In Italy, pasta cooked any way other than al dente is considered inedible. Frying it? That would be sacrilege. But in St. Louis, ravioli that’s both breaded and fried in a vat of bubbling oil is revered.
There are a few foods that hold a special place in the hearts and minds of St. Louis natives – gooey butter cake, ribs and St. Louis-style pizza – but, depending on who you ask, toasted ravioli might be the most iconic food born in the city.
T-rav, as locals call it, has a tender, meat or cheese-filled interior, a crunchy exterior and a generous dusting of Parmesan cheese (think a snowstorm on the East Coast), and is served with a side of tomato sauce.
The word “toasted” is a misnomer – though you’d be forgiven for thinking these fried pockets came out of an oven, as the exterior is far from greasy. According to Lara Evans, the granddaughter of Louis Oldani, who many credit as the inventor of toasted ravioli, he named them as such because he felt that the word toasted was more appealing than the word fried.
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Besides Oldani, there are two others vying for the title of the inventor of this St. Louis classic. While their secretive recipes may vary, their method is roughly the same: make meat- or ricotta-stuffed ravioli from scratch and freeze them. Then dip them in egg, flour and breadcrumbs, and freeze them again. Finally, fry them up immediately before serving.
They may be prepared similarly, but these cholesterol-laden pillows of dough have been the cause of nearly eight decades of metaphorical tomato wars between three local Italian restaurants, as each lays claim to inventing the city’s best-selling appetizer.
The owners of Charlie Gitto’s and Mama’s on the Hill both purchased their restaurants from owners who claimed to have invented toasted ravioli, and are committed to honoring those historical accounts. Both stories are curiously similar: Basically, in the 1940s the purported inventors accidentally dropped their plain raviolis in either breadcrumbs or oil and through subsequent tinkering created toasted ravioli.
The owners of Lombardo’s Restaurant, however, have a different story, claiming to have made t-ravs from a family recipe that had been passed down for generations. The restaurant even has an original restaurant menu hanging on its wall (from 1940, according to the family) that lists toasted ravioli for $1. It seems like this tangible proof would be enough to put the story to bed.
However, the claim to the toasted ravioli throne is still disputed, because, for one, most of those allegedly involved in its creation have long since passed and can’t shed further light on the topic. And secondly, a 1940s menu from Oldani’s (now Mama’s on the Hill) recently surfaced, offering toasted ravioli (and claiming in print to be the originator), adding another wrinkle to the existing dialogue.
The legend of toasted ravioli is a part of St. Louis history that keeps the fabric of the food community together, particularly the city’s famed “Hill” neighborhood, which is rich with old-world sentimentality and some of the city’s longest-running Italian restaurants. It’s the kind of thing people can talk about when they’re in any Italian restaurant in the city – all of which serve t-ravs.
Regardless, St. Louis is grateful to whomever created what Charlie Gitto Jr. likes to call “little pillow pockets from heaven,” and though the true believers care deeply about the recipe’s real author, most of us care more about honoring what’s on our plates. It’s kind of like the speech you give your stomach when you go to an Italian restaurant: There’s room for everyone.
Still, here are the stories from the three restaurants that claim to be the original:
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Original restaurant: Angelo’s
Year toasted ravioli was invented: The 1940s
Inventor: “a cook”
Method: He accidentally dropped a ravioli in breadcrumbs. Instead of throwing it away, he threw it into some oil, then brought it to the bar to test it out.
Charlie Gitto Jr. claims that toasted ravioli were, in fact, invented at Angelo’s, which he purchased in 1981 and turned into Charlie Gitto’s on the Hill. Unfortunately, there is no original menu to assist in this claim, but the talk around town from those who frequented the original Angelo’s back in the day, as well as from food writers and historians who have followed the food feud, has always been favorable toward Gitto.
Gitto still uses the same recipe handed down to him when he bought Angelo’s at all three of his locations.
Mama’s on the Hill
Original restaurant: Oldani’s
Year toasted ravioli was invented: The early 1940s
Inventor: “A chef named Fritz”
Method: He accidentally dropped an order of ravioli into hot oil instead of hot water.
According to the Mama’s on the Hill website, Mickey Garagiola, older brother of Major League Baseball legend Joe Garagiola, was at the bar when the “mistake” was made, and was the first to taste the end result.
Mama’s – now run by its third set of owners – maintains that other restaurants in town soon got wind of the new invention, and started serving their own t-ravs. The claim is bolstered by a recently acquired copy of an Oldani’s menu from the 1940s. On that menu, a lobster tail cost $3.15, and T-ravs were $1.25. The menu also has a notation at the bottom: “Originators of toasted ravioli — try them while sippin’ your favorite cocktail!”
Lara Evans says her grandpa went to a lawyer to get a patent on his recipe, and was told it would be too difficult.
“When my grandpa was 100, we went to a restaurant where they said they invented toasted ravioli,” she says, “and he got upset…even more than 60 years later.”
Year toasted ravioli was invented: Unclear, but they were on the menu by 1940
Original restaurant: Lombardo’s
Inventor: The Lombardo family
Method: The recipe was handed down from earlier generations, and was always made the same way it is today.
The Lombardos started their first restaurant in 1934, and now have four locations. Karen Lombardo remembers being in the kitchen as a kid when her great aunts were making ravioli.
When asked why others would still claim to have invented toasted ravioli, she is kind in her response: “I think with Italian dishes, everyone has their own version of making certain things.”
That’s a gracious way around the question, which proves there’s always room at a St. Louis table for anyone who just wants a good meal.