A while back, I took a bold position and stood up for St. Louis-style pizza, it of the gooey, processed Provel cheese and communion-wafer thickness. Commenters called me “some kind of stoner savage” and the article “basically A Modest Proposal but for bad pizza.” And you know what? Fair. I’m not about to yuck someone’s yuck about someone else’s yum.
But another issue the comments illuminated, which I’m 100% behind, is that there’s another St. Louis delicacy whose deliciousness is far less disputed: toasted ravioli. Sure, these little fried squares of nirvana can be found in chain pizza joints across the country, but its roots are firmly in St. Louis. Forget pizza, forget vertically-sliced bagels—it’s toasted ravioli (and Ted Drewes custard) that St. Louisians can present to the nation with less of an arched brow.
Even if you’ve never tasted toasted ravioli, it’s not hard to discern its nature from the name alone: ravioli (usually stuffed with meat, sometimes cheese) breaded and fried, served with marinara sauce. Sometimes, it comes sprinkled with that dusty Parmesan cheese in a can supplied by every neighborhood pizzeria; sometimes you have to apply it yourself. Think of it like a mozzarella stick but smaller, and with a little extra shell of carb-y protection thanks to the pasta pocket. (Why the “toasted” label when it’s clearly deep-fried, perhaps it’s our Midwest sense of humility...)
As with many delicacies, accounts vary as to who actually invented it. Most toasted rav origin stories chart back to “The Hill,” a St. Louis neighborhood founded in the 1830s by immigrants from Northern Italy and now home to a thriving Italian-American community. One such tale comes from Mama’s on The Hill, the self-proclaimed “home of the toasted ravioli.” According to legend, a chef named Fritz accidentally dropped an order of ravioli into hot frying oil instead of water, only to discard them after realizing his mistake. But after Mickey Gargiola, brother of famous baseball player Joe Garagiola, tasted and loved them, Mama’s turned them into the hit they are today.
Of course, that’s only one of several establishments around The Hill staking their claim on the invention of toasted ravioli, which is a testament to how tasty the damn things are.
Between growing up near a small Illinois town practically built around a single Aurelio’s Pizza franchise and my college years in northeastern Missouri spent around St. Louisians, I’ve had my fair share of toasted ravioli. If it’s on the menu, I’ll order it over mozz sticks or onion rings any day. Okay, fine, I’ll probably get those too but if we have to pick one, I’m going with the T-ravs every time. Like pizza, there’s no such thing as bad toasted ravioli.
Similarly, there’s no wrong way to eat toasted ravioli. Some eat them whole, some cut them in half, but my go-to method is to go corner by corner, holding (or forking) one corner of the rav and making my way around eating a quarter at a time. It may lead to me not eating as many as everyone else around the table, but I’m here to savor the flavor.
At the end of the day, cheesy toasted ravioli are a fancy mozzarella stick, but there’s something infectious about the spicy, meaty filling at the center of a toasted rav, bordered by perfectly seasoned golden-brown breading. If you end up matching it with a particularly good marinara sauce, there’s nothing better. Close your eyes and it feels like you’re eating the world’s tiniest meatball sub.
Depending who you ask, St. Louis is guilty of many culinary sins. But when it comes to toasted ravioli, the jury must find this humble appetizer innocent. No one knows who actually invented them in the first place (I personally think the “serendipitous accident in front of baseball royalty” story is probably a bit of local color), but there’s a reason so many are clamoring to claim credit for their creation. They’re just that delicious.