St. Louis Standards: Trattoria Marcella Is One of the City’s Most Unmissable Italian Restaurants | Food and Beverage News | St. Louis | St. Louis News and Events | SehndeWeb

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Seen Phong

Siblings Steve, Christine and Jamie Komorek keep the family business running smoothly.

When Jamie and Steve Komorek opened
Trattoria Marcella (3600 Watson Road, 314-352-7706) by 1995 they were insisting on being a different type of Italian restaurant – a more traditional restaurant as opposed to the St. Louis-style Italian restaurants on the Hill that diners in the city had come to associate with the cuisine. To signal this intention, they left a certain dish off the menu that showed how much they cared about staying away from the crowds.

“We didn’t make grilled ravioli,” says Jamie. “We wanted to make Italian more traditional, and grilled ravioli seemed to have been invented by Saint-Louis. It wasn’t until my brother went to Italy to train in the Slow Food program that he learned how truly local everything is in Italy – not just from town to town but from house to house. Everyone can make a certain dish, but everyone’s grandmother does it in a different way. When he realized this and came back, he felt comfortable that we could make hand-grilled ravioli our own way.”

Jamie and Steve, along with their sister, Christine, who joined the restaurant a few years after it opened, have been cooking Italian in their own way since 1995. Back then, when diners were much more grounded in their habits, they were taking a risk by opening Trattoria Marcella as another kind of Italian restaurant, even though they didn’t see it that way. For them, the industry was so ingrained in their bones that they were convinced they had the know-how to make it happen. They had family history to back them up; their mother, Marcella Slay Komorek, was their connection to one of the city’s most iconic restaurant families, with ties to the business dating back to when their first restaurant opened in 1911. The family name had become synonymous with the company, so it was natural that he was part of the Komorek siblings.

Click to enlarge Caramelized cauliflower is one of the restaurant's popular small plates.  -VU PHONG

Seen Phong

Caramelized cauliflower is one of the restaurant’s popular small plates.

However, it was not this family history that gave them the knowledge and experience to open a successful restaurant. Once they were old enough, Christine, Jamie and Steve all worked in the restaurant business, sticking with it through high school and college and continuing to make their own way in the business. For Christine, this led to a job planning events at a Hilton Head Island club; for Steve, that meant a job as a chef in Las Vegas, which he left after a few years to help his cousin, celebrity chef David Slay, open a restaurant in Los Angeles. Steve learned a lot from both places, but after a few years out west he decided he was ready to go home. Jaime came to help him get home, and all that time in the car got them thinking.

“That’s when we came up with our plan to open a restaurant,” says Jamie. “We pulled out a notebook and started writing so many concepts; one was writing while the other was driving, and we were shutting down. We drove straight like this. We had so many concepts in our head – most of them were Italian inclined – and we figured that once we found the right space he would tell us what to do. That was the start of our plan.

The Komorek brothers were sure they had found the right place shortly after returning to town. In the Demun neighborhood of Clayton, a neighborhood market was closing and there was talk of turning it into a food court. The couple fell in love with the building, sketched out plans to turn it into a Mediterranean restaurant, had their liquor license approved by the town of Clayton, and even began investing money in the space. The only problem was that they didn’t have a signed lease, but a gentleman’s agreement with the owner of the building; he suffered a stroke before they could put it all on paper, and the whole thing imploded. This space was divided into Jimmy’s Café on the Park (now Louie) and Sasha’s Wine Bar, while the Komoreks were forced to come up with a plan B.

Click to enlarge The Trattoria Marcella wine cellar offers one of the most comprehensive selections in town.  -VU PHONG

Seen Phong

The Trattoria Marcella wine cellar offers one of the most comprehensive selections in town.

Initially, Jamie and Steve thought they would open on the Hill, but when they came across the Watson Road storefront in the Lindenwood Park area, they thought it was the right fit. Their suspicions were confirmed when they were hit from the start.

“People took to it right away,” says Jamie. “It was like doing a hole-in-one. The first night we did 100 people, and it just took off from there. Then we got our first review of the Riverside Time, and it was shining. We were also Joe Pollack’s last review [in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch], and it was also very good. We were so busy all the time and there was a week of waiting to get in. People loved what we were doing.

Jamie credits a multitude of factors for sparking the Trattoria Marcella spark in St. Louis’ culinary consciousness, but one in particular stands out: the lobster risotto. He laughs when he describes the phenomenon, because it wasn’t even supposed to be a regular menu item. Intended as a one-night-only New Year’s special, the dish received such a warm reception that they decided to keep offering it. It never appeared on the official menu, but lived on as a verbal special and remains the restaurant’s flagship offering.

Click to enlarge Trattoria Marcella has been an important part of the St. Louis restaurant community since 1995. - VU PHONG

Seen Phong

Trattoria Marcella has been an important part of the St. Louis restaurant community since 1995.

The Komorek family understands they can’t stop serving lobster risotto, but they’re also aware of the need to innovate to stay relevant. As the city’s food scene has grown and evolved, so too has Trattoria Marcella. However, the one thing that never wavers is the team’s commitment to hospitality.

“There’s food, there’s service, and then there’s hospitality,” says Jamie. “We excel in hospitality. The kitchen may have a night’s rest, or the service may not be perfect every night or at every table, but hospitality costs us nothing to produce. It’s something that we can give freely — greeting you at the door, thanking you for coming and really meaning it, bending over backwards to make things right when something is wrong. We make people happy, that’s why we have people who have been coming here forever and now their children are coming here. I have celebrated weddings, rehearsal dinners, birthdays and anniversaries with us. You are a part of people’s lives, and it is those relationships that matter .

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