The Hill: Food, history, charm, calories

Little did Italian immigrants know that the area they settled in, now known affectionately as The Hill, would become a St. Louis landmark and familiar to people across the country. Years ago, when the immigrants settled in, nothing more than a simple mining region existed. In the years that followed they built a church, opened stores and restaurants and even helped a local boy named Yogi Berra break into baseball.

Today The Hill is a section known for its traditional bakeries, specialty grocery stores, first-rate restaurants, shotgun houses and red, white and green fire hydrants. A fun and exciting day can be had exploring The Hill. A day filled with interesting people, a little history and a lot of calories.

Any tour of The Hill should begin with a visit to one of the bakeries. Two establishments stand above the rest, Vitale’s and Missouri Bakery. Vitale’s bakery has been a staple of sweet goodies and fresh bread for more than 25 years. Located at 2130-32 Marconi, owner and founder Peter Vitale has spent 40 years in the bakery business and works diligently to make sure that all his products taste as good as they look. When you stop in, try a lemon ice or a ricotta puff. Ricotta puffs are the shape of a jelly doughnut but filled with the same filling as cannolis. They’re delicious, as are the Christmas cookies, which make wonderful gifts at the holiday season.

In 1926, when Missouri Bakery opened its doors at 2027 Edwards, the Gambaro family could scarcely have known that their business would become one of the hottest, busiest spots. The bakery specializes in all sorts of bread, cookies, pies and just about any other pastry a sweet tooth would require.

Pasquele Gambaro, the founder’s son, has been behind the counter since the beginning and can still be found today talking with any customer who walks through the doors. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, he might even give a little baking advice. His days of getting up at 3 a.m. to make bread are in the past, but he still enjoys making Danish rolls because, as he puts it, “I like to eat them.”

The next stop needs to be at one of the many family-owned grocery stores. The first one that comes to mind is DiGregorio’s Imported Foods at 5200 Daggett. Opened in 1972 by Salvatore DiGregorio and his family, the store offers all the necessities to make any Italian meal complete and delectable. The aisles are filled with pasta, wines, olive oils and a variety of specialty Italian merchandise. One of the most striking parts of the store is the huge deli-where the imported meats and cheeses line the cases. DiGregorio’s also makes fresh sausage every day. Stop by, and don’t forget to say hello to Mrs. DiGregorio, who still works the cash register.

If shopping at DiGregorio’s makes you hungry, head down the street to Amighetti’s for a sandwich-and they don’t come in small sizes. Amighetti’s specializes in sandwiches topped with a variety of meats, cheeses and all the other essentials. The Amighetti special consists of ham, roast beef, salami, brick cheese, peppericini and special dressing. A menu of pastas and salads is also available. Be careful, you might just fall in love with their fresh-baked bread. If that’s the case, just follow your nose around the corner: Amighetti’s sells fresh bread next door.

Up for a game of bocce? Cross the street to Milo’s Bocce Garden. A full restaurant and bar, Milo’s opened 27 years ago. The bocce garden opened 12 years ago with leagues playing Monday through Thursday, but on the weekend the garden is open to professional and novice bocce athletes. When you stop in, try the specialty of the house: a patty salsiccia sandwich covered in provel cheese, onions and green peppers. Salsiccia is an Italian sausage, and Milo’s sandwich is an Italian delight.

The next stop on the itinerary is Volpi Salumoria for some fresh salsiccia to take home. Volpi, a family business since 1902, is located at 5250-58 Daggett. All your salsiccia, salami and pepperoni needs can be fulfilled. The store also sells cheeses, olive oil and other goodies. Patrons can also order the store’s products from their Website at Schnucks does sell Volpi products, but there is just something about buying from the place where they make it-somehow it tastes better.

Hungry for lunch or an early dinner? Head down to Rigazzi’s restaurant at 4945 Daggett Ave. The home of the fishbowls recovered from a fire in early 2000 to reopen, offering the same great food at reasonable prices. For those who are not familiar with fishbowls, they are huge, globular glasses filled with your favorite beverage. All the Italian favorites, spaghetti and meatballs to pizzas, are served quickly and abundantly.

Even though a lot of shopping is behind us, you still might need a few more items for those big holiday feasts. To accomplish this, travel to John Viviano and Sons at 5139 Shaw. The store offers so many Italian delicacies that just looking at the variety could take hours. If that doesn’t keep you in there, then the smell will. Viviano’s has been in business for 50 years and is considered a benchmark for lovers of Italian food.

Next, walk over to St. Ambrose church located at 5130 Wilson. The original St. Ambrose church was built in 1903 but burned in 1921. It took five years for the community to build a new St. Ambrose church, but the wait was well worth it. The beautiful church stands as a center for the strong community. The statue of the Italian immigrants in front of the church is a noble reminder of the heritage of the area. The adjoining St. Ambrose grade school opened in 1915. If you need to work off some of the calories, then Berra Park is the place to go. Located along Macklind, Daggett, Lilly and Shaw, the park offers the opportunity for a walk or even a game of soccer or baseball.

After working up a sweat and redeveloping your appetite, it’s time to fill up again. There are so many choices for dinner on The Hill that picking one place may seem daunting. Some of the best restaurants line the streets, including Cunetto’s House of Pasta, Charlie Gitto’s on The Hill, Giovanni’s and Zia’s. Charlie Gitto’s and Giovanni’s run on the fancier side and boast a higher price list, while Zia’s offers a more affordable dinning experience. Feel free to explore some of the many other restaurants. You might just discover a new favorite.

The Hill is a wonderful place, filled with fascinating spots that deserve more than one visit. Most of the stores are crowded on Saturday and closed on Sunday. The stores and restaurants work to make every visit memorable. When asked what makes The Hill so special, all the stores replied in approximately the same manner: the people. You can be sure that you will be treated well on The Hill, whether it’s your first visit or your hundredth. They are proud of their heritage, their traditions and their ambiance. And anyone who has ever visited The Hill knows why.