Pelagia Trattoria remains a worthy culinary destination

Pelagia Trattoria was the first restaurant I reviewed for CL, almost six years ago. At the time, the restaurant — in the bottom floor of the Renaissance Hotel International Plaza — had been revitalized under chef (and then food and beverage director) Fabrizio Schenardi. The food was very good, the place looked interesting, and it was just far enough from the hubbub of the mall's busy restaurant district to provide a bit of serenity in an otherwise loud and crowded scene.

Last year, Schenardi left town for St. Louis, to take over as executive chef of the Four Seasons there. A big move for him, but not so much for the restaurant he leaves behind. The hotel promoted Daniel Goldich to executive chef, Schenardi's second-in-command since before Pelagia opened.

The result is a post-Schenardi Pelagia Trattoria that seems to barely notice his absence — same menu, same flavors, same exacting attention in the kitchen.

Start with one of my favorite dishes here, the caesar fondue. Long stalks of romaine are lightly grilled, leaving stripes of black across the leaves and a smoky burst in your mouth. A creamy dressing redolent of anchovy sits on the side for dipping — a hands-only dish — with a seasoned crouton for crunch. Still simple, still fantastic.

Pelagia's stuzzichini — a series of tapas-style small plates — rarely excite the palate as much as their descriptions promise, but the wild mushroom risotto croquettes are crunchy and rich, with a bright tomato sauce to cut through the richness.

Better to share one of the restaurant's homemade pasta dishes, like potato gnocchi seasoned with sweet spices under a decadent short rib ragout, or ribbons of tender pappardelle tossed with a basic bolognese. Or hope for a special as good as Goldich's miniature ravioli stuffed full of chopped mortadella and prosciutto, tossed with sage butter. Every bite is an explosion of chewy, salty, fatty glory.

While the pasta often comes across as rustic and hearty, Pelagia's entrees are usually elegantly refined, at least when it comes to the protein. Sea bass is a massive hunk of flesh, the outside roasted crisp and seasoned with basic salt and pepper, the inside infused with the natural buttery oils of the this exceptional rich fish. Problem is, the side of crab polenta reeks of shellfish, a smell that seemingly follows you out the door and through the rest of the evening.

A similar problem affects an otherwise tasty rack of lamb. The meat glows a ruby red inside, each luscious and tender bite scented with the cinnammon and salt rubbed on the outside. But the butternut squash flan on the side is burned on the bottom, grainy throughout and otherwise largely flavorless.

But these are aberrations, not endemic. Many of the sides are delicious, especially the crispy a la carte polenta frites served with more of that bright tomato sauce, or the green beans tossed with roasted tomatoes.

Though ensconced in the calm bosom of the hotel lobby, there are distractions at Pelagia that are similar, but different, to those at International Plaza's busy restaurant area upstairs. Hotel restaurants are a service to guests, after all, and hotel guests come in all types, from the staccato gunfire guffaws of the convention-goers at the next table to the half-sleeping rumpled traveler nearby who is barely able to get spoon to mouth.

Service is extremely efficient, but almost too intrusive, perhaps accustomed to people who need training on the menu. And while the decor still looks fresh, it also still has the same colored-glass lighting and 1990s styling that I wondered about six years ago.

Of course, with the departure of Schenardi, even the dated decor is somehow comforting. Over the past six years I've come to like Pelagia Trattoria and its modern take on Italian cuisine, despite any small blemishes. Thankfully, it's still the same.

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