Review: Limoncello Italian Café in Clayton

What is Limoncello?

a.) A chilled digestif made from lemons macerated in alcohol for about a month.
b.) A brand-spanking-new Italian restaurant in Clayton residing in the space that was previously Shiitake and then Tavern 43.
c.) Dude, you totally misspelled lemon Jell-O.

Um, yeah … it’s not “C,” but for the rest of you, CONGRATULATIONS! The other two answers are correct.

Like its namesake liqueur, Limoncello Italian Café is both traditional and refreshing. The tradition lies with the Buzzetta family, who previously treated St. Louis to Benedetto’s in Frontenac. In fact, many of Benedetto’s most popular dishes made the trek east down Highway 40 to Limoncello where they now grace the menu.

Upon entering the restaurant, it’s refreshing to note that traditional Italian food doesn’t have to be served in an atmosphere befitting the Godfather. The space is sleek and modern with high ceilings, earthy two-toned walls and a wide-open dining room with semiprivate alcoves at the sides and a wall of wine stretching across the back.

Décor aside, however, the real question is, “Can the Buzzetta family cook?” One glance at the “Wall O’ Benedetto’s” left of the bar suggested “yes.” It’s covered in hardware bestowed on Benedetto’s, a veritable cornucopia of best-of plaques for food, wine and service, along with write-ups that span years and sources, highlighting skills that were apparently not left behind.

The namesake liqueur is prominent in the very first dish on the menu, Scallops Limoncello. It lent an understated citrus zest to the lightly breaded scallops – sautéed until just crisp on the outside with portabella mushrooms – that complemented the slightly chewy, sweet bivalve meat well. The shrimp de Jonghe, perfectly sautéed and of good size, seemed a bit outclassed by the sheer volume of sherry-wine tomato sauce on top of them. More substantial than a purée but less chunky than a salsa, the tomato sauce was laced with an undercurrent of heat that never overpowered. Although the dish still worked, the shrimp were cheated, conquered by the sauce. Toasted ravioli met the high standards any true St. Louisan would expect, and though the house bolognese was set up for dipping, the sauce was so meaty it’s better just to spoon it on top.

Blue cheese and Caesar dressings were, surprisingly, a study in finesse. Although the wonderfully stinky cheese and anchovies were certainly present and flavorful, they merely kissed the fresh greens rather than mugging them.

Limoncello jumped on the Filetto Cognac (a filet of beef with portabellas and bell peppers in a Cognac sauce) the same way a ‘roided-up power hitter jumps on a hanging curve and knocks it out of the park. The result was a succulent, tender filet, exactly medium rare, with earthy mushrooms and peppers bathed in a silky brown sauce.

Both pastas, the Linguini Mare and Monte with shrimp, scallops, clams and mussels in a white wine mushroom sauce and Pappardelle Matriciana with sautéed onions, red pepper flakes and proscuitto in a spicy tomato sauce, hit the table nicely al dente. The amount of mussels and other seafood in the linguini genuinely surprised me. It gave the sauce a slightly briny element that set off the mushrooms well and made for excellent bread sopping. The pappardelle (translation: big fat noodle) was true to its menu description and had a nice spicy sauce. Not overly so, mind you, nothing here is TOO much, just a nice heat base to a solid pasta dish.

The fresh fish of the day, lightly breaded baked tilapia, was complemented quite nicely by an oil, butter and garlic sauce with capers. This was a complete dish that made your whole tongue work. It had sweet tilapia meat, a touch of sour citrus, salt from the capers and an umami element from the oil and butter. OK, bitter wasn’t there, but he wasn’t invited to the party anyway.

Most of the service appeared far ahead of what would normally be expected of a brand-new restaurant, but there will still be some bumps. What’s important to note is Limoncello’s ownership and management have a long track record of caring for their customers, along with a reputation for excellent service.