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A taste of Italy can be found in St. Louis
By Dianne Crown

St. Louis' proximity to Springfield and its long list of first-class cultural and recreational venues make it an ideal weekend destination.

While there, a visit to The Hill offers a nice change of pace and some of the best specialty shopping and Italian cuisine in the metropolitan area.

The 52 square blocks known for the past 75 years as The Hill have a rich and colorful history, according to Joseph DeGregorio, who offers approximately 2,000 guided  tours of The Hill each year. The area has been home to American Indians, French settlers, Germans who worked in the clay mines and brick factories, blacks, and eventually Italians, who also came for the mining work, DeGregorio explains.

These days, the neighborhood is open for a casual stroll through its commercial districts and quiet, tree-lined streets of long, narrow "shotgun" houses tucked behind small, manicured yards, colorful gardens and window boxes.

According to DeGregorio, the center of community and religious life is the Romanesque-style St. Ambrose Catholic Church, completed in 1921 and built to resemble churches in Milan, Italy. Although the church is usually only open during worship services, DeGregorio encourages visitors to phone the church for information about arranging a visit.

From the church, visitors can walk to a variety of specialty shops, markets and restaurants. These include such perennial favorite markets as Viviano's, Volpi's, Digregorio's (cousin to tour guide Joseph) and Urzi's, which feature a wide variety of meats and cheeses, wines, packaged and frozen pastas, cookware and gifts and much more, including Eovaldi's Deli and Catering, which specializes in salsiccia, prepared on site, and made of trim pulled pork without preservatives. According to owner Mike McKay, each week they sell about 500 pounds of the hot and spicy, regular, and tomato and cheese salsiccia at $3.69 per pound.

Shaw's Coffee, Bertarelli Cutlery, Girasole Gifts and Imports, and Silver Bear Jewelry also are a short walk from the church, each offering a selection of specialty items.

For a sweet treat, several bakeries offer a nice selection of pastries, breads and cookies. Missouri Baking Co. sells a mouthwatering selection of cookies by the piece or boxed by the pound, and Vitale's Bakery includes a wide variety of sugar-free cookies as well.

For the sports fan, DeGregorio's tour includes a stroll down Hall of Fame Place in the 5400 block of Elizabeth Avenue featuring the childhood homes of Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola, and the first home purchased by announcer Jack Buck.

The Web site About.com St. Louis also highlights Soccer Hall of Fame Place on The Hill, which honors five residents who "formed the heart of the 1950 U.S. World Cup soccer team that upset top-ranked England 1-0."

An unexpected stop for lunch, drinks, or a game of bocce ball is Milo's Bocce Garden, where bocce ball league play is offered evenings in the courtyard. Lunchtime visitors are welcome to play a round if the court is open.

For those with even more eclectic taste, says DeGregorio, "the little-known factory and display area of SKIF International offers unpatterned knitwear, sweaters, hats, purses and more," which, he adds, has supplied clothing for the movie "The Matrix," and sold to President Clinton's family.

For delicious dining, The Hill offers more than a dozen restaurants which offer northern Italian, southern Italian, and Sicilian cuisine. Fine dining within walking distance may include a visit to Dominic's or Giovanni's. For a different regional experience, the Modesto restaurant serves Spanish cuisine in an upbeat, contemporary ambience and specializes in tapas for evening service.

And just a short drive away on Watson Road at Arsenal is the easy elegance, award-winning cuisine and personal touch of LoRusso's Cucina, where owners Rich and Terri LoRusso, now celebrating 22 years in business, make well- fed guests feel like family.

For a list of these businesses' phone numbers and Web sites, as well as a directory of many other retailers on The Hill, visit www.shopthehill.com.

Tours of The Hill

DeGregorio's tours of The Hill may be scheduled for any size party, take from two to six hours, and may even include a meal stop or cooking demonstration depending on the interests of the group. He also takes visitors inside St. Ambrose Church to see the marble altar, statues, and Romanesque architecture. Rates are $7 per person in a group, or $20 per hour for individuals. Note that transportation is not provided, so plan on driving your own vehicle or walking. Call (314) 602-3359 for more information.

Story published Tuesday, October 28, 2008 ( Volume 3, Number 5 )

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