By Hope S. Philbrick
Like most people in the world, pasta is one of my all-time favorite foods. Whether it’s stuffed or sauced, boiled or baked, if it’s on the menu I’m eager to try it. So when I was told, during a recent visit to Alton, Illinois, that the town is home to several top-notch Italian eateries, my tummy started rumbling in anticipation of good eats.
Reading the menu that evening, I was surprised to see ‘toasted ravioli’ on the menu. “Do they mean baked?” I asked my host.
“You’ve never had toasted ravioli?” he wondered.
Nope. Never even heard of it.
Toasted ravioli was first popularized in St. Louis, Missouri, just across the river from Alton. Its origins are murky (and it appears just about every restaurateur in St. Louis wants to claim creating it), but my introduction to it proved tasty enough that I plan to dig deeper into that story on some future trip to St. Louis.
In Alton, I tried toasted pasta three times at three different restaurants. Twice it was deep-fried and once it was rolled in bread crumbs and broiled. Either way, the result is a crunchy rather than soft bite that bursts with flavor reminiscent of pizza. It’s a curious, über-regional dish worth seeking out when you’re in the area.
Here’s where to eat toasted ravioli and other regional fare in the Alton area.
Bossanova Restaurant & Lounge
Owner Russ Smith showcases local produce and products on his eclectic menu. He owned the building and as a self-proclaimed “foodie” decided to “go for it” and open a restaurant. Food and drink here is sophisticated with clean layers of flavor. Ingredients are seasonal and local, but recipes are inspired from global cuisine. In the nine years Bossanova has been open, creations like pork wings (meaty deep-friend pork shanks, served with fennel slaw, spicy barbecue sauce and cognac onion apple butter) have drawn avid fans. Smith now plans to also open a brewpub.
Castelli’s Restaurant at 225
This restaurant, now helmed by a brother and sister team that’s the fourth generation of the Castelli family to run it, was first opened in 1937. The family came to the U.S. from Italy, so recipes are authentic Italian (with a local twist, like the toasted ravioli, which is deep fried).
Fast Eddie’s Bon Air
This bar boasts a high-energy atmosphere, outdoor and indoor seating and is famed throughout the region for its cheap eats. Fine dining it’s not, but since this place is strictly 21 and older, it earns our top honors: 21 Plus Salute! You will definitely not encounter any children here (well, at least not children by chronological age. We cannot vouch for patrons’ attitude or maturity level, so mingle at your own risk).
Gentelin’s on Broadway
Chef/Owner Ryan Gentelin is an Alton native who started his culinary career as a dishwasher and worked his way up the ranks to become one of the area’s best chefs. Food here is sophisticated and upscale. The toasted cannelloni is rolled in breadcrumbs for a more delicate crunch. Don’t miss it and dig into whatever else tempts from the menu with confidence it will be superb. Gentelin plans to open a second restaurant, a more casual pizzeria, in 2014.
Grafton Winery & Brewhaus
Any wine writer knows how to fake a smile through the common exclamation, “Oh, there’s a winery in this town!” All 50 states produce wine, but that doesn’t mean it’s all good. Well, Illinois, Grafton Winery does you proud. The family produces a range of styles and flavors, from sweet to dry. My personal favorite here is the crisp Pinot Gris. Whatever style you prefer, odds are you’ll find something to enjoy in this portfolio. What’s even better? The beer brewed downstairs. The whole lineup impresses, especially the Bock Dark. I transported a growler of it home and shared the tasty joy with my friends and neighbors, who seem to appreciate my return home most when I arrive bearing liquid gifts.
My Just Desserts
Housed in the Ryder Building, which is one of 10 spots featured on Alton’s Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail (Abraham Lincoln once did some legal work for the building owner and also delivered a speech here for Whig candidate William Henry Harrison in 1840), this restaurant has been in business for 31 years. It’s open for lunch only (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and serves up generous portions of home-style soups, sandwiches, salads and is especially known for its pies. While the full menu boasts 150 pie recipes, just 35 different options are featured each week (up to 13 each day), with a focus on fresh and seasonal flavors (so you won’t find strawberry in the middle of winter, for example). Apple praline is the best-seller, but whatever you pick, you’ll be glad to have saved room for dessert.
The vibe here is the sort of classic Italian restaurant where you wouldn’t be surprised to see Tony Soprano or Frank Sinatra stroll through the dining room. Generous portions of classic dishes satisfy even the heartiest appetite. Start with toasted ravioli, which is deep fried, and then dig into whatever piques your interest, from pasta to pizza to steaks and more.
-Photos © HSP Media LLC
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.