Frank Papa has a lot of stories and a lot of secrets to his success.
The chef and owner of Frank Papa's Ristorante has run the Brentwood restaurant with his wife Diana for the past 17 years, building over time a 200-bottle wine list with selections from top producers around the world and a menu that will make you yell Mangia! with gusto.
One said story revolves around the bar downstairs, which Papa had appraised by a wood expert who walked in one day. The expert said the bar is 1800s Japanese Oak and was almost surely part of the World's Fair at one point.
Papa and long-time bartender Tim Krampe also insist at least 15 women that have come into the restaurant in their ninth month of pregnancy give birth within 24 hours of eating the Penne Amatriciana, a spicy pasta dish. I believed them too. That number's just too high to make up.
"I think it's a mixture of the crushed red pepper, the fennel, the marinara and the garlic. I think all of it just gets the baby's blood going and it's just ready to come out," Papa said. he said the dish has close to a 95 percent success rate at jump-starting labor.
Everything I had at Frank Papa's was delicious, from the light, non-greasy calamari with a little lemon to the chocolate ravioli, a giant puff pastry layered with chocolate that sits on a bed of creme anglaise and raspberry sauce.
After eating food, tasting wine and chatting with Papa for two hours, I started to feel a part of the Frank Papa family - and started to try to figure out the restaurant's grande ristorante segreto (restaurant's biggest secret), the flash-fried escarole.
Papa said it took him 60 tries to master the recipe, and has sworn himself and all Frank Papa's employees to secrecy.
"Only one customer has ever figured it out," Papa said. Even Krampe, who has worked at the restaurant for 15 years, doesn't know what's in it.
One can deduce that the method to the crispy green consists partially of removing any excess moisture, possibly via the paper towel pat-down method. You can see it's not breaded, but can taste it's been in a deep fryer. You know it comes with a lemon wedge and is topped with parmigiana cheese.
Then there are small, nearly translucent crispy niblets of something in the dish that will drive you nuts trying to deduce. Is it...flour-based? No. Similar to wontons? No.
I even had a wild moment of thought that it might be a batter grated into the fryer spaetzle style - Papa said whatever it is makes a huge mess and can even shut down the fryer on a busy night. They have to change the fryer oil daily to keep up with this secret ingredient.
Still, I was wrong.
Whatever those crispy delights are in the escarole, it instantly sets Frank Papa's far apart from other Italian joints, as does the friendly though not overbearing staff and family atmosphere. Papa jumped up intermittently during our interview to greet each guest by name, with a warm handshake and a genuine smile.
A secret Papa did divulge is how to portion pasta. For a full portion, grab some dried pasta (Papa's is from Pasta LaBella, a local Missouri producer that makes its pasta fresh monthly), between your forefinger and thumb, making the A-ok symbol with your hand.
Hold the pasta tight and look at the ends of it. The circumference of the gathered bunch should be the size of a quarter. For a half portion, make one the size of a nickel. For a child, make it the size of a dime.
Please, Maplewood and Brentwood friends, help me out here. Go to Frank Papa's and order the escarole. Put your chef hats on and try to figure out that secret element. If you can't, not to worry, at least you'll have enjoyed a memorable and worthwhile meal.