Springfield's three fine-dining Italian restaurants have one thing in common: They want diners to think their nonna is in the kitchen cooking.
"Our food is food from the heart," said Pete Praia, owner of Di Piero's Sicilian Cucina and Palermo's Sicilian Cucina.
Di Piero's, Bella Milano and Saputo's all use recipes handed down through the family.
Saputo's has been pleasing local diners with southern Italian cuisine since 1948.
Mike Coffey Jr., one of the owners, said diners come back to Saputo's over and over again because the menu doesn't change.
"We make it like my grandfather made it. Sauce, meatballs, lasagna, breading on the steak - people expect it to taste the same, and it does. They keep coming back for it. You change one thing and you hear about it."
Consistency brings people back, he said. Saputo's is an old-fashioned candle-on-the-linen-tablecloth restaurant. It is designed for intimate conversation.
Coffey Jr. and other family members eat at Saputo's. It's a sort of family quality control, but it's also because, simply, the food is good and it tastes like grandma made it. He said there are people that want the recipe for the red sauce, but no matter how accurate the recipe is - it wouldn't taste the same. "It takes a couple of hours to make and we make it a couple of times a week," Coffey Jr. said.
The sauce, the lasagna, chicken with peppers and the breaded steak keep Saputo's packed on weeknights and weekends.
"You can see the same people, sitting in the same place in the restaurant, ordering the same thing. It's the most bizarre thing," Coffey Jr. said. "But we've got a wide cross section of people. You can have the speaker of the house at one table, some guy with his kid at another and some guy driving a Harley at the next table."
Praia, whose restaurant DiPiero's is a relative newcomer to the fine-dining Italian restaurant scene, uses ingredients his parents loved in dishes he created to honor their memory.
If a diner orders "di Vito" as a pasta topping, they get ham and peas sautéed in garlic on top of a sauce, something Praia's father liked. If they order di Francesca, they get pasta with herbed garlic butter, pepper and romano cheese.
There are items from his hometown in Sicily around the restaurant. Praia decorated the restaurant and paid attention to the smallest detail. If he didn't like the way the paint looked when the crew was done, they re-painted it. The lights, the decorations and even the tile all go together to make a diner think they are in the Praia kitchen or garden having a bite to eat with the gracious host.
It might be a Praia son cooking the meal, or a daughter seating a diner. It also might be one of them busing a table. Their restaurants are all about family, and diners share an intimate moment with the Praia family with the added bonus of getting really great food.
Diners can walk into Bella Milano, close their eyes, take a deep breath and think they are on The Hill in St. Louis. The restaurant offers contemporary Italian cuisine using recipes from the Guarino family (zealously guarded in a loose-leaf binder in the kitchen), partners and chefs from The Hill in St. Louis and recipes from a former sous chef from Pescare, Italy.
"The sauce is a little sweeter," Sam Guarino explained. "We wanted the menu to feel upscale, but we wanted people to be able to bring their family in and not worry that it wasn't a family dining atmosphere. It's great for a special occasion but also affordable to be able to just stop in and get dinner."
The steak and seafood entrees, paired with lemon and wine sauce, capers and garlic, are very popular.
"We make most of the ingredients here, and we hand-cut our steaks," Guarino said. "We use our family's original meatball recipe."
One of the signature items at Bella Milano is the Milano Salad, but chicken or beef Milano and shrimp rosalino are also popular.
Bella Milano also has a brick pizza oven and diners can watch their sandwiches, calzones or pizza cooking. The pizza dough is made in-house.
Bella Milano general manager Colt Klein said the restaurant has a large group of regulars who come to the restaurant and order the same thing each time.
"We know them," he said with a laugh, "and we know them by the meal they order so we can say 'pasta con broccoli with meatballs.'"
Klein said diners are surprised to find out how much of the food, from the sauces to the breading, are made in-house.
Here are some explanations of some Italian cooking terms. Remember, there are variations in each region on the cuisine.
Di Piero's Sicilian Cucina
Palermo's Sicilian Cucina
Story published Friday, September 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 5 )