For a year and a half, chef Dawn Wilson has been serving her handmade pasta and assorted home goods from her Lafayette Square storefront, Vicini Pastaria (1916 Park Avenue, 314-827-6150), eagerly awaiting the day she could realize her full vision for the space. Now, that time has finally come: Vicini celebrated its grand opening on Saturday, November 26, offering fresh pasta, Italian-inspired prepared foods and a weekend lunch counter that promises a soulful taste of the Old Country.
Though Wilson has owned the building that houses Vicini since January of 2020, the restaurant's roots actually stretch back 16 years to a leap of faith and a dramatic career change. Back then, Wilson, who has degrees in biology and molecular genetics, was working as a research scientist in a lab in Chicago, but she could not shake the feeling that she was meant to take a different path. She began exploring her longtime passion for food through part-time cooking jobs around the Windy City and eventually realized that she was finding more fulfillment from those gigs than her science career. Ready to make a change, she left her research job and founded a private chef company that led to a partnership with Whole Foods' cooking school.
It became apparent to Wilson that the part of cooking she loved the most was making fresh pasta, and she threw herself into perfecting her skills, first on her own and eventually at a slow food restaurant in Tuscany where she learned from masters of the craft. Her experiences in Italy were formative and made her realize that, one day, she'd like to open a business that captured what it is like to eat and drink in the small village where she worked.
"I just loved that feeling in Italy where they slow down and enjoy their food, and meals are this hours-long experience where people are just relaxing and getting together with family and friends," Wilson says. "I wanted to recreate that relaxed, rustic, family-run spot. That's what gave me the impetus to start Vicini; I wanted to have this brick and mortar that was the kind of casual neighborhood spot people would hang out. It just took me a while to get there."
Wilson founded Vicini Pastaria in 2016 as a handmade pasta company while she searched for a brick and mortar. Having no luck with finding a storefront in Chicago, she decided to move back to her hometown, St. Louis, the next year and spent 2017 through 2019 traveling back and forth between the two cities for her private chef business. By January of 2020, she was fully committed to the St. Louis market and had found a building in Lafayette Square that ticked off every box she had in mind for Vicini. The plan was to get the place open by May of 2020. It was clear the pandemic would delay that, but it was a personal tragedy that completely flipped the script.
"I was in a car accident two days after we opened the shop and had a head injury, which is why this whole thing has been delayed," Wilson explains. "I thought I would be back in a few days or a week, but I was completely out of commission for five months. Even three years later, I'm not fully recovered. It makes it difficult to plan, because you don't know how you are going to feel from one day to the next; you have to make plans in this business to give customers consistency. I'm doing the best I can."
Now, roughly three and a half years after her injury, Wilson still has her good days and bad days, but she feels ready to take on Vicini in full-force. This means that, in addition to offering the handmade pastas and home goods she's been serving from the shop for the past year, Wilson now has a rotating selection of prepared foods ready for folks to grab and go. Though her selection changes regularly, dishes include a variety of salads, braised meats, Tuscan meatballs, arancini and porchetta, ready to heat and serve for a delicious, home-cooked meal without the work. The expanded operation also includes a larger selection of fresh pastas served out of the deli case; she highly recommends her special, the pici, which is a long, hand-rolled noodle similar to a fat spaghetti.
In addition to her fresh pastas and prepared foods, Wilson is excited to run Vicini's weekend lunch counter. For now, she offers a small, rotating selection of pastas and dishes on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., though she plans on seeing how things go and may expand her hours as she's up to it. In the meantime, she's just happy that she can finally bring to her guests the Vicini she's always dreamed of and is thrilled to be a part of such a close-knit community.
"The neighborhood has been incredibly supportive, and I'm so happy that I chose this area to live in and build a business," Wilson says. "I am in love with Lafayette Square."
Vicini Pastaria is open Monday and Friday from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Weekend lunch is served from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.