Italian shops meet lofty expectations on the Hill

Cured meats hang at Volpi Deli in St. Louis. Midwestern prosciutto hams are dried on the premises for up to 12 months. Cured meats hang at Volpi Deli in St. Louis. Midwestern prosciutto hams are dried on the premises for up to 12 months. (Karoline boehm goodnick for the boston globe)
By Karoline Boehm Goodnick
Globe Correspondent / December 10, 2008
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ST. LOUIS - Italian-Americans in Providence have Federal Hill. In Monterey, Calif., residents can claim Spaghetti Hill as their own. In the Midwest, Ohioans frequent Brier Hill. But folks in St. Louis keep things simple: it's just the Hill.

Established in the mid-19th century, the Hill attracted Italian miners with claims of good working conditions in the coal and clay mines. Over the years, as the area has become more ethnically diverse, many things remain the same. This neighborhood, near the city's western border, continues to be anchored by St. Ambrose Catholic Church and a slew of restaurants and specialty grocery stores. When pasta, red sauce, and Chianti make up the night's menu, a pilgrimage to the Hill is essential.

Volpi Foods founder John (Giovanni) Volpi began making sausages in America at the dawn of the 20th century. In 2002, his great niece, Lorenza Pasetti, became the third generation to cure, dry, and age what cookbook author and TV personality Michael Chiarello calls "the best domestic artisan salami." Chiarello's Napa Style brand Chianti salami, made by Volpi Foods, is available in the company's retail store, Volpi Deli, on the Hill. Midwestern prosciutto hams are dried on the premises for up to 12 months and sliced to order. If you're looking for the real deal, Volpi also imports true Parma ham.

Just down the street from the Volpi Deli, DiGregorio's is the Italian version of a neighborhood supermarket. Family owned since 1971, three generations of the DiGregorio family are now in the market together; Dora, the 75-year-old matriarch, continues to work six days a week. The deli counter boasts house-made salsiccia, a mild sausage that is still mixed according to founder Salvatore DiGregorio's recipe. Provel cheese, a St. Louis original, is known as pizza topping but also melts well in lasagna or on eggplant Parmesan. Pick up a bag of frozen breaded ravioli, deep fry them like the locals do, sprinkle with Parmesan, and dip in marinara sauce.

DiGregorio's breaded ravioli are better known as toasted ravioli, the stuff of legend in eastern Missouri. Supposedly, a cook working for Charlie Gitto's restaurant dropped a few ravioli into breadcrumbs. Not wanting to throw away the now breaded pasta, he popped them into the fryer. What emerged is an authentic St. Louis treat, served at fine restaurants and backyard fish fries alike. Although there are several outposts owned by the Gitto family, Charlie Jr. says, "Let there be no doubt this baby is credited to Charlie Gitto's 'On the Hill.' "

The brothers at Bertarelli Cutlery, old hands at the craft of knife sharpening, are actually newcomers to the neighborhood. Their father, Felice Bertarelli, a native of a small town in northern Italy famous for its skilled sharpeners, began the business in a garage more than 40 years ago. In 1978, Frank, John, and Bob (later joined by Marco) opened a retail shop, which moved to the Hill in 2003. Today, the brothers are joined by several of their sons, who will return your knife razor sharp for a mere $3. Wüsthof's santoku style knife is their bestseller, but the retail section of the store holds more than sharp blades. You can get anything from tart rings and flexi-molds to Mario Batali's cast-iron offerings.

In case you're tempted, here's a packing tip: Knives do not go in your carry-on suitcase or you'll donate your beautiful new purchase to airport security.

Volpi Deli, 5250 Daggett Ave., St. Louis, 314-446-7950,

DiGregorio Food Products, 5200 Daggett Ave., St. Louis, 314-776-1062, www.digregorio

Charlie Gitto's "On the Hill," 5226 Shaw Ave., St. Louis, 314-772-8898, www.charliegittos .com.

Bertarelli Cutlery, 1927 Marconi Ave., St. Louis, 314-664-4005,

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