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On the Trail of Toasted Ravioli | Noshtalgia

Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call
The version of toasted ravioli at Ledo’s chain restaurants is filled with hot peppers and cheese instead of meat, but it’s in an attractive fried shell.

“Toasted ravioli (meat), deep-fried Twinkies,” read the terribly succinct response to our open call for hard-to-find regional foodstuffs.

The request came from a former Hill staffer and CQ Roll Call colleague — one who seemingly lives and dies by whatever bubbles up to the surface of a Fry Daddy. But he was merely a proxy; the truly desperate soul was none other than Roll Call Copy Chief Sara Bondioli.

The Mizzou grad acquired a taste for the breaded pasta pockets during her time in the Show-Me State and has had a helluva time finding even a reasonable facsimile thereof in the District. Her hopes were temporarily raised when District of Pi took up residence at 910 F St. NW, only to have her hopes dashed by the fact that the Midwestern pizza joint does not traffic in t-ravs.

But the most frustrating thing has to be being teased by the budding crop of local restaurants who’ve embraced the deep-fried cheese ravioli concept yet appear reticent to take the next logical step and throw some seasoned flesh into the mix.

Even major retailers have failed her.

“You can buy it at almost any grocery store in St. Louis,” Bondioli said of the embarrassment of caloric riches available to native St. Louisans. “But I have had friends drive or fly bags of it to D.C. because they couldn’t find it out here anywhere.”

A Happy Accident

Like many guilty pleasures, pinpointing exactly who deserves the credit for first plunging stuffed ravioli into a bubbling fryer remains purely subjective.

“There are a lot of stories about the origin of t-ravs,” said former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Food Editor Judith Evans. “The location varies with the teller, but most say that they were ‘invented’ by accident when a cook dumped a batch of ravioli in the deep fryer.”

New York Times Dining Critic Patricia Brooks investigated the St. Louis staple in the late ’80s, serving up this analysis of the thick-skinned treat:

Strictly speaking, the ravioli is deep-fried, not toasted, and like many culinary discoveries, the first batch was the result of an accident. Surprisingly, everyone seems to credit the same source. The first toasted ravioli seems to have been made in the 1950’s at a restaurant called Angelo Oldani’s on the Hill, the Italian neighborhood where both Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola grew up.

According to Louis Amighetti, the owner of Amighetti Bakery on the Hill, it happened this way: “Angelo was busy and told a new assistant, a German cook, to prepare the ravioli. He had a pan of boiling hot oil on the stove, and the cook thought it was supposed to be for the ravioli, so he dropped them into the oil.’’ When Mr. Oldani saw what had happened, he tried to salvage the ravioli by brushing on some grated cheese. The result was local history.

These days, restaurants across St. Louis furiously battle to be recognized as the non plus ultra of toasted ravioli.

Still, some maintain the end products are pretty much all the same.

“Many of the t-ravs consumed locally, in restaurants and at home, are made by Mama Toscano’s and Louisa Food Products,” Evans said, fingering two commercial t-rav makers as the founts from which most ready-made raviolis flow.

An East Coast transplant who relocated to the St. Louis area decades ago concurred with Evans’ assessment, estimating that most local restaurants “use a decent quality frozen ravioli, and make it their own by serving it with their own marinara sauce.” The transplant, who requested anonymity so as not to be targeted by overzealous defenders of the t-rav in the adopted city, touted Frontenac Grill as one of the few that use house-made ravioli with meat filling for a delicate dish.

Most everyone else rarely deviates from the time-honored script for loyal followers of the crunchy snack food.

Evans totally gets that. “Fried pasta, sprinkled with cheese, dipped in marinara? What’s not to like?” she said. “They make good bar food, party food, etc.”

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

The research done, we struck out in search of the protein-packed productions.

And strike out we did.

While Wal-Mart (and by extension, Sam’s Club) does carry a variety of Louisa products — including original beef, sausage and cheese, cheddar cheese, four cheese, and pizza style pepperoni and sausage — none of those appear to be available in our immediate area. Emails to Wal-Mart HQ and calls to the Waldorf, Md., Sam’s Club about the reach of the frozen t-ravs went unanswered.

Just as Bondioli promised, we spied toasted/baked/fried ravioli on menus across the area, from mom-and-pop delis in Centreville, Va., to chain pizza parlors scattered throughout the DMV.

Of course, most of those were distinctly dairy-rich offerings.

Until we hit on Tommy Marcos’ Original Ledo Restaurant (4509 Knox Road, College Park, Md.) The venerable eatery serves fried ravioli, and only meat-filled.

The distressingly pallid pieces are, in fact, filled with ground beef (sauteed with peppers and onions, no less) yet they somehow still taste remarkably bland. Everything else about these sorry specimens — from the flimsy pasta (lack of breading robs it of potential crunch) to the head-scratching absence of any cheese (brutal) — smacked of sub-par snacking.

Hell, at least the chain Ledo’s, which dishes out a shark-jumping version featuring diced hot peppers nestled within melted ricotta and mozzarella (a jalapeno popper by any other name), manage to dress the whole thing up in an attractive, herb-studded fried shell.

The most polished interpretation of the oeuvre lives at Boulevard Woodgrill in Clarendon (2901 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va.). Staff there believe in quality over quantity, hustling out a trio of palm-sized selections stuffed with savory (and amazingly meaty) porcini mushrooms encased in tangy fontina cheese, anointed with opulent truffle oil and crowned with wonderfully nutty shaved parmesan. The surrounding pomodoro sauce, flush with acid and spice, rounds out the sublime bites.

Meanwhile, burgeoning District chainlet Taylor Gourmet has staked out its corner of the market with fried ravioli featuring an oregano-spiked, bread-crumbed crust, warm five-cheese center and side of spunky marinara. And it’s all because Taylor Gourmet co-founder Casey Patten fell in love with t-ravs while visiting — where else — St. Louis.

“When we opened, we used to serve house-cut french fries. In the beginning we couldn’t catch up and needed something else that we could serve.  . . .  I had tried toasted ravioli and loved them, so it was an easy fix,” Patten said of the adoption process.

And while he declined to say whether meat-filled t-ravs might one day become a fixture on the Taylor Gourmet carte, Patten did hint that he’s not done loving on fried foodstuffs.

“When we launch the new menu it may have something fun and funky in the way of ravioli,” he teased.

You may have won this round, St. Louis. But here’s hoping Taylor will one day soon properly address Bondioli’s — and our — t-rav obsession.

CQ Roll Call dining guru Warren Rojas will stop at nothing to track down your regional specialty/state dish/hometown favorite. Put him on the case by nominating your most sorely missed meals to gastrohunt@cqrollcall.com.

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