Remembering Rossino’s

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.

St. Louis Italian connections

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.

Big-city Italian in St. Louis

But what of Rossino’s?

Rossino’s was an isolated haunt on 206 N. Sarah Street in the Central West End, 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. Its setting looked like what you see in New York or Chicago.

Inside, it was dimly lit, with walls full of old signs and photographs and antiques sharing space with the tables. It had nice tile floors and walls of brick and 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.

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 contributions

Rossino’s had something else in common with the big-city haunts. It was the place the stars hung out. Celebrities and athletes ate at Rossino’s when they were in St. Louis in the middle of the previous century.

Amadeo Fiore opened Melrose Pizzeria in the 1940s, the first pizza joint in the midwest. It changed hands and names, to Parente’s, and then the Russos and Gianinos bought it in 1954, giving it the name Rossino’s that it bore for more than half a century. Nancy Zimmerman and her husband, Tom, bought Rossino’s from her parents in 1963.

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.

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