One of the first places that was recommended to me by the friend who made me wise unto Restaurant-dot-com is an Italian restaurant in "the Hill" neighborhood of St. Louis South. Its name is Mama Campisi's, and its location is the corner of Bischoff Ave. and Edwards St., a few blocks north of Southwest Ave. and about as far west of Kingshighway.
It's not far from where I live, but I had been frustrated in finding it until now, even with the aid of a map, due to the prevalence of one-way streets and tricky intersections in that neighborhood. I finally had an evening to try again, when no other engagement pressed and when conditions were favorable to squinting at street signs. On this occasion it didn't seem at all hard to find.
Mama Campisi's is an attractive establishment with a respectable menu of Italian cuisine. I had to buy a minimum of $35 worth of food to use my $25 gift certificate, and at the prices on their menu that left few choices for a single man. I ended up ordering a Diet Coke (because the menu gave no sign of beer being available), a small appetizer sampler, a house salad, seafood linguine, and a cannolo for dessert.
How shall I grade Mama Campisi's? Well, let's start with the positives.
First, the complimentary basket of bread was served in an excellent manner. Two of my pet peeves, where Italian restaurants are concerned, are frozen pats of butter and dishes of plain olive oil, neither of which has any use as a dressing for warm bread. Mama Campisi's overcame both of these problems by serving both soft, room-temperature pats of butter (individually wrapped in foil paper) and a dish of olive oil filled with bits of crushed garlic - plus another dish heaped with grated parmesan cheese. I tried the bread with both dressings, with and without the cheese, and was totally pleased. The bread itself was warm and soft, though not fresh-baked; I could tell by one or two cool spots that it had been re-warmed somehow. It was reasonably crusty around the edges, and dotted with some toasted sesame seeds to give the taste buds an extra thrill.
Then, the "small" appetizer platter was huge. Most of it consisted of enough fried calamari for a family of four. It was good calamari, though, with nice thick hunks lightly breaded, fried to just the right crispness, and sprinkled with a tasteful amount of lemon juice. The flavor and consistency were good. Next to that were three good-sized portions of crab-stuffed mushrooms, piping hot and covered in a white saunce, and four or five plump, delicious pieces of toasted ravioli. Both were among the best of their kind that I have had in St. Louis. And the house salad was also very, very nice.
Alas, that's about all that I can say to the credit of Mama Campisi's.
The seafood linguine had a good texture, but very little flavor. The large prawns and scallops, arranged around the pasta in its sauce, were so bland that I was glad of the garlicky olive oil left over from the bread. There was very little clam and lobster meat to be found in the sauce, apart from a somewhat gruesome portion of lobster shell (including the front pincers) that surged upward from the center of the plate, a garnish that rattled my nerves until I gathered enough courage to remove it from my sight.
The cannolo was also disappointing. Smaller than I expected, ridiculously dwarfed by its ornate plating, it fell short of my flavor expectations. I really could have done without the halves of maraschino cherry that decorated it at each end.
And finally, the service was just plain lousy. I felt like I had sat for ages before my waiter even came to take my drink order. By then I was ready to order everything, right down to the cannolo. When I unrolled my linen napkin, I found a filthy bread knife inside and had to send for a replacement. I had already gone through two glasses of water, the bread and appetizer courses, and was working on my salad before my waiter brought my Diet Coke - and then only because I reminded him. I was fiddling boredly with my pasta for a long time before he offered to box up my leftovers and bring out my dessert. And though I was ready to pay the very minute he brought my check, I had to wait so long for him to come back for my credit card that I actually despaired, and resorted to walking out into the front room where the rest of the wait staff was already washing tables and stacking chairs. Even then it took several minutes for the hint to reach my waiter, by which time I wondered whether he meant to lock me in when the building closed.
Don't worry. I'm not such a jerk that I gave my waiter a poor tip. In fact, I tipped him unusually well, and that's based on the full bill before the gift certificate was taken off. For I have made up my mind that giving a bad tip answers to no useful purpose. Tipping poorly is merely bad social behavior. It is likely to offend the waiter, but in such a way that he can justify himself and blame me. So I have decided that, when a waiter's bad service really irks me, I should give him a really generous tip -- and never go back to that restaurant again. That should have an instructive result, I think: he will remember me with regret, and have no one but himself to blame.
The wait staff was kind enough to provide to-go boxes for my leftover calamari and seafood pasta. I politely took them with me and threw them in a public trash can out of their sight. I'm OK with risking food poisoning by saving and reheating really good Italian food; but this stuff wasn't up to that level.