Del Pietro proves he has the chops at The Block in Webster

Double Star Farms Amish Chicken: grilled chicken, roasted red potatoes, farmer’s mixed greens, tomato, garlic-herb croutons, local honey balsamic glaze.

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Marc Del Pietro of the Block in Webster Groves grew up in the restaurant business. His parents Michael and Mary Rose opened Del Pietro’s on Hampton Avenue in 1976 and only closed its doors this past summer. His brother, Michael, owns four Italian restaurants around town and is looking to expand outside of St. Louis. Marc threw his chef’s hat into the ring with Luciano’s Trattoria in Clayton followed by The Block just one year ago.

The Block is truly a family affair of another sort. Marc’s wife Amy and his sister, Lea Doherty, welcome guests and oversee the dining room and patio, while Marc and Lea’s husband Brian are the creative masters behind the stove. The result of their efforts has made the Block a great spot to enjoy a well-executed meal or to procure a fine cut of meat for home cooking.

The Block has the feel of a neighborhood establishment, just as the owners hoped it would. Seating is on a walk-in only, come as-you-are basis. On the Wednesday evening we dined there every table, both in the dining room and outside on the pleasant street-side patio, was occupied. Amy took time to introduce herself and checked in often to make sure things were going well.  Marc came out to schmooze with diners, many of whom were obviously repeat customers. Despite the original goal of a “neighborhood spot,” the good food, service, and conviviality have transformed the Block into a destination restaurant that just happens to be in a neighborhood.

There are no pretensions here. This place is all about good food and drink. The first thing you notice is the granite-topped bar, with windows from which to watch the master chefs at work. One of the large framed chalkboards that hang behind the bar lets diners know the names of the local purveyors of that week’s meat, fish, bread, and fresh produce. Another lists the local microbreweries whose beers are offered that week on tap or in bottles. The tidy meat case alongside the bar makes this the cleanest, neatest butcher shop on record, displaying beautifully cut meats, steaks, and in-house processed sausages.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

The restaurant’s décor is simple and sparse with the “butcher block” theme repeated along the walls. Unadorned low hanging lights gently illuminate the space, and wood floors and tables are bare except for a small tea light candle and napkin-wrapped silverware bundles in the center of each table.

Should you want to drink something other than beer, you have many options. The menu offers a nice selection of wines, most by the bottle and some by the glass, bourbon/whiskey, scotch, and a list of inspired cocktails (such as Smokehouse Manhattan and Jenny from the Block). 

The menu of salads (($6-$7), appetizers ($5-$14), spreads ($5-$7), sandwiches ($8-$10), entrees ($10-$24), and sides ($5 each) fill a long single sheet of butcher-paper card-stock. Off-the -menu daily specials are described tableside by well-informed wait staff. 

We began our meal with the spinach salad ($6), a sweet and savory combination of fresh baby spinach, juicy roasted and sliced Granny Smith apples, smoked cheddar and candied pecans. The salad was dressed with a lovely cider honey vinaigrette. 

Our appetizer, roasted mushrooms & melted Swiss ($8) arrived at our table bubbling in a small cast-iron kettle. It was served with slices of grilled country bread that really tasted grilled.  The gratin was rich with leeks and earthy mushrooms thickly sliced. The Swiss cheese sauce was luscious, and the gratin tasted great on the bread, though, I was tempted to eat this divine mixture with a spoon.

In the entrée category, there is something for everyone, from fish to meat to vegetarian. We opted for two off the menu specials. The first, the steak special ($21), consisted of a generous serving of medium-rare (as ordered) slices of assertively seasoned flank steak fanned on a plate and topped by a poached egg that was breaded and deep-fried (think Scotch eggs). It was served alongside a crisp salad of romaine lettuce, chunks of tomato, and well-seasoned house-made croutons. The marriage of the tender spicy meat, the egg, and the salad was a celebration of flavors, textures, and colors. The dish needed no additional salt or pepper.

The salmon special ($24) featured a thick fillet of pan-seared wild Pacific salmon atop black olive tapenade and a bed of sautéed spinach. Alongside were tender asparagus spears, and the whole was garnished with a nest of crisp, shoestring potatoes. If there is a better salmon preparation in this city, I haven’t had it. This salmon, tender and flaky, melted in my mouth. It was perfectly seasoned and tasted ocean-fresh. The spinach was also well prepared, just wilted and quite flavorful. Ditto on the asparagus. My only reservation was with the olive tapenade, which on its own was quite tasty, but was far too overpowering a flavor for the salmon. 

A side order of garlic herbed fries ($5), was fairly non-descript, as was the garlic-herb flavor. The most appealing side, at least on the menu, was the honey-roasted root vegetables ($5). However, due to the lack of availability of local fresh root vegetables now, as our waitress explained, carrots were going solo, so we passed. 

Desserts are off the menu and seasonal. That night the options included a variety of ice creams and fresh berries, a seasonal bread pudding, rich chocolate cake, a banana trifle with a dash of rum, and a cherry berry crisp. We split an order of the warm crisp ($7), a piping hot filling of whole cherries, blueberries, and strawberries baked in a ramekin. The fruit was topped with oatmeal crisp that really was delightfully crisp. The small scoop of cinnamon ice cream was a yummy addition.

Though this restaurant is not in my neighborhood, I wish that it were.  It would definitely be my go-to place on evenings when I am too tired to cook. That said, I won’t think twice about making a 15-minute drive for the promise of delicious, creatively prepared food that is moderately priced and quality you can taste.