In St. Louis, Finding Family Connections on The Hill

Vitale’s bakery in St. Louis makes 25,000 pizza “shells” a week, turning out the flash-baked crusts on a production line in a sturdy brick building on Marconi Avenue. Many go to local restaurants. But as I toured Vitale’s recently, a guy snuck in the side door, his granddaughter in tow, picked up a sack of shells and ducked out. No big deal: He’s a friend of the family. It all makes sense in this flag-flying Italian neighborhood, simply called The Hill, an ethnic enclave seemingly impervious to change, just a few miles from the Arch.

Traveling the American Road – On The Hill in St. Louis

At the bakery, I met three generations of the family that’s been working here since 1977. Mike Vitale showed me around, as his dad, brother, nephew and another couple employees who aren’t related to him pulled dough out of an enormous mixer, to weigh out, roll and process hamburger buns for baking. They were to be sold that weekend, while the Cardinals were playing three home games against their rivals, the Cubs, thereby cranking up the city’s consumption of burgers. It’s surprisingly artisanal food, hand-made if produced in huge quantities. The farthest the finished rolls will travel is across the Mississippi to Illinois.

Inside the bakery, the smell of yeast hangs heavy. Despite the ovens, it’s not particularly hot but maybe it just feels that way because it’s been so sweltering in St. Louis this summer. There are Cardinals stickers and family photos on various machinery, and one employee was wearing a t-shirt silk-screened with the names of other local businesses that play together on a bocce league.

More proof of the neighborhood’s continued ethnic tilt is Il Pensiero, a bilingual newspaper published twice a month and distributed on The Hill. The publishers surname? Lombardo, a nod to the northern Italian region from which many of the neighborhood’s immigrants came. In front of St. Ambrose, the Romanesque church on Wilson Avenue, a statue memorializes the poverty and hope of the Italians washing up on American shores, even here, more than a thousand miles from the Atlantic.

My cousins have moved into the neighborhood, too, with a deli, Eovaldi’s, named for our great-grandmother. I don’t mention it simply because they’re family: the boys had the best deli in the city in 2010 according to local independent paper The Riverfront Times, which writes:

When your deli is located inside the Oldani Brothers Salami factory, chances are you make a mean Italian sandwich. Sure enough, Eovaldi’s nook-like location on the Hill can pile on the salty cured meats with the best of them–favorites likes Genoa salami, mortadella and coppa are available, as well as the more pedestrian deli meats.

The neighborhood got a two-page spread recently in Feast magazine, a local foodie read, with one local writing in to say “I think no place in St. Louis represents something as unique as The Hill.” Pictured with the story are Rigazzi’s, Milo’s, Missouri Bakery, Il Viviano and Zia’s. Missing is a shot of Volpi’s, a salami house my mother is pretty much always raving about.

New development is breaking the traditional bounds of The Hill. Restaurants are moving beyond the red sauce mold, including Modesto, a tapas spot, that’s landed on St. Louis magazine’s “A-List” of the best places in town. The magazine also gave a nod to Five Bistro, a block west of Rigazzi’s, which won “Best Burger in St. Louis.” Real estate, too, is booming, the surest sign that the neighborhood is still surging. My aunt, mother to my cousins at Eovaldi’s, is downright horrified with the rents people are charging.