prosciutto bits (a sort of thin ham resembling bacon) and melted cheese. What he did not expect were the mushrooms. That pretty much took away his appetite for it. He did some scrapping and examined every subsequent morsel for errant mushroom debris. I tasted it and can say with some authority that there were a few too many mushrooms for my taste as well. Other than that it was pretty and otherwise quite tasty.
We were more than quite satisfied with the meal, that is until Heather brought the dessert tray around. We looked at each other and succumbed to temptation. Cheesecake is terribly hard to resist.
Then an odd thing happened; a young man in a nice suit walked in with a music stand. He sat it on the floor at the entrance to the dining room and unveiled a violin and bow. He then tucked the instrument under his chin and made music with it. He played softly and pleasantly, the tune we barely made out was not a classical piece, nor was it Italian as we expected it would be when he started. We finally figured out what it was and we had to laugh. He was playing Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds”. Okay, interesting choice, but still quite pleasing.
By this time we had become accustomed to the pleasantly unexpected.
Somewhere between the salad and the main course a man stepped out of the kitchen and went from table to table. When he came to ours he introduced himself as Giuseppe, the owner and chef. A very pleasant, modest, yet confident man, he smiled easily and seemed to enjoy the conversations as much as the patrons did. When I asked him about the sweetness in the salad dressing he simply smiled broadly and answered, in a distinct accent, “That is my recipe. I get it from my mother.” I didn’t drill him on it any further. He seemed genuinely delighted that I liked it and that was enough for me.
As we finished desert, our bellies full to the point of aching, we did not want to leave. This has rarely if ever happened in a restaurant. Usually we’re not lingerers at all. Eat, get the check and go, that’s us. But we were really, really enjoying this place unlike any other we have ever, ever, and I mean this, ever been. The warmth, the friendliness, the hum of a house full of satisfied diners, magnificent food, a personal greeting by the proprietor / chef, and his wife, and did I mention a guy playing soft pop on a freaking violin!
Simply unbelievable. This is the full package. In an unexpected place, in a light industrial area five miles from the closest town or interstate on-ramp, nowhere near a Walmart, bank, or big box store. Not even a convenience store or gas station in sight. There stands in an inconspicuous strip mall on a road used pretty much only by the locals, the single best all around dining experience I can imagine. The price? Sixty five dollars plus tip.
That is sixty five dollars including dessert. Frequent readers and fans of this site will recall that we spent that much at Ruby Tuesday’s last week, without dessert, without meeting the chef, without having such exceptional food and service and without a guy playing 80’s hits on a real live violin. There’s a long list of places that you can spend sixty five dollars for three adults, but no place I know where you get this much pleasure for anywhere near that amount.
We will go back, definitely, we are already recommending it to everyone that will listen.
About Imperial, MO.
“Imperial, MO, contains one of the most important archaeological sites in Missouri - the site where archaeologists first discovered a stone weapon with the bones of American mastodons. This was the first solid evidence of the coexistence of humans and mastodons in eastern North America.”
( www.slfp.com/Mastodon.htm )