If you’ve ever eaten at a friend’s house where Grandma from the old country does most of the cooking, that’s what chef Pepe Kehm is trying to do in Peno, his new spot in Clayton. It is plopped in the center of a residential neighborhood, The Moorlands, in a storefront that was most recently a pizza place, and before that, a cleaners.
With only 25 seats, this is a little like eating at someone’s house. Kehm, who moves from table to table to greet diners, explains the food is home-style, like his own family in Calabria (southern Italy) would have served. He calls the offerings ‘southern Italy soul food,’ so expect to see dishes that don’t conform to our idea of traditional Italian.
Like the Rice with Chicken Livers & Lentils ($5) on the ‘Contorno’ (sides) list. Or the Savory Truffle Cannoli ($6), our starter. A sweet, crunchy cannoli tube was stuffed with truffle oil-laced ricotta and served with a large ramekin of truffle custard with truffle ragu. Some elements were great, others struck me as odd, but maybe that is what Kehm is doing: shaking up our notions of Italian cuisine. The custard, served with well-oiled crostini, was delicious, with a topping of deeply flavored demi-glace and shaved truffles. I found the cannoli, though, too sweet for a savory treatment.
The entree menu is nicely varied, with plenty of both fish and meat, as well as pizza choices if that’s your preference. The Calamari ($10.95), rings of tender squid, was very good. Its sauce was deep and rich with well-concentrated flavors, most notably fish stock and wine. For this dish, you need the bread basket ($2.50) to sop up all that deliciousness. The breads are housemade and very good, including slices of moist cornbread and chunks of grainy peasant bread, some of them oiled and herbed.
The Tutto Mare special one night ($18) had clams, mussels, halibut and swordfish in a tomato broth with oregano flavor and lightly seasoned with red pepper flakes and shiitake mushrooms.
A special of Braciole ($15) was quite good, served with potatoes au gratin. The classic dish of thinly pounded beef, filled and rolled up was nicely done. The typical filling is breadcrumb, but here, the beef is rolled around sliced salami, spinach and a hard-boiled egg, resulting in interesting layers. The accompanying potatoes were delicious and buttery.
Our anchovy pizza, called the Don Michael, was ordered Sicilian style ($18), with a very thick, bready crust and light on the tomato and cheese. That’s OK; it had plenty of salty, briny anchovy flavor and some nice, fresh thyme.
The Roasted Leg of Lamb ($17) had slices of meat with gravy and a side of rice with chicken livers. The lamb was too gamey for my taste, and while I appreciate good chicken livers, something about these was a little off.
Desserts are made in-house, too, and we sampled the Calabrian Candy Bar ($5), which had a good zabaglione sauce on top and came with excellent buttery cookies. But the bar itself was nothing more than a chocolate log of ganache. Another dessert option, Grand Marnier Cannoli was very good, a light tube filled with ricotta, pistachios and chocolate chips.
the scene | Tiny neighborhood eatery with Calabrian food
the prices | $8 to $13 antipasti, $13 to $17 entrees, $15 to $18 pizzas
the chef | Pepe Kehm
the favorites | Sautéed Calamari, Roasted Cauliflower with Tomato & Breadcrumbs, Eggplant Involtini, Tutto Mare
chef chat » pepe kehm
pedigree | I trained in Brittany, France.
favorite ingredient | Broth
favorite cookbnook | Essential Pepin by Jacques Pépin
favorite st. louis restaurant | Michael’s Bar & Grill
most memorable dining experience | Restaurant Maxime Crouzil in Plancoët, France
guilty pleasure | Artisan bread
7600 wydown blvd. | 314.899.9699
Photos: Bill Barrett