Thursday, October 20, 2011

Paul Mineo's Trattoria

Westport Plaza
St. Louis (Maryland Heights) Mo.

One of the perks of being a contractor is that though I work at one company, I work for another. My contracting company, my pimps*, handle my actual paycheck, insurance, taxes, etc. The company I actually work at, the one that owns my schedule, my cubicle and the systems I administer, sends my contracting company a single check each month, based on the approved and actual worked hours I put in, no responsibility for deductions or benefits. For this reason I only get a percentage of the amount that I am actually valued at, but my contracting company manages all the paperwork and accounting.  So on my ‘employer’ block on tax forms, I enter my contracting company, even though I’ve only ever been to their offices once, and I don’t even talk with the nice people there very often.
Since the contracting company wants to make sure I’m happy, healthy and comfortable, they take me out to lunch once in a while, three or four times a year.  I work alongside a few other worker-bees from the company but only a very few of us make it to the lunches regularly. Tuesday was special; I was the only one of the small group that could make it.
The two ladies, who I will refer to cryptically as Cori and Haley, were waiting for me when I arrived.
The Place:
Located in Westport Plaza. If you are from the area, that’s all you need to know. It’s a Hotel/restaurant/comedy club/office complex, sleek and modern. It has an open courtyard surrounded by some very good restaurants. Baseball phenom, Albert Pujols’ eponymous eatery is there, as is ‘The Funny Bone’ comedy club.
Paul Mineo is regionally well known based on his father’s long-standing Sicilian restaurant. Paul opened up this large, reasonably upscale establishment in 2007.
The weather was cold, gray, windy and wet. Though the local thermometers said 44, it seemed colder. Not a good sign for the first game of the World Series, which I was told, was occurring downtown later in the day.
The place was tastefully decorated, not really themed, just nice, dark carpet and walls, ensconced dried flowers and tasteful, though forgettable artwork hung on the walls. The large windows on two sides looked out on the courtyard. The tables were kitted with cloth napkins, artfully folded, silverware and heavy stemmed glasses filled with ice water. The menu was a simple single page. This was a lunch menu, so the more upper-scaley dinner items and prices were not available for review.
Both Haley and Cori are quite garrulous, they have to be as they are essentially salespeople. I am comfortable around them though, able to relax and crawl out of my comfortable, quiet shell. Cori had her first child five months back, so all I had to do was inquire as to its well-being and that took care of 80% of the conversation. For some reason, lots of first time moms like to talk about their offspring. I don’t mind this really, as I was a parent of young ones myself as best I recall, and can hold up my half (or less) of the conversation. Unlike when I’m around sports people where, as I mentioned before, I tend to drift off into my own thoughts.
We waited for one more guy to arrive, but after about fifteen minutes decided he would be a no-show.
In the meantime, we’d pretty much made up our minds and treated ourselves to the warm French bread slices that had been served in a wicker basket wrapped in what could have been a cloth diaper. Delivered along with it were several condiment packets of butter/butter-like spreads. They were hard as a rock. The bread was warm, so I scraped the butter out of the little tub and let it warm up on the bread. It never did melt completely. (I hate that.)  The tea was fantastic, perfect. Clear, fresh and a bit on the strong side. In comparison, the tea at Mineo’s was a hardy stout vs. a domestic ‘lite’ beer served by nearly everyone else.
The young man that was charged with refills (and doubled as the fresh-ground-pepper guy)  did a fine job of keeping my glass topped off.
The Food:
I ordered from the non-menu’d specials. Tilapia**, lightly breaded and broiled served in a garlic and herb butter sauce, with a simple pasta on the side and the house salad. Haley ordered the same thing, Cori fancied a dish featuring eggplant along with the soup of the day. I lost interest in her choice at ‘eggplant’. I can no more be objective about dishes that contain eggplant than I can if asked about my favorite Kardashian. Both are so anathematic to me that I have nothing at all nice to say about them regardless of how they are presented.
The bread was excellent, a crispy crust and pillow-soft middle and was quite good in spite of the iceberg of butter that still had not melted completely.
Service was slow for worker-bee lunch. Executives and salespeople might be able to routinely get away with a ninety minute lunch, but those of us that are on a schedule, and only get paid for the actual time we are working, much less so. They serve lunch like they serve dinner, paced, with lag-time between courses.
The salads and soup arrived first. This was a Sicillian/Mediterranean style salad, greens, tomatoes, onions doused in a olive-ish vinaigrette. I had to compare it with Trattoria Giuseppe’s and Poppy’s Ristorante. It was very good, but not quite as good as those other places, the vinegar was a little too pronounced.
We finished those up, Cori oozed lavishly about her soup, something-tortellini and beef stock from what I could tell.
There was another extended wait before the main course arrived, long enough that each of us, while still engaged in conversations about babies and dogs and Haley's constant and complex home improvement projects, could be seen searching the floor for the wait staff.
It was worth waiting for though. The fish was lunch-sized, not too big, very thinly breaded and sitting in a small puddle of herb-y butteriness. To one side was a small serving of penne pasta, (medium length tubes with ridges, cut diagonally at both ends) topped with only a spoonful or so of red sauce and garnished with a thin sprig of some Mediterranean weed or herb. The fish flaked apart perfectly and when tasted with a single lightly-sauced penne, was exquisite. Smooth, tender, buttery with a slight tomato-y kick. Not too much or too little of anything. More tea was poured, more cute baby stories gushed, and before I was aware of it I was full. I’d managed to get through three quarters of the fish before my brain said ‘stop’.
The meal was overall, excellent. The salad dressing was a bit strong, but not to the point of being bad. The service was slow, but I think that was how it was designed to be. The staff was attentive to detail and usually there when needed. The atmosphere was quite nice. As for the price, well, I can’t really speak to that. Haley picked up the tab and I forgot to peek. I do know that from reading the menu that each meal was going to be at least ten to fifteen dollars with drinks, which is not terrible, but it is a bit more than I care to pay for a typical lunch. Casa Gallardo, across the courtyard serves a sub-ten dollar lunch that will have you busting wide open at the gut, and next to it ‘The Trainwreck’ serves a cheddar cheeseburger that will literally explode your arteries for about that much as well. As for dinner prices, I can only imagine.
So if you want a pretty darn good meal, Italian/Sicilian-style, and your pimp is picking up the tab, I strongly recommend Paul Mineo’s.

 From Cori: "I really liked the d├ęcor and ambiance.  I think the food is good for the price. I like that it’s a family owned business too. The service is good, not great."

From Haley:
"I have dined at Mineo’s several times and the food is usually much better than it was this week. I thought the salad dressing was just red wine vinegar and they forgot the olive oil. The tilapia was okay and the service was a little slow. I was not impressed this week."

*Pimp: In this context this is not an insult. It’s just a ground-level, contractor standard term. Contracting companies connect people in their employ with certain skills and talents to companies that are seeking out those very services. The contracting companies take a percentage of the income of those providing the service, you know, like a pimp. (I do not know if they will bail us out of jail.) I mean no disrespect. Of course, to extend the metaphor, if my contracting company is my pimp, then that makes me a . . .

** Tilapia: A freshwater Cichlid, originally found in African lakes. They require warm water (78-82 degrees F.) and thus are only commercially farmed in the U.S. in southern climates. They are omnivores and unlike other fresh water food fish will eat floating vegetation, such as algae, and thus are used as non-competitive pond and lake cleaners. They breed fast and grow fast so they are to edible fish what pine is to lumber.

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