On the recommendation of my aunt, I went to Filomena’s not 100% sure what to expect. My suspicions began when we approached the store, located across from a gas station and an isolated, outlandish corner. A huge banner hung from the outer wall: “Voted Best Inexpensive Italian by The Riverfront Times“!
I swung open the glass door. In the corner was a mother with her child, enjoying a Lady and the Tramp-like feast of spaghetti and bread sticks. While we looked over the menu, my eyes wandered over to another side of the wall: “St. Louis’ Most Underrated Italian Restaurant.” The words “underrated” and “inexpensive” spun a web of doubt, even though I know “underrated” should be a good thing… but the location! The banner! The word choice!
On the persistence of my mother, I asked the only guy at store front, “What would you recommend?” He was tall and kind of pale, with a mouse-like face and bright eyes.
“Well, I’ve been a big fan of the seafood risotto lately,” he said. “I’ve been on a craze, you could say. But all of the menu is a recommendation,” he added on the last part with an assuring smile. “Our signature dish is the arancini.” More on that dish later.
After we ordered, I watched him walk over to the corner table and ask if everything was okay.
“Did you like the food?” the white mother asked the dark, curly-haired child.
“Yeah,” he said nonchalantly, in a way that kids do– not yet able to express themselves in the way they want, a little shy and honest.
“Then everything was good,” the mother beamed to the man. A parent’s happiness really becomes the child’s, huh.
“Did you take those pictures on the wall?”
“Those would be my wife.”
“Ah. They look good. I noticed them when I walked in, but they looked nicer than photographs at usual places,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t misinterpret my compliment.
“Well thank you, I’ll be sure to tell my wife that,” he responded happily.
“Were those taken in Italy?”
“Yes, all of them. My wife’s family still lives there.”
“I see. I really want to go there! You’ve been to Rome as well then? (“Yes– it’s beautiful there, everything’s beautiful.”) I’ve always wondered about the food there– is it different than here?”
He gave a solemn nod. “Yes, it’s very different. The ones you find in American– let me rephrase.” His eyes averted for a moment, before continuing, “Something happened to the Italian food in St. Louis. A lot of the food you find here is very sweet, like they added sugar–”
My father mumbled, “Just like Chinese food.” Amen, brother, amen.
“In Italy, you won’t find that at all.”
“Not at all?”
“No, and the flavors. Well, we tried to replicate the taste of my mother-in-law’s cooking…” I wondered if he was regurgitating a company description. “… the taste she grew up on. We use the ingredients that are available to us here (he emphasized the “here” with a circular hand gesture) and use fresh herbs and meats, to make it more authentic.”
I later found out his name was Ken and the place was named after his wife. He used to sell hospital parts to Carle Hospital in Urbana-Champaign. What he brought to the table: 4 arancini, two spaghetti with meat sauce and two meatballs, a seafood risotto and an Italian beef sandwich. Our entrees came in a plastic, rectangular tray (like common to-go boxes) and our appetizer was in a paper hot-dog tray.
I took a bite of the spaghetti and was pleasantly surprised. The spaghetti relied on the boldness of natural flavor from tomatoes and herbs; the sauce was true to Ken’s description in that it wasn’t sweet at all (at least compared to all the other Italian places I’ve been to). If my pasta had been cooked just a little bit longer, it would’ve been perfect. The handmade meatballs were loosely pact, but still enjoyable. The seafood risotto didn’t have the sometimes overwhelming fishy taste. I didn’t have the beef sandwich, but from just looking at it I could see the bread’s outer crustiness– a crunch that must go nice with the layer of meat. Dad didn’t even use the dipping sauce (!!) for the majority of the meal until Mom and I urged him to.
“Would you like some bread sticks with your meal? Is everything tasting alright?”
“I think we’re good. Everything’s great, thank you.”
“You weren’t lyin’ about the sauce, it tastes great.”
“Excellent! Thank you, I’m happy to hear that.” Mom later told me I had spaghetti sauce all around my lips. I looked into the glass reflection and wiped my mouth in embarrassment.
My favorite was the arancini, a risotto croquette made from scratch, “flash fried with a melted cheese center, served with… marinara sauce.” Ours was served hot n’ fresh. I took a bite into the crisp outer layer; on the inside was the most heavenly combination of rice and cheese; the filling oozed out in a creamy blend. It was my first encounter with the Italian onigiri and I was hooked.
“Expect us to be back,” I told Ken after I got a refill of Mountain Dew.
“Good, I’m glad to hear that. Thank you for dropping in all the way here.”
“Thank you for stop selling hospital parts and opening this restaurant,” I said rather awkwardly. But he laughed nonetheless, and I walked out of the restaurant feeling like a valued customer.
Based on this experience:
★★★★ out of 5
$ range: cut-rate | fair | pricey
Portion size: petite | just enough | generous
Tip: Get those balls! And don’t just get 4– get 10. In fact, just order 10 and then another 10 to-go.