This is NOT a paid endorsement.
I went to graduate school in southeast Missouri, conveniently called Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO for short). My then-boyfriend, now-husband had a full-ride scholarship there, including room and board, food, books, tuition plus even a little spending money (yes, he is that scary smart).
SEMO is located in a small, hilly, green and pretty town called Cape Girardeau, that sits on a bluff, overlooking the Mississippi River. Summers are hot and muggy, springs are full of blossoming dogwood, redbuds, magnolias, daffodils, azaleas, and Japanese gingko trees (on campus). Winters are fairly mild, and autumns are foggy and rainy with colorful trees, which make this time in Missouri easily my favorite season.
There was at the time (early ‘90s), and still is, a large mall in Cape Girardeau. In this generic, American mall, one could find everything — a jewelry store, a book store, a kiosk selling shiny things like combs for hair or (now) cell phone accessories, clothing stores, a candy store, shoe stores, etc., etc., etc. And, of course, one could always find several fast-food-type restaurants.
But one particular restaurant was a sit-down restaurant with waiters, and wine, and appetizers. This restaurant, The Pasta House Co., specialized in Italian food, but what had me hooked and kept me coming back, week after week, was, indeed, their salad. More specifically, their fantastic salad dressing. There was something about it, something nearly addictive. As a college student, it was actually pretty affordable, because it was all you could eat for one price. I would order the never-ending bowl (that came with rolls) and dive into it, emerging several plates later, sopping up the bottom with the crust of the last roll, the pimentos pushed aside (the only ingredient I don’t care for in that salad). I would then sit back, sighing contentedly, patting my protruding stomach, happily knowing that I’ve only spent about $5 (plus I’d throw in $2 for tips) for lunch.
The restaurant closed a few years ago, even though it moved out of the mall and into its own building. Every time we visited my husband’s mom, who lives in St. Louis (which is only about an hour and a half north from Cape, at least the way we drive), we’d make the pilgrimage to SEMO. There, we drive around the University with the kids, who at this point know it nearly as well as we do, and cap the nostalgia tour with the visit to The Pasta House Co. Restaurant. And while the family would study the menu, I would order the same thing I ordered when I was but a poor grad student — the never-ending salad with rolls and sweet tea.
However, I do not despair. Because there is still a restaurant, THE original restaurant. The Pasta House Co. Restaurant is still located in St. Louis, Missouri, and not that far from my mother-in-law’s place. When visiting her, we could always go into that fine establishment. But even if things go badly and the restaurant should find itself closing its doors, there is still hope for me.
About fifteen years ago I was sitting in Denver, and thinking of my beloved salad. Why couldn’t I call up the restaurant and have them ship me three or four bottles of their dressing? They do sell it in the restaurant, after all. So that is exactly what I did. Sure enough, a week later, three bottles of dressing showed up in my house. In the back of the bottles are the directions for making the salad. Not the secret, which I know and will reveal, just the directions.
If you happen to live in Missouri, you don’t actually have to go to the restaurant to get the dressing. You can pick it up at most grocery stores. (My favorite grocery store in St. Louis goes by the improbable name of Schnucks.) However, what most people now have is the Internet. With this, you can probably order the dressing anywhere you live in the world. My mom-in-law, and a few Missouri friends send me the dressing for Hanukkah, which I always appreciate, plus when we visit, I usually stock up.
So, with trial and a few errors, which after more trials I have eliminated, I have created a salad of my past, but better. I will share my recipe with the readers, not the one on the back of the bottle, including the secret. I have omitted the pimentos, because I don’t care for them, but you may certainly add them. I don’t think they have any taste, it’s just a purely textural thing, and again, personal. (A word of caution: Even though this is a salad, this dressing is far from low calorie. If you are trying to save a few calories and decide to go for the low-calorie version of the dressing, which is available, be warned — it does NOT taste the same. It tastes much different. Translation: worse. That said, eat at your own peril.)
1 head iceberg lettuce
1 head romaine lettuce
1 medium red onion
1 can of artichoke hearts in water
about half of the bottle of The Pasta House Co. Famous Salad Dressing
1/2 to a cup grated parmigiano cheese
At least 4, but preferably 6 hours prior to serving
Slice the red onion thinly into a container, (I also separate it, making sure all the onion rings are apart) pour about half of the bottle of well-shaken dressing over it, and put it into the refrigerator. This is the secret, making sure the onion marinates in the dressing for a while. I used to do it overnight, but that is not necessary. I now do this part in the morning, knowing that we are going to enjoy the salad for dinner around 5 or 6 pm.
Also, make sure that all the ingredients are refrigerated, so the salad is served cold. If you think of it, turn the container with the onions over once. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. The onions do just fine either way.
When it’s time to serve, tear the heads of both the iceberg and romaine lettuces into small pieces. I don’t care for cobb, so I simply tear around it. If you like cobb pieces, you may include them — the restaurant does.
I also take an extra step, and tear artichoke hearts apart, leaf by leaf. The restaurant pretty much just cuts them in half. This is entirely up to you. When I make the salad, I de-leaf the artichoke hearts, when my husband does it, he just cuts them in half, but either way it tastes great.
Now we add the onion and mix them and the dressing into the salad.
The final step is small, but crucial. Get a wedge of parmigiano cheese — we get the cheap, not made in Italy kind, as long as it’s close enough. Then we grate it. We like lots and lots of it, usually grate the entire cup of it, and mix it into the salad right before we serve it. I really suggest you grate it yourself and not cut corners on this step; I promise it’s worth it.
One final word — I’ve eaten this salad with white dinner rolls, thick Lithuanian rye bread, crunchy French baguette and slices of cheesy garlic bread. There is no wrong bread for this salad, and is entirely up to your personal preference.