Can you fix a restaurant in two days?
No. Next question.
Still, Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible” persists in dangling the myth of the miraculous sudden turnaround in front of desperate restaurateurs like a 24-karat carrot that will surely follow the stick of nationally televised humiliation.
Host Robert Irvine, the muscle-bound British chef who survived a résumé-fudging scandal that probably would have ended his career in a medium with higher standards than food television, strolls into your restaurant, John Wayne with a tasting spoon. Tears are shed. Dishes are tweaked. The credits roll.
And so it happened with Hill institution Mama Campisi’s — or, rather, as it’s known now that the Campisi family is no longer involved with the restaurant, Mama’s on the Hill. Current owners Andrea and Lance Ervin invited “Restaurant Impossible” to their establishment in June to help with problems both culinary and financial. The episode aired late last month.
Tears were shed. Dishes were tweaked. The credits rolled.
Well, let’s begin with the toasted ravioli ($7.99), the St. Louis classic that might have been invented at Mama’s in the ’40s, when the restaurant was called Oldani’s — and that Irvine lambasted for being a premade and frozen product.
Irvine wanted Mama’s to make its t-ravs from scratch. Do they? If so, I can’t tell. This isn’t a complaint. They deliver exactly what you expect from toasted ravioli, a crisp exterior and a vaguely beeflike filling with the consistency of paste. The marinara sauce that accompanied the t-ravs, however, is far too sweet.
The toasted ravioli certainly fared better than the other appetizers I tried. Crab-stuffed mushrooms ($8.95), drowned in a thick, blandly tangy cheese sauce, registered only a vague and unpleasantly metallic crab flavor. Fried calamari ($9.95) were chewy and sat on a carpet of crumbled breading, as if my order had been scooped out of the bottom corners of the fry basket.
To the menu’s long list of entrees, Irvine added a new and, for an old-school Hill joint, edgy dish: rabbit bolognese ($16.95). Do you love the taste of rabbit meat completely unadulterated by any other flavor, including salt? Then this is the dish for you. Oh, sure, your plate will be piled high with linguine that has been tossed with red onion and something green (I think; there was only a couple wilted pieces of it) as well as rabbit, but all you’ll taste is bunny.
Irvine would have been better served drilling the Mama’s staff in a very simple lesson: A classic red-sauce, white-sauce spot doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, but it must nail such well-worn pleasures as veal parmigiana ($18.95) and chicken marsala ($16.25).
The rabbit I could excuse as a failed experiment. The veal and the chicken made me angry.
The veal itself was tough and insipidly flavored. Its breading hadn’t properly crisped and thus turned to mush under its thick cap of melted Provel and Parmesan cheese. The sauce, again, was too sweet.
At least the chicken in the chicken marsala showed traces of a cook who cared. Its surface was an attractive golden-brown, its meat juicy. Too bad it sat in a pool of sauce that tasted like cheap soy sauce. Chicken spedini ($18.25), a “signature dish,” is remarkably flavorless considering that the kitchen stuffs a large boneless breast with green onion, mushroom, roma tomato, prosciutto and Provel and serves this in a sauce of white wine, lemon and butter.
You might have noticed that Mama’s entree prices aren’t cheap. (Many dishes are less expensive at lunch, though.) The seafood linguine ($17.95) at least promises upscale ingredients: shrimp and scallop tossed in a lobster-crab cream sauce. Or so claims the menu. That sauce was a hot, creamy nothing, lacking even an iota of lobster or crab flavor. The shrimp were OK, but if the bland scallops hadn’t been plucked out of the freezer, then the kitchen might as well go ahead and save money by ordering them frozen.
Robert Irvine skates free from this mess. I can hardly blame him. As long as restaurateurs believe in the dubious power of reality television to boost the bottom line, he would be stupid not to make a career out of stringing along the starry-eyed.
His new Food Network series, "Restaurant Express," in which “aspiring” restaurateurs compete by creating new restaurants from scratch each week, airs at 8 p.m. Sundays.
Where Mama’s on the Hill, 2132 Edwards Street • One-half star out of four • More info 314-776-3100; mamasonthehill.com • Menu Italian-American dishes in the St. Louis style • Hours Lunch and dinner daily