Here's the thing about toasted ravioli: it's so cliché, so St. Louis, that you want to turn your nose up derisively at it...but there's something irresistible about those puffy, golden pockets dipped in yummy marinara sauce. (As a vegetarian, I was happy indeed when I discovered the cheese-filled version that meant I could indulge, too.) Even hipster restaurateur Blake Brokaw has given in to public clamoring, offering "stupid toasted ravioli with an unassuming tomato sauce" on a recent Tangerine menu.
"Mama" Toscano (her real name's Patty, and she's not really old enough to seem like the Italian matriarch the title implies) knows that nostalgia well, and she and her husband Nick spend their days tirelessly turning out toasted ravioli (and cannelloni, and meatballs, and Italian sausage, and ricotta cheese) that people come from far and wide to buy. Along with a small crew of helpers, they are the last operation on The Hill that handmakes its t-ravs from beginning to end. In their kitchen, there are workers who've been there for 50 years, along with the Toscanos' own high-school-aged kids.
"A lot of the old-timers who would've done it this way have passed on," says Nick. "We get a lot of their kids and grandkids from the old Italian families who come here because they compare our ravioli and cannelloni to what their parents and grandparents used to make."
Nick's own family, back to his great-grandparents, passed down recipes and a family tradition of making ravioli, sauces and more in the kitchen of the upstairs apartment above present-day Mama Toscano's, 2201 Macklind. That was 60 years ago, but the methods haven't changed much. Unlike other ravioli makers, Mama Toscano's process is still completely unmechanized.
The ravioli get their start with from-scratch dough, which is rolled out with a rolling pin onto a metal table as long as a person. The filling, be it meat or ricotta cheese, is spread evenly over the surface, and then a long, wooden dowel with a row of ridges and depressions is rolled over the dough to create the individual pockets of pasta. With a small, handheld cutter, the ravioli are separated from their neighbors and loaded by the hundreds onto cooling trays, which spend about 30 minutes in a quick-freezer. Bag 'em, tag 'em and sell 'em to the hordes of customers who walk in the small storefront, and it's time to start all over again. High demand means the Toscano family turns out about 6,000 ravioli a day.
Mama Toscano's supplies toasted ravioli to many of the Italian restaurants on The Hill and beyond. Calls to some of the better-known clients, like Rigazzi's and Favazza's, generally went like this:
Me: "Can you tell me where you get your toasted ravioli?"
Restaurant: "Ok, hold on. (muffled) Hey! Where do our t-ravs come from?"
Kitchen staff, at a great distance: "Toscano's!!"
Still, according to Nick Toscano, not every restaurant they supply will 'fess up. "There are some places that want to say that since they cook them up, they make them in-house, so we don't really advertise who we do or don't sell to." Shrewd businessman, that Nick; that'll keep him turning out t-ravs for years to come.