The Hill District is home to some pretty famous Italian Americans.
Are you looking for a quick getaway that doesn’t even require an overnight stay? St. Louis’ historic Hill District offers such an escape perfect for those crunched on relax time. It’s a perfect place to visit if you are looking for an excuse for the trip because it is a food centric neighborhood to visit, and we all need groceries, right?
“The Hill” has a lot more to offer than just some of the greatest italian food one has ever experienced. There is a lot of history to this small burg of families and close knit friends. It’s like stepping back in time to an era when goods were made fresh daily and convenience stores and mega markets were not available.
Traveling from the lake area, access is easy via a south east bound exit on I 270 at Maryland Heights. Approximately 20 minutes is all it takes to enter the neighborhood that sits very close to the world famous St. Louis Zoo. It’s not hard to guess that you have arrived, soon noticing heritage flags on every street bearing the red, white, and green colors of Italy. Even the fire hydrants are painted in the colorful stripes throughout the district. Tiny, long homes are snuggled up next to stores, bearing architecture that has been well preserved. Some elements of the district remind one of old world Italy, others bear the heavy influence of the 1930s.
The Hill District is home to some pretty famous Italian Americans. Baseball Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola grew up here, as well as being the home of Jack Buck as he began his broadcast career. Berra and Garagiola’s boyhood homes are located on Elizabeth Street directly across from each other. At least 75% of Hill residents claim Italian descent. The district’s heritage mostly hails from the northern Italian region of Lombardy, with immigration starting in the late 19th century, drawing those seeking work in the nearby clay plants. The Roman Catholic church soon followed, establishing the Parish of St. Ambrose. The church still holds an italian language mass monthly.
The tight knit streets are charming, as well as the petite brick homes. Driving in the district, however, requires patience. Pulling over to let an oncoming vehicle pass is routine here, with courtesy shown both ways. Folks are laid back in this little world, and no road rage was encountered, as it would be a few miles down the road in downtown. Parking was pretty easy, as the walk to any destination is welcome due to the sheer number of interesting bakeries, markets, and galleries to peruse along the way. Safety doesn’t seem to be an issue when strolling the streets. Crime statistics show there is no rape, murder, kidnappings, shootings, or any of the nasty things that can occur in other neighborhoods. While data shows that property and violent crime is high, other crimes are non existent. The residents know each other pretty well. But they are welcoming to tourists also.
Visiting Milo’s Bocce Garden, the neighborhood familiarity is on display in it’s finest form. Neighbors visit with each other like a raucous coffee shop. In the bar/restaurant area buddies toast each other and watch soccer on the big screen tvs. Tourists groups sit in corner booths, snapping photos and marveling at the wide array of Italian American heritage displays on the walls and ceilings. Out back, enclosed in a white picket fence near the street, is the bocce garden. Bocce is similar to bowling, though the balls do not have holes. Two teams of 2-4 players vie off against each other throwing balls to get closest to the “palina” or little ball.
Tourists try to figure the game out, as a few older men explain the specifics. On a cold early spring evening, a patio fire is lit, and revelers move out to the garden to raise mugs of beer around the warmth. The pizza here is “St. Louis” style thin, but not as thin as Imo’s. Its loaded with toppings and the typical provolone cheese. Most of the tourists opt for it, or the famous deep fried mistake “toasted raviolis” or “T-Ravs” if you are in the know. Spaghetti and meatballs were homemade the size of baseballs, covered in the most delicate tomato marinara. The garlic bread accompanying it was carried in from Amighetti's Bakery located across the street. A little old lady lugs a 30 gallon bag full of three foot long loaves of bread and delivers it to the kitchen. This is bread that will make you weep it is so fresh and you want to hug her before she returns to her bakery, which just closed for the day. Most of the businesses in The Hill close between 5pm and 5:30pm.
Gelato Di Riso occupies space across from Milo’s Bocce Tavern, and is the perfect bite to end a neighborhood pasta feast. Sitting on Wilson Avenue, it’s an easy walk across the brick paved street to enjoy gelato, a creamy cold treat cousin to ice cream. Gelato is thick and rich like custard, but smoother and softer. People boast of Gelato Di Riso being the closest thing in St. Louis to real italian offerings. There is nothing like rich chocolate, but this gelato shop offers unusual flavors such as pink grapefruit, and blood orange. Gelato Di Riso translates to rice gelato in english. But here Riso is simply the owners last name. They have 20 varieties to choose from, as well as delicious coffee, and traditional biscotti.
DiGregorio's Market sits on the corner of Daggett and Marconi Avenues, and it's pretty evident from the minute you walk in the door that this is a family venture. Grandma Dora sits quietly head down tagging products behind the counter. Frank DiGregorio is busy trying to close the deli down for the day, as house made olive salad, and buttery pistachio chocolate dipped cookies are snatched quickly by tourists desperate to grab a piece of Little Italy to take home. Freezer cases are full of pasta from scratch, and gallon vats of sauce, as well as ground sausages and other italian meats. Taking a cooler to the Hill District is advised for hauling home all of the unexpected finds not available anywhere else. This June, DiGregorio’s will have been in business for 48 years.
Strolling by closed storefronts along the way to DiGregorio’s, shops display old world antiques and art. Some stores have huge pasta making machines, and bread mixers. There are perfume, jewelry, soaps, all hand crafted or imported from Italy. Like something out of a movie, other restaurants that are open feature tuxedo clad doormen, and waiters in full jacket smoking next to the dumpsters.
One gets drawn in by this place. The Hill screams adopt me, take me in! I want to sit at a nonna’s (grandmother’s) table and enjoy heaping platters of hand cranked raviolis and hours long simmered tomato sauce. It feels like home from the first step onto the brick streets, to the last heavy sniff of baking bread and garlic getting back in the car.