MUNCHIES State of the Suburbs is an exploration of eating in the American suburbs today. What makes suburban dining great, and as the suburbs shift, how are suburban dining scenes changing? Read more here.
I don’t often drive 30 miles to grab dinner, especially since my apartment in St. Louis’ quiet, botanical Tower Grove neighborhood is mere blocks from restaurants that have been recognized everywhere from Bon Appetit and The New York Times to Food & Wine and Esquire. But sometimes, when you want the best version of something, you have to be willing to travel for it. Noto Italian Restaurant owner and executive chef Wayne Sieve is keenly aware of this fact, which is why his if-you-build-it-they-will-come leap of faith in St. Peters, Missouri, has, against all odds, become such a massive success. There, in the suburbs, among a sea of big-plate, red-sauce American-Italian joints and commercial fast food options, he’s created a Neapolitan pizza and pasta utopia that’s probably as close to the real thing as anything you can get in the Midwest.
There’s nothing wrong with Americanized Italian food, and Sieve is the first to admit this; classic spaghetti joints are still a comfort to him, a guy who grew up on a farm and had no connection whatsoever to real Italian cuisine. They’re just not what he’s trying to do.
“All of them are more or less the same,” he said. “The only thing that’s different is the name of the business. They have the same offerings, they buy from the same place, they have the same frozen pastas.” Sieve speculates that if given a choice, most Americans actually wouldn’t prefer what he’s doing, and he’s likely right; in the greater St. Louis area, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of American-Italian restaurants, some of the best ones residing in the beloved Italian neighborhood of The Hill, where dishes like toasted ravioli, garlic cheese bread, Italian salad, and mostaccioli with meat sauce reign supreme. Still, the customer base of restaurants like those has, surprisingly, been very receptive of Noto. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t worry about it every day—he does. “That’s all they’ve known, but there are a lot of open-minded people out here who want to try something different,” he said. Recently, a customer told Sieve, “We’re so relieved a restaurant like this is out here.” He said people say these kinds of things to him a lot, which he appreciates, but he’s not really doing it for them. As cliche as it sounds, Noto is simply a labor of love.
Like any true Missourian, Sieve grew up loving pizza: the Provel-topped, cracker-thin St. Louis-style pies, the square-cut, tavern-style ‘za found in local bars, and especially Pizza Hut’s Detroit-style pan pizzas. “The Detroit-style [Pizza Hut] had was legit,” he said. “I was like five years old and knew then that it just hit different.” But his preferences changed when he tried Neapolitan pizza in Italy, and so he endeavored to recreate it when he returned home. “It became an obsession and a hobby, chasing that elusive, perfect Neapolitan pizza,” Sieve said. He started off using different pizza stones in his convection oven, messed with some attachments for his charcoal barbecue pit, and even bought the original model of Ooni’s professional grade home pizza oven, allowing him to go even deeper into the techniques he’d need to move forward. “Eventually, I was able to get the temps I was looking for, which opened up a whole new world,” he explains.
When he returned to Italy in 2013, traveling through Praiano, Positano, the Amalfi Coast, it was simply a carnival of pizza. “I was eating the shit out of it,” he recalled, almost dreamily. “I would get two pizzas for lunch and one for dinner, as a side. I ate three pizzas a day for 12 or 13 days. When I went back again a few years later, it was purely for researching and getting ideas for the restaurant we were opening in 2019. We were just eating a fuckton of pizza.”
The further he went with his research, which now involved imported flour, fermentation experiments, and hydration rate calculations, the more ground he knew he had to cover to make the kind of pies he wanted to. In addition to being a personal project, the quest became an homage to a culture he had grown to love. “For us and what we do, it’s about paying respects to the country and the heritage and the tradition they’ve built and shared with the world,” he said. “To me, it’s our duty to respect that.”
Sieve is not Italian, but his wife, Kendele, is—her maiden name is Noto and her grandfather was born in Palermo, Sicily. While Sieve was cooking his way through St. Louis’ country club circuit early in his career, Kendele was working at her father’s local institution, J. Noto Bakery. There, she learned to master Italian pastries and café cuisine, even offering a popular Italian brunch series. Now, at Noto Italian Restaurant, Kendele makes all of the pastries and desserts, as well as working the bar and front-of-house when necessary. “Kendele is kind of the rock of the place. She keeps everything afloat,” Sieve said. “She was working with her dad in his bakery since she was 12, so she has a lot of expertise making in-house gelato, cannoli shells, tiramisu….” Eventually, after years of study in their respective specialties, their paths converged professionally in 2018 when they started the popular food truck Noto Pizza. “We took an equity loan on the house, bought a pizza trailer, modded it out,” Sieve said. “I quit my job and paid myself nothing. We did some pop-ups out of the food truck [at the bakery] and found that people were really open to it.” The following year, J. Noto Bakery closed and they opened Noto Italian Restaurant in its space. “We checked out other locations in St. Louis county and some other spots, like strip centers, and nothing was really feeling right for us,” Sieve explained. Staying put was a way to keep the family bakery’s spirit alive while still allowing room to grow as a restaurant.
I make the drive out to Noto from my office in the city on an overcast Wednesday, which takes about 40 minutes. Though I’ve been there a number of times, the building always strikes me as odd, a stand-alone, house-like structure shared with a moving company and a professional roofer. It’s found on the side of a highway near a Gold’s Gym, an Edward Jones investment office, a local mortgage company, and a couple other nondescript operations. “There’s kind of a struggle for the identity of what the building is,” Sieve said. “But it’s hard for us to want to abandon this, because we’re rooted in our neighborhood and the surrounding communities. It still has an intimate feel.” Walking into the restaurant from its weird, circular parking lot, which surrounds the building and only allows driving in one direction, it feels like I could be entering any local pizzeria, sports bar, or dive. But moving through the door, one is completely transported.
Patrons are immediately met with a wall of lemons and greenery, while, to the right, a gorgeous bar holds amaro, vermouth, Italian wine, a beautiful espresso machine, and citrus slices galore. The walls are tastefully covered with old-school posters that say things like “Italy” and “Campari” and “Napoli”; granite tables are elegantly paired with leather seats and gold-bronze candle holders. If asked what I wanted to drink, I’d have said a negroni, but instead, in an endearing display of classic Midwestern hospitality, Kendele simply pulls me a local wheat beer from the tap and puts it in my hand. That’s the kind of place Noto is—it’s about geniality and warmth, not putting on a grand show of high culture and class. And people love it.
Noto is booked for the evening and Sieve and his small team are hustling to get ready to open their doors in about an hour, at 5 p.m. For Sieve, this means getting his dough to temp and carefully preparing a fire inside his magnificent Acunto pizza oven, which was hand-built in Napoli, imported through New York by Forza Forni, and installed inside Noto over a 10-week period that required having to fortify the floors in the basement; according to Sieve, it’s roughly the same weight as three-and-a-half Chevrolet Impalas. After getting the pizza mise en place ready, Sieve usually retires to the kitchen to do dishes until they open, since they’re still operating on a skeleton crew that basically involves Sieve, Kendele, a few servers, and new-hire pasta and protein master Josh Poletti, who came up in some of St. Louis county’s best Italian spots, including James Beard Award-winner Gerard Craft’s Pastaria and the beloved Louie, an if-you-know-you-know favorite of foodies and industry members. Noto opened with 16 employees, but now, due to the pandemic and a shortage of workers, operates with about half that. “The talent we want is in St. Louis county,” Sieve explained. (St. Peters is in St. Charles county, which is part of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area.) “We cannot find enough people to work.”
When customers start arriving at exactly 5 p.m. for dinner, families shuffle along to their tables, excited children staring wide-eyed into the fiery oven, which can be seen from nearly anywhere in the restaurant. Two unmasked women saddle up to the bar and order cocktails. In the city, I usually wouldn’t dream of going to dinner before 8 p.m., but out here, this is a very normal time to dine. Sieve settles into his pizza nook, where, before the pandemic, he’d do at least 130 pizzas by the end of the night. “We made our space a little too small, because I was like, ‘I don’t even know if people are going to order this pizza,” Sieve said. “But it’s literally at least 2:1 pizza to entrees. That’s been very overwhelming.” Though many pizzerias sell more pepperoni than anything else, Noto’s bestseller is unquestionably the Italiano, which features San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, Calabrese sausage, basil, olive oil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. “That pizza alone has paid for this oven many times over,” Sieve said, laughing.
This is one of Noto’s first services with their new menu, which features stunning contributions from Poletti. Classics like the Calabrese meatballs, charcuterie board (with 24-month aged prosciutto di parma), and roasted chicken with fingerling potatoes, as well as pizzas like the Salsiccia, the Americano (pepperoni, Calabrese pepper, hot honey), and the Sophia (fig jam, onion, gorgonzola, 18-month prosciutto, arugula, balsamic glaze) remain, but spring vibes are starting to take over. Poletti’s dazzling new gnocchi set with guanciale, tomato conserva, pesto, and pecorino romano has gone live, as has a citrus salad with arugula, radicchio, blood orange, orange, grapefruit, pistachio, ricotta salata, and honey vinaigrette. The seasonal Verdura pizza features local mushrooms, artichoke, asparagus, arugula, pesto, ricotta, lemon, and mint. A whole market fish—this week, branzino—is also newly in the game, which initially stressed Sieve out. “In this area, if it isn’t salmon with maple glaze on it, people aren’t going to eat it.” Hopefully, the seafood entree as a category is on the verge of a new fate in St. Peters. Familiar with the old menu, I try the citrus salad, gnocchi, and the Verdura pizza. The gnocchi is impossibly pillowy, full of fresh flavors and contrasting textures, while the pizza is light, citrus-y, and perfectly acidic, its mildly bitter pesto perfectly complementing its smartly rationed asparagus and ricotta.
Despite all the beauty of Noto, there’s still some pushback from customers who don’t expect to see things like charred crust and whole branzino. “Some people have been out here their whole life, and this is a culture shock. It’s in their backyard,” Sieve said. But real Italian food was a culture shock for him as well. “I grew up on a farm and I knew nothing,” he added. “I came into the culinary industry with an open mind and it blew my head off. If I can do that, a lot of other people can do that.” Sieve is making incredible Italian food at Noto, but, more than that, he’s showing people something new, and proving to them that they can change. “Really, my focus is just reeducating Italian cuisine and remodernizing it,” he said. “Going back to basics. Taking recipes that are hundreds of years old and bringing them here.” And he is succeeding. Hell, if he can turn me into somebody willing to drive 30 miles to eat dinner at 5 p.m., he’s doing something right.