I thought of Rossino’s, a hideaway Italian restaurant in St. Louis’ Central West End the other day. And then today, I saw the obituary for Nina Lee Russo, one of the owners of the secluded yet popular restaurant.
The obituary mentioned the restaurant closed in 2006, when the second generation wanted to retire. But the obituary mentioned some other facts that explained a few things.One of Mrs. Russo’s daughters is Mary Del Pietro. The Del Pietros ran a successful Italian restaurant–and personal family favorite–on South Hampton for 35 years. She retired last summer but her sons and daughters now run seven restaurants in the western reaches of St. Louis County between them.
The Russos’ former partner in the restaurant was Frank Gianino. The Gianino restaurants in south St. Louis County are his immediate family. I took my first two dates ever to the Gianino’s location in Sunset Hills, and we drive past Bill Gianino’s in Oakville every week on the way to church.
But what of Rossino’s?
Rossino’s was an isolated haunt in the basement of an apartment building that was like stepping back in time. I wasn’t surprised to read that it had originally opened in the 1940s, because little seemed to have changed about the place since the middle of the previous century. Inside, it was dimly lit, with walls full of old signs and photographs and any space not occupied by tables was full of antiques. The floor was nicely tiled, and the walls–what you could see of them–were either brick or richly stained hardwood. The best St. Louis Italian restaurants have atmosphere as good as the food, and Rossino’s was a winner on both counts. A restaurant has to do a lot of things right to last 52 years under the same ownership. Rossino’s did that, and it did it in the basement of an apartment building not facing any major street and without advertising. It was the ultimate off-the-beaten-path place. In the 21st century, if you didn’t know someone who knew about it, you would never find it on your own.
I only ever ate there once, because the Central West End is so far from where I live and no matter where you are in St. Louis, the nearest good Italian restaurant is probably closer than the nearest post office. I went with a couple of friends who know the city much better than I ever will, and did they ever get me lost! The food seemed oddly familiar even though I had never been there; now I understand why–the Gianinos and the Del Pietros likely used a lot of the very same recipes. I remember the service being exceptional as well. One of us spilled something, and if the waiter had arrived at the table any faster, he would have intercepted the spill. I literally heard a clank, then a spill, then a deep Lurch-like voice offering a cloth napkin and club soda.
Rossino’s is gone, and now so are all of the original owners, but their legacy lives on all over the suburbs of this city.