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St. Louis' Hill Neighborhood Is Hanging On, Even In A Pandemic

March 30, 2020 The Hill
Sarah Fenske | St. Louis Public Radio

The Hill neighborhood in south St. Louis has long been one of the region’s favorite dining destinations — beloved for its Italian American offerings and family traditions. And two local restaurateurs say the district is managing to hang on, even though the pandemic has put a sudden halt to dining out. 

Chris Saracino, president of the neighborhood association Hill 2000, explained Tuesday on St. Louis on the Air that most of the restaurants in the neighborhood switched to curbside offerings after dining in was prohibited. Also an owner of four restaurants, including Chris’ Pancake & Dining and Bartolino’s Osteria, Saracino said it’s less a business model that pencils out and more a service to customers. 

“We need to remain a part of the food chain that can’t be supported by all the grocery stores,” he said. “There’s so much pressure on them to get their shelves stocked. We’re trying to be another outlet for folks. ... People get tired of having to worry about what’s for dinner. Parents are probably helping their kids with school all day, and then they have to stop and think, ‘What are we going to make?’ Hopefully we can be a support and a help to the many families that need it throughout our area.”

Larry Fuse owns Lorenzo’s Trattoria on the Hill, as well as two locations of Gelato di Riso. “It keeps some kind of normalcy for people, where they can still feel like they’re getting out, and going out, instead of constantly having to try to cook at home,” he said. “It feels normal to somebody to pick up dinner, and feel like they’re going out on a date.” 

Fuse said roughly half his curbside customers come from the neighborhood and half are regulars who live much farther away, with some driving up to 20 miles for their carryout.

“They’ve been coming for years and just want to support our family,” he said.

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Learning a whole new way of business presents challenges for the Hill’s restaurants, many of which have been in the family for two or even three generations. And the fallout from the closures has been devastating. 

Fuse, for one, had to lay off 30 employees. 

“It was terrible,” he said. “Luckily we’ve had a great crew that’s been with us for lots of years. We’ve been very lucky with that, and they become part of your family. When something like this happens, we have no choice. 

“We are trying to bring everybody in, just as little as we can, to give them a few hours and some money,” he said. “But it’s not easy.”

The two men said they take comfort from the interactions they’ve had with customers and neighbors. 

“This isn’t the perfect, sustainable business practice,” Saracino said of the curbside orders. “But I think it keeps us all going. It keeps a purpose for all of us, as the restaurant, as the business owners, as the residents, that we all are looking out for each other and we all are going to come through stronger.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.