Way of Life: Italian restaurants on The Hill pass down toasted ravioli’s origin story

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Named after the highest point in St. Louis, The Hill is a 52-block melting pot for Italian-American cuisine and culture. Born out of this mix is one of St. Louis’ most well-known dishes: toasted ravioli. 

A plate of toasted ravioli with marinara dipping sauce. Contributed photo from Charlie Gitto’s On the Hill.

The story behind who actually invented the fried appetizer is up for debate, but what has been confirmed is that sometime in the 1940s, an employee of a neighborhood tavern accidentally dropped an order of ravioli into a pot of hot oil. 

Rather than throwing it out, the dish was served with a side of cheese and red sauce.

According to Joe DeGregorio, author of “The Hill: A Walk Through History,” the dish was not thrown out because the owner of the establishment said, “‘The people at the bar will eat anything.’”

There were several taverns around the neighborhood at the time that could potentially be the home of the first toasted ravioli.

DeGregorio, a Hill native and local tour guide, named two locations where this accidental culinary stroke of genius could have occurred: Charlie Gitto’s (known as Angelo’s in the ‘40s) and Mama Campisi’s. 

When asked which side he subscribes to, DeGregorio prefers the Campisi story based on

A newspaper article profiling Mickey Garagiola, a witness to the invention of toasted ravioli. Contributed photo from Mama’s On the Hill.

the claims made by Mickey Garagiola (brother of the late baseball Hall of Famer Joe Garagiola). Garagiola had stated he was there the day the dish was invented and bet his house on the story. 

“When a Northern Italian bets his house on anything, I go with it,” DeGregorio explained.

Since the event in question happened over 70 years ago, most of the individuals involved are no longer alive to share their accounts of who truly invented toasted ravioli. 

John Siemer, manager of Mama’s on The Hill, believes that finding the answer isn’t a big deal. Siemer began working as a busser at Mama’s 10 years ago and does not see it as a major dispute.

“There’s no bad feelings or anything, every restaurant has their story,” Siemer said about toasted ravioli’s origin. “People from across the country come to try it … even people from St. Louis like to compare which restaurant has the best toasted ravs.”

Amy Dharmani, Webster alumna and director of marketing at Charlie Gitto’s, shares the same sentiment. As the daughter of Charlie Gitto, she explains that toasted ravioli is part of its brand story and adds that Gitto’s recipe has been around for a long time.

“We’ve been using it for years. We make all of our ingredients fresh and in house … imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Dharmani said. 

In the decades since its creation, toasted ravioli has become synonymous with St. Louis. It has been featured in segments on the Food Network, the Travel Channel and the TODAY Show. 

Toasted ravioli has even made its way outside of the city’s limits; Dharmani says there are fried ravioli meals in Trader Joe’s across the East Coast. 

Based on talk around the neighborhood, the origin story of toasted ravioli has been passed down as folklore in The Hill, much like the Italian traditions of the restaurants’ owners.

“Many restaurants in this neighborhood are family-owned and pass down recipes from one generation to the next,” Siemer said.

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Carrson McDaniel
Social Media Manager | + posts

Carrson McDaniel (he/him) is the Social Media Manager for the Journal. He has been a part of the Journal staff since the Fall of 2022. He is a media studies major and public relations minor at Webster University. He is also a member of the Webster Chain-Link Improv club. Outside of the Journal, he enjoys collecting vinyls as well as spending time with friends & family.