Metro-East News

St. Louis restaurants and chefs among James Beard Award semifinalists

Naked Vegetables and other dishes at Vicia in St. Louis.
Naked Vegetables and other dishes at Vicia in St. Louis. Provided

One of St. Louis' newest restaurants and one of its oldest are in the running for prestigious national awards.

The New York City-based James Beard Foundation has named Vicia as a semifinalist in the Best New Restaurant category and Tony's as a semifinalist in the Outstanding Service category.

Tara and Michael Gallina opened Vicia nearly a year ago in the Cortex Innovation Community, off of Forest Park Avenue, just east of the Central West End.

"It's a vegetable-forward restaurant," said Tara Gallina, 34, of St. Louis. "That doesn't mean vegetarian. We definitely serve meat. But it's about making vegetables the star of the show."

The menu also is "driven by local farmers," she said, so the it changes a couple times a week.

Tony's is in downtown St. Louis. Its roots go back to 1946, when Anthony Bommarito opened a spaghetti house. It evolved into a fine-dining restaurant, now owned by Anthony's son, Vincent Bommarito, 86, of St. Louis.

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The main dining room at Tony's restaurant in downtown St. Louis. Provided

"You have to have the best food, but you also have to take care of your customers," he said. "Every person is special. Every order is special."

Servers get the "pulse" of each party, Vincent Bommarito said. That means determining if a young couple wants to be seated in a private corner with few interruptions or if an older couple wants to be social and talk about their kids.

The list of James Beard semifinalists also includes four St. Louis-area chefs in the Best Chef: Midwest category. They are Ben Grupe, of Elaia, and Lona Luo, of Lona's Lil Eats, in St. Louis; Mike Randolph, of Privado in University City, Missouri; and Ashley Shelton, of Sardella in Clayton, Missouri.

Chicago semifinalists include HaiSous and Mi Tocaya Antojeria in the Best New Restaurant category and North Pond in the Outstanding Restaurant category, as well as several chefs.

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The main dining room at Vicia restaurant in St. Louis. Provided

The foundation is named for the late James Beard, a well-known cookbook author and teacher. It sponsors educational initiatives, award and scholarship programs, publications and chef-advocacy training.

This year, the foundation received more than 20,000 entries in 21 categories of awards, according to a press release. Vicia is one of 28 semifinalists in the Best New Restaurant category, and Tony's is one of 20 semifinalists in the Outstanding Service category.

"(The awards) recognize culinary professionals for excellence and achievement in their fields and further the foundation's mission to celebrate, nurture and honor chefs and other leaders making America's food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable for everyone," the press release stated.

Judging is done by an independent volunteer panel of more than 600 restaurant critics, food and wine editors, culinary educators and past James Beard Award-winners across the country. Officials will announce five finalists in each category March 14 and hand out awards May 7 in Chicago.

Michael Gallina grew up in St. Louis before studying in Napa Valley and working in San Francisco. He met Tara, a Florida native, in 2012 while both were working at Blue Hill restaurant in New York City.

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Tara and Michael Gallina own Vicia restaurant in St. Louis. Provided

Vicia serves lunch and dinner with a la carte items and a nightly chef's tasting menu. Dishes range from Berkshire Pork to Purple Top Turnip Tacos.

"We make our bread fresh daily, and we have an awesome pastry chef," Tara Gallina said.

Tony's serves steaks, seafood, chicken, veal and pasta. Servers are careful to be attentive without disrupting conversations, and they never remove plates until everyone at the table is finished with a course, Vincent Bommarito said.

Tony's has won many awards over the years, but the staff doesn't take them for granted.

"Anytime we get some recognition, I have one of the senior captains read it at our nightly meeting," Vincent Bommarito said. "And we'll say, 'That's history. That's ancient history. We've got to worry about the customer who's coming in tonight.'"