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New York is famous for its hotdogs. Chicago has its deep dish pizza. And St. Louis is known for its toasted ravioli — ravioli that’s covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried.
Here & Now host Jeremy Hobson visits Villa Farotto to taste the regional dish.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, Robin, we asked people yesterday to write us, to tell us what they thought, what they liked, what they didn't like about the show.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
And we learned be careful what you asked for.
YOUNG: We know we heard from so many people. Thank you so much. We really appreciate hearing from listeners especially new listeners with our new launch, so thank you very much. However...
HOBSON: Absolutely. And one listener did write in, named John Bell(ph) in St. Louis, Missouri. He wrote the following: I have heard the expression that the Midwest is flyover country. You mentioned the names of several different cities that are now receiving your program, but nothing was said about St. Louis.
HOBSON: Well, John, first of all, I should say that I am from flyover country, so I would never call it that.
YOUNG: That's right. Where are you from?
HOBSON: I am from Champaign-Urbana, in the middle of Illinois.
YOUNG: So it's fly-to country.
HOBSON: It is fly-to country and usually with a stopover somewhere and so.
YOUNG: Right. Not a lot of connections.
YOUNG: But not only that, John Bell in St. Louis, Missouri, Jeremy was just there, drawn by a ravioli.
HOBSON: I was just in St. Louis. And, you know, Robin, New York is famous for its bagels and hotdogs. Chicago is well-known for its deep dish pizza. All of which are delicious. But St. Louis, it turns out, is famous for its toasted ravioli. So I stopped by the kitchen of Villa Farotto in Chesterfield, Missouri, just west of St. Louis, and met up with Aaron Bruschi who is the sous-chef there.
AARON BRUSCHI: A lot of times, when you think of St. Louis, you think of the Arch, you think of the Cardinals and then you think of toasted ravioli. I mean, it's a staple for the St. Louis area.
HOBSON: How did that happen?
BRUSCHI: There's a lot of different myths about toasted ravioli and how they came about, but they were invented here. And I mean, I think people just - they like meat, they like aged cheese, and we have marinara sauce that goes with them a lot of times. And I think people just like that.
HOBSON: OK. So explain exactly what it is because, I mean, if people that are hearing this that have never had a toasted ravioli before might think that you just take a ravioli and put it in the toaster. That is not what happens in this case.
BRUSCHI: Oh, no, definitely not. They are ravioli in essence. We take ground sirloin and aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, kind of mix it together with a few herbs and spices. And we take pasta that's fresh - it's semolina pasta - take the flat sheets and fill them with the meat filling. That's the basic of a ravioli, and then they're lightly breaded and then thrown into a fryer. They're deep fried.
HOBSON: Can it be any meat on the inside or what's typical?
BRUSCHI: You mostly see ground sirloin. Sometimes you see cheese raviolis, but that's not really the traditional St. Louis way. The traditional St. Louis way is the ground beef.
HOBSON: Now, what we're looking right here is a plate with a circle of these toasted raviolis with some Parmesan cheese on them and Marinara sauce in the middle.
BRUSCHI: Correct. After they're fried, they're taken out of the fryer. And we lightly hit them with a little garlic butter to enhance their flavor and then a little bit more of the aged Parmigiano-Reggiano right on top, which we then melt down just a little bit and serve to you piping hot.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)
HOBSON: So this is what you would do with raviolis. You just throw them right in the fryer?
BRUSCHI: Correct. They got right in the fryer at 350 degrees, and then they fry for about five minutes.
HOBSON: Is it different than doing potatoes or something else? I mean, do you have to watch them in a different way?
BRUSCHI: They do have a light breading on the outside, so, I mean, they're going to brown up a little bit quicker. So they do have to be watched. You don't want to have them explode either. The inside becomes like so hot that it actually expands the pillow of the ravioli and then sometimes it can - the meat and cheese can push out.
HOBSON: They're a lot more delicate than a French fry?
BRUSCHI: Correct. I mean, French fries, you can just kind of toss in and wait and pull them up and slam them around. You don't want to knock all the breading off the toasted ravioli, so you need to take care with them.
HOBSON: And then are you just shredding cheese while you're doing that?
BRUSCHI: Ah, shredding cheese, yeah. Actually, a lot of times we have it pre-grated so it's already ready.
HOBSON: Do you ever make toasted ravioli at home when you don't have all these equipment in front of you?
BRUSCHI: Honestly, I don't. I don't like the big mess because, I mean, you're going to make fresh pasta, do the whole thing, you know.
HOBSON: It's really a treat that you have to go out for.
BRUSCHI: Exactly. You definitely need to have - let someone else do all that work, don't make the big mess at home and just - and you got to go out. I mean, with the deep fryer and everything, I mean, I know some people have countertop ones nowadays, but it's a big mess.
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL RATTLING)
HOBSON: All right. I'm going to try it while it's still piping hot here. I want to try one of these guys. All right. Hmm. The toasted part of the toasted ravioli makes it, I feel like.
BRUSCHI: That's definitely - I mean, that's the big thing about them, it's that it's not just your regular ravioli, which is a little bit boiled or, you know, slimy almost. It's nice and crunchy. It has a good bite to it.
HOBSON: And it's not just like a mozzarella stick or something like that. It's very different.
BRUSCHI: Oh, no. Absolutely not. Mozzarella stick is, I mean, you know, it's stringy. It's gooey. This has, you know, got a nice good bite to it, like I said, and then filled with all that meat and cheese, and it's definitely delicious.
HOBSON: Do you find yourself having to explain to out-of-towners what exactly toasted ravioli is?
BRUSCHI: Once in a while, there's people that have never seen it. But I think, nowadays, it's becoming a little bit more popular. It's reaching out to the East and West Coast, and people kind of have an idea what those are.
HOBSON: What would you say is so great about them? I mean, why have they remained a staple in St. Louis for all these years? And it looks like, from the history, it's been many decades?
BRUSCHI: I think that there - you know, they're something that kids love especially, and that's one big thing that I noticed. There a lot of kids won't eat a lot of things, but they'll eat toasted raviolis for whatever reason. Maybe it's all the cheese and the meat and, you know, you're getting the little pastas. You're getting a little bit of nutrition in there, too, and parents love them for that reason because kids really eat them. And they're also just like a good grab-and-go type thing, and they stay good for a long time. I mean, you can make these and they'll hold up, sitting around for a party or something like that. People use them all the time. I mean, it's one of our biggest catering items as well.
HOBSON: Yeah, because they're a little more downscale than what you might get in an Italian restaurant. You could put these out of the baseball game, and they would fit in just as much as they would on a red and white tablecloth.
BRUSCHI: Oh, absolutely. I mean, they're a very versatile food. So, I mean, yeah, you could see them at a park or a fair or at the baseball game especially. I mean, they could be served on a little paper boatie. And one thing that makes them though is the sauce also. You can't forget about the sauce.
HOBSON: Why don't you try one and sort of just describe, if you can, what you're tasting as your tasting it because you'll be able to taste all the flavors that I probably wouldn't even be able to figure out.
BRUSCHI: The first thing I get is the crunch, is the bite. After that, I mean, I just - I'm overwhelmed with loads of garlic and spice. And that's really the St. Louis tradition, to have that strong, pungent, aromatic flavor. That's something very indicative of Italian food as well.
HOBSON: Yeah. They're probably not that healthy, I would imagine.
BRUSCHI: They are a fried food, so they're probably not the best for everyone, but they are delicious and they're definitely an indulgence. So, I mean, I don't recommend them maybe eating them breakfast, lunch and dinner, but definitely try them once in a while if you're going to indulge.
HOBSON: Now, there are going to be many listeners who are just getting used to the term toasted ravioli, but I should say that, here in St. Louis, a lot of people just called them t-ravs.
BRUSCHI: That's correct. I've actually heard people refer to the t-rav and other people don't know what it is. I mean, you're like, I need an order of these t-ravs or this stuff. People are like, what? You know, what is a t-rav? I don't get it. But, yeah, definitely t-rav is a short nomenclature for the toasted ravioli.
HOBSON: Well, Aaron Bruschi, sous-chef here at Villa Farotto in Chesterfield, Missouri, thank you so much for talking with me.
BRUSCHI: No problem. This was a pleasure.
YOUNG: So there you go. Listener John Bell, who wanted to hear St. Louis. We can't promise a story for every request but give it a try. And let us hear from you at hereandnow.org.
HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.