USING HIS NOODLE

Pepe Kehm takes a value approach to train diners to come to Dogtown

By Joe Bonwich
St. Louis Post-Disptach
January 16, 2003

For such a big guy, Pepe Kehm is pretty nimble.

Kehm opened a restaurant called Spaghetteria Mama Mia in Dogtown last spring, but the original concept of inexpensive spaghetti and spiedini was quickly skewered by diners and critics for its excessive add-ons and the somewhat unheard-of cost-cutter of not accepting credit cards.

Just a few weeks later, a new version of the restaurant was born, largely retaining the value-pricing, eliminating the practices that caused the perception of nickel-and-diming and adding some higher-end items as specials.

A couple of weeks ago, Kehm sold off Corky's, a restaurant he had run with some success on Manchester Avenue just a bit south of the Spaghetteria location. And with the recent departure of Spaghetteria chef Aaron Ingrassia for Iowa, Kehm himself assumed control in the kitchen, reinforcing his staff with Steve Saffa, a veteran of several restaurants on The Hill, and Mike Alden, formerly of Smith & Slay's.

Spaghetteria continues to evolve even now, with the addition of a "pasta room" featuring pizzas and several fresh daily pastas slated for the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, our impression from a couple of recent visits is that Kehm has hit upon a balance of food, atmosphere and value that's accentuated by Spaghetteria's Dogtown location. The same space, some may remember, was the original home of R.L. Steamers, and Spaghetteria's approach to Italian has parallels to how Steamers built a following for moderately priced seafood.

Kehm's menu follows a modular, fixed-price-per-course approach. Appetizers, divided into "freddi" (cold) and "caldi" (hot), are $5; a choice from 15 spaghetti, three oven-cooked pasta or two risotto entrees is $9; and entrees divided into meat, chicken and fish categories are $11.

Two soups at $3 each and three salads at $4 round out the selections. The wine list, a couple dozen bottles, is also segmented by price: $10, $15, $20, $30 or more than $30 by the bottle, with two or three per category offered by the glass at $3, $4, $5, $7 and $8.

Thus it's quite easy to construct dinner for two with a glass of wine each for less than $40, but with daily options that get as fancy as a beef filet with foie gras and truffles for $18.95, it's also possible to run up a moderately expensive tab.

We alternated among the on menu and special entrees, and found all four of them over the course of two meals to be quite good. The $11 price for the on menu items resulted in excellent values.

Of these, we tried the Tuscan steak, about an eight-ounce ribeye cut with a light coating of breadcrumbs and a cooked-in tang from having been marinated in balsamic vinegar; and chicken saltimbocca, the "dancing in the mouth" preparation, here made with three flatly pounded pieces of chicken breast interspersed with strips of prosciutto and melted Fontina cheese, with both the distinctive sweetness of Sherry and the savory finish of sage in the sauce.

Our specials were a pair of crab-and-lobster canelloni and a halfdozen pistachio-crusted shrimp. For $16.95, we weren't expecting an abundance of the two pricey shellfish, but the meat of a lobster claw peeked out of each pasta tube, and the sauce, pinkish-orange in the restaurant's relatively dim lighting, contained more than enough lump crab meat to ensure that there was some in every bite.

The pistachios on the shelled to the tail shrimp were close to pulverized, resulting in a nutty flavor but less obtrusive texture than if the pistachios had been more coarsely ground.

One of the highlights of the meal was an appetizer that we might consider ordering in double portion for a full meal - a custard of roasted garlic over sauteed fresh, wild mushrooms with a balsamic glaze. This dish was indeed an earthly delight, combining the essential, elemental Italian flavors of garlic, mushrooms and balsamic vinegar into a rich, spoonable custard.

All 12 of the shellfish in the mussels Diablo were plump, and again the $5 dish was elevated to an excellent value by the simple touch of arranging the mussels in a circle around a center of crumbled Italian sausage in a light tomato sauce.

A grilled-and-chilled red pepper, goat cheese and pesto crostini was notable for the Italian-flag appearance of its red, white and green ingredients.

Our desserts ranged from standard - a light zabaglione over strawberries and a dense lemon cupcake - to terrific, with the latter designation going to a tiramisu hybrid that featured a light espresso mousse over an espresso-soaked poundcake, topped by a praline brittle with embedded espresso beans.

We sat in the center of the three connecting storefront dining rooms on both of our visits, with a somewhat cartoonish chalk drawing of classical Italy dominating one wall and glimpses into the kitchen in the rear.

The front room, which simultaneously serves as bar, waiting area and smoking section, has a charming, hand-chalked message from Kehm citing his family's roots at a former neighborhood restaurant called Marietta's, and a serving table at the rear of the first room shows off several of the cold appetizer selections.

It's also all in good fun to hear musical castagnas like "Volare" over the sound system, but not twice within the same half hour or so.

Given the divergence between the fixed-price entrees and the specials, it would have been better to have a visible specials board so as not to have to ask about exact prices, but other than that, service was crisp and efficient, with the amiable Kehm - whose physical appearance is much closer to Yogi Bear than Yogi Berra - visiting each table regularly and providing the added special touch of a handshake and thank-you on the way out the door.

On our second visit, as we stopped to read the ode to Marietta's, he pointed out that the party beneath the sign included "Mama Mia" herself, Kehm's own mother.

So even the sappy name has reasonable cause, although we would have sent out an S.O.S. if the Italian chestnuts on the sound system were on a rotation with ABBA's greatest hits. Kehm, a son of Dogtown, has returned to his roots, and is cultivating a formula that deserves to do well in that neighborhood.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu