The 16-year-old Milano is the restaurant that gets no respect or not nearly as much as it deserves. To prove my point, I asked a dozen or so friends to name their favorite Italian restaurant in town. At the fancy end of the spectrum, they typically mentioned Jasper's or Lidia's, and the most laid-back favorites were Anthony's, Garozzo's or Accurso's. No one even mentioned Milano. "I never even think of that place," confessed a friend who dines out habitually. "Isn't it a restaurant for, you know, tourists?"
Well, Milano is located in the Crown Center complex of hotels, apartments, restaurants and shops, which is probably more of a lure for the convention crowds than the local trade. If you exclude Hallmark employees who often talk about patronizing Crown Center shops in artificially peppy tones, as if they had done a good deed I don't know anyone who really goes "shopping" at Crown Center. That even includes a friend who actually lives in the complex.
But even though the Crown Center complex is a blah in the retail category, it boasts some of this city's better restaurants: Skies and the Peppercorn Duck Club in the Hyatt; Benton's Chop House in the Westin; and Milano, the most underappreciated of the bunch.
Located on the street level in Crown Center, just steps away from the newly spiffed-up atrium lobby, Milano seemingly has all the right ingredients for success: free garage parking, a glass-paned main dining room, a professional waitstaff and an appealing menu. So why is it so often overlooked when patrons consider lively Italian restaurants?
My friend Ned, who lives nearby, says Milano became "staid and lifeless" during the years when it was operated by Culinary Concepts LLC, the dining division of Hallmark. I disagree, but it did lack a distinct personality in spite of its many face-lifts and chef changes over the years. And there were always rumors that few of its five dining operations were profitable. Last year Culinary Concepts finally said "Basta!" and handed over the management of three Crown Center restaurants Milano, the Crayola Café and Golden Harvest Bakery to the Hyatt corporation. (Culinary Concepts held on to its crown jewel, nationally recognized The American, and to the Patio dining room inside the Crown Center Hall's store.)
The restaurant we now know and don't really respect as Milano had a very respectable start. When the solarium-style dining room opened in 1981, it was a sophisticated American bistro called The Crystal Pavilion. Original manager Steve Cole, who went on to open the legendary Café Allegro, recalls the place as ahead of its time. "It was very cutting-edge," Cole says, "a casual version of The American."
Milano wasn't cutting-edge in any of its incarnations, but its focus on regional Italian cuisine was stylish, and the prices were reasonable. When the Hyatt took over Milano in the spring of 2004, I wrote that some loyalists feared that the cost-conscious management chain might "dumb down" former chef John Korycki's menu. I'm happy to report that since St. Louis-born chef Dominic Vaccaro took over the kitchen last year, the fare at Milano has improved dramatically. He's kept Korycki's best innovations including the grilled salmon heaped with tomatoes, capers, black olives and fresh oregano and put his own spin on the rest.