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Oh, Me. Oh, Pie!

An anything-but-cheesy celebration of the best pizza in St. Louis

Yes, yes, pizza is a subjective and touchy subject, but it really gets complicated around here: Thin crust or thick crust? Provel or mozz? There are the chains and the local dives, the gourmet and the workmanlike. And don’t even get us started on the whole flatbread thing. As any St. Louisan can tell you, discussions of “favorites” get bristly and complicated quickly.

So with that old “even when it’s bad, it’s good” proverb in mind, we have deferred to a more genteel treatment: We present 20 not-so-conventional categories of the very best St. Louis has to offer—some obvious, some humorous, some odd and some we hope will get you thinking outside the cardboard pizza box.


Best Pizza to Put a Nationally Renowned Chef to Shame
What do Dewey’s Pizza and Wolfgang Puck have in common? Gourmet pizza. (If the Wolf visited Dewey’s, he’d consider the pesto-flecked Green Lantern—and wish he’d created it himself.) Throughout the broad menu, it’s the flavors of the toppings—not their sheer volume—that impress. In a setting that’s “classy for a pizza parlor,” witness the handful of showstopper salads and the abundance (finally!) of beer and wine, and you’ll see why even Puck’s corporate gurus were blown away when they paid a visit. (124 N. Kirkwood, 314-821-7474; two other area locations)

Best Low-Guilt-Quotient Pizza
With thousands of pizza options available, it’s a mystery no one has created one that’s relatively heart-smart. In the meantime, we’re heading to Brio for the cracker-crisp Margherita pizza with tomatoes, threads of basil and fresh mozzarella cheese. If it’s not cardiologist-approved, it’s close, and a wise choice—until you succumb to the flaxseed crackers and the half-boule of bread that accompany it. Now that you’ve blown it, you might as well go ahead and load up on Brio’s mints. (1601 Lindbergh, 314-432-4410)

Best Seafood Pizza
Open up a Caito’s Seafood Pizza box, close your eyes and take a big sniff—you’ll swear it’s the pasta tutto mare from your favorite trattoria. The garlic, the olive oil, the sweet smell of shrimp and crab—it’s all there. The aroma alone is worth the 15 bucks you’ll pay for this pie. And not to sound like Ron Popeil ... but there’s more! Pesto, capers and bits of basil share space with an unexpected textural treat that shoots this pizza into the Sicilian stratosphere: bite-size pieces of calamari. Squidilicious! (414 THF Blvd., 636-530-9222; 10012 Manchester, 314-966-8900)

Best Pizza to Fold Over
Ask anyone from the East Coast: You have to fold your slice. It’s the rule. And at Racanelli’s, that’s the only way to keep everything together: untold strands of gooey, yet malleable cheese, tangy tomato sauce that acts as the culinary glue and that chewy, bubbly, not-at-all-doughy crust that practically melts into itself when you make the fold. If you do it right, plates won’t be necessary—but napkins will. (6655 Delmar, 314-727-7227; four other locations)

Best Pizza With a Pastry
Cooking hand-tossed pizzas in The Daily Bread’s hearth oven is a cruel stroke of genius. Toppings of roasted peppers, smoked chicken and goat cheese only weaken the will. Give in to one of these $8 gems knowing it may also be the best pizza value in town—then invest the savings in a cream cheese cinnamon roll or a gooey butter Danish, and smile your way right out the door. (11719 Manchester, 314-909-0010)

Best Four-Alarm-Fire Pizza
There are times when you just don’t want to feel your tongue. Times when you want to have to down an entire glass of water just to put out the flames inside your mouth. Times when a habanero simply won’t do. What you crave is the Franco’s Cajun Pride from Joanie’s Pizza—Cajun seasoned ground beef, green peppers, onions, black olives, cayenne pepper and mozzarella piled high on a thin crust so the heat isn’t absorbed by anything except you. Now that’s hot. (2101 Menard, 314-865-1994)

Best Pizza the Next Day
Any discussion of leftover pizza assumes it will be served cold or microwaved. There is a better way. Serra’s Pizzeria, whose box even boasts, “Our pizza is the best,” serves a superior not-too-thin pizza on a crust that’s just as perfect the following day. The secret? Heat the leftover slices in a mostly covered skillet for several minutes, and spritz on a little water at the end. The slices will be as crispy as the ones you ate the night before. (12218 McKelvey, 314-739-0881)

Best Pizza for $1.88
Sam’s, as in Sam’s Club? Really? Shake your head and tsk, but there will come a time when you’ll get “the eyebrow” for your multiple trips through the “free samples” line. Time to move along ... to that hot pizza for sale up front. It’s important you locate the freshest slice, shake on some parm and peppers and be amazed at how good an impulse buy can be. It’s not a free sample, but it’s close. (10248 Big Bend, 314-965-7076; six other area locations)

Best Pizza With Wine (and the Best Wine to Go With It)
Erato Wine Bar is masterful at selecting wines, but who knew the mastery extended to pizza-making? Try the pie that combines thick chorizo sausage and green pepper—a pizza that calls for a wine with some bite—and pair it with the fruity, dark and peppery Codice Vino de la Tierra. This Spanish blend, aptly described as “a Pinot Noir on steroids,” muscled us through to the last bite. Or try the smoked turkey and pepperoni—and uncork a zesty white. (3117 S. Grand, 314-664-6400; 126 N. Main, Edwardsville, 618-307-3203)

Best Soon-To-Be-Famous Pizza
Sometimes nice guys finish first. That’s our prediction for Roberto Bommarito, of Bommarito’s Pizzeria. His year-old pizzeria isn’t fancy or well-known or even very big (four tables and a hidden patio), but his pizza and his San Marzano red sauce are as genuine as his handshake. It’s no surprise that he named his best pizza, the Don Antonio, after his son—but who knew a kid would like capers and Kalamata olives? (8916 Gravois, 314-638-1300)

Best Legendary Pizza
Athletic teams believe in “getting back to basics.” If that’s your mantra when it comes to pizza, Farotto’s might be your new favorite. The local institution has stayed in the game for years by following the same basic formula: perfectly distributed, properly sized premium toppings on top of a rolled-thin crust. The precise pickup time for every order is called out by the pizza-man-in-charge, ensuring critical just-from-the-oven freshness. There’s no future in soggy pizza—Farotto’s has known that for 50 years. (9525 Manchester, 314-962-0048; 17417 Chesterfield Airport Road, 636-519-0048)

Best Ultra-Lightweight Pizza
Did anyone even know Trattoria Marcella had pizza? (We can never get past the stuffed artichoke and the lobster risotto.) But leave it to the brothers Komorek to create the quintessential eat-it-all thin crust: a subtle crunch that graduates to a perfect snap at the edges, at which point it breaks but doesn’t shatter—so easy to envision, but so hard to execute. Rolled out into a novel oval shape, all four varieties (“Stefano,” “Rustica,” four cheese and pancetta and spinach) are so equally perfect you may never pick a favorite. (3600 Watson, 314-352-7706)

Best Heavyweight Pizza
If you’ve been searching for the heavyweight champ of a pizza, one with more muscle than Hulk Hogan and more bite than Mike Tyson, Blackthorn Pub has what you crave. The Chicago-style deep dish is a dense mass of buttery crust and cheese, upon which your choice of tasty toppings are strewn about. (The kitchen here is so liberal with those toppings that the formidable crust seems barely noticeable in comparison.) It is not something you eat when you want to lose weight. It’s something with weight—and heft and girth. (3735 Wyoming, 314-776-0534)

Best Pizza That Sounds Weird But Is Actually Really Good
Eggs on a pizza? Too bizarre, you might say, even from the folks who brought us Provel, but trust us: Imo’s Eggsceptional Pizza, containing eggs, bacon, sausage and Provel, is tastybliss on top of that crackery crust. And it reheats perfectly. Crazy? Then you’ll think us way deranged when we recommend it with a drizzle of honey. It’s only available at selected Imo’s because so few people know it exists. Time to change all that. (7359 Forsyth, 314-862-4667; 63 other area locations; call for availability)

Best Who-Cares-If-It’s-a-Chain Pizza
You wish you could brag to friends about your favorite neighborhood pizza place, but they’ve probably got a Pizza World in theirs, too. At least you can boast about the combination you created with spinach, Swiss cheese, fresh tomatoes and mandarin oranges on a whole wheat crust. Or, you can steer them toward the “Americana”: ground beef, bacon, cheddar and mozzarella cheeses crowned by a mustard glaze. Either way, the chain of pizza love just grew a little stronger. (3240 Laclede Station, 314-781-2433; four other locations)

Most Unusual—but Logical, If You Think About It—Pizza Topping
In New Orleans, you find pizza topped with catfish and fried okra; in Montreal, it’s foie gras with figs. Here, at A’mis Italian Restaurant, it’s ... fried eggplant? Think about it. Chopped up and baked right into the mozzarella, it’s as Italian as olive oil. Lovers of eggplant Parmesan will order it as a single topping, but it works better when added to the New York–style “A’mis Special.” Maybe Ami will name this combination after us. (9824 Manchester, 314-963-1822; 3728 Monticello Plaza, 636-329-8787)

Best Pizza for Dessert
Pizza isn’t just for dinner anymore. Napoli Pizza in St. Peters gets a big thumbs-up from the chocolate gods for topping gently sweetened dough, warm and crunchy like a cookie, with the lusciously decadent Nutella, a hazelnut and chocolate spread that is to Europeans what peanut butter is to Americans. Just a few years ago dessert pizzas were topped only with sticky fruit; Nutella represents a quantum leap. (7114 Mexico Road, 636-397-7499)

Best Pizza for the Kids
Rarely do you associate pizza and kids with a place that doesn’t involve singing animals, Skee-Ball and loads of screaming. Thankfully, Café Manhattan offers a family-friendly atmosphere complete with a jukebox, a counter full of penny candy and a soda fountain that serves kid-friendly treats. And then there’s the pizza: For fussy kids, there’s pepperoni. For the grownups, it’s the “Manhattan,” a showstopper loaded with four kinds of meat and two kinds of cheese on your choice of three crusts, including a whole-wheat option. (511 S. Hanley, 314-863-5695; 9992 Lin Ferry, 314-849-4143)

Best Pizza for the Adventurous
In a round-table discussion of which pizza toppings might qualify as “adventurous,” just about every option could make the list—he says green chiles, she says capocollo ham. It’s good, then, that Il Vicino’s pizzas are on the small side, making it possible to ease oneself into dare-we-say-daring toppings like capers, grilled eggplant, turkey sausage, garlic oil and gorgonzola cheese. Consider it a bonus that these guys wrote the book on fast-casual service. (41 N. Central, 314-727-1333)

Best Pizza at 2 in the Morning
It’s late, you’re headed home, you’re hungry and you just can’t stomach a double-cheese Whitey. You’re ready for a “boardwalk experience,” courtesy of Feraro’s jersey style pizza, which is open until 3 a.m. on weekends and sells both pies and slices. The owner is passionate about pizza and will tell you so as you gaze at a giant mural of the Jersey shore and The Boss serenades you from the sound system. What time is it, 2 a.m. or 1980? Who cares! The pizza hits a high note every time. (1862 S. 10th, 314-588-8345).


A Sticky Debate
It’s the ingredient that distinguishes St. Louis–style pizza from all the rest, but introduce it to a nonnative, and the response ranges from polite incredulity to downright revulsion. There is even dissension within the St. Louis Magazine ranks ...

Love It
George Mahe: Provel cheese is as divisive as “beans in chili”: You’re either a believer or you’re not. Yes, it’s sticky, it’s too
runny, it’s a funny color ... fine. After years of contemplation and experimentation, this St. Louisan has come up with a solution to the debate: Blend it. Provel is a combination of Swiss, provolone and cheddar cheese that I contend is best appreciated when blended with a milder cheese, such as mozzarella. Naysayers should at least try a St. Louis–style pizza with the mozz-Provel blend (all parlors carry both cheeses). The result is a milder Provel flavor (without the deleterious side effects) tucked into the firmness and elasticity of mozz. It’s the great compromise, folks. Add it to garlic bread or bake it atop “muskacholi.” Case closed. And as for beans in chili ...
I put in a few.

Loathe It
Dave Lowry: Dislike Provel? Why no. We merely find wisdom in a legend from the ancient Greeks. According to their mythology, Provel was the bastard child in an unholy union of Amoco, god of petroleum products, and the goddess of potluck suppers, Velveetus. Their shameful progeny, you will remember, was cursed to wander that misty netherworld, a shadowy land in which it is difficult to distinguish between comestible and industrial adhesive. And so, forever lost, Provel’s lot is aimless meandering, clogging eternally the byways, searching for his true identity. Provel’s popularity in St. Louis and the sclerotic nightmare of the I-40 arterial shutdown: Coincidence? Perhaps.


Imo’s Spreads Its Wings

It’s a well-known fact that Provel cheese—the defining element in St. Louis–style pizza—can be strangely addictive, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that it’s not easy to find outside the St. Louis area; move out of town, and your connection is cut off. (No more St. Louis pizza for you!) Several years ago—and only as a courtesy to the most vocal addicts—Imo’s Pizza began packing pizzas in dry ice and overnighting them across the country, an expensive and labor-intensive process. But the requests kept coming.

It was an Imo’s franchisee in tiny Troy, Ill., who decided to roll the dice with long-distance delivery, even though there was only one other pizzeria in the country doing so (Gino’s East of Chicago). What a worthwhile gamble it was. Now in its sixth year, the side business (accessible through imospizza.com) has grown modestly, but steadily, and now has several clients who order 30 to 40 pizzas at a time, helping Imo’s become the biggest shipper in Troy. The 2007 holiday season was that franchisee’s best ever, with pizza deliveries “in the thousands.” And it’s not just pizza. They will ship the entire Imo’s experience: pizza, salad dressing, toasted ravioli and—to prolong the ecstasy—additional pizza shells, sauce and the kicker ... bulk Provel cheese. Plus, there’s something really nice for the recipient: You don’t have to tip the UPS driver.


What Is A Flatbread Anyway?

As with Yeats and Keats or the Olsen twins, making the distinction between pizza and flatbread is taxing. Differences are subtle and often open to some individual interpretation. Some criteria:
  • Like Hollywood marriages and Homer Simpson, the answer is often in the dough. Some flatbreads are leavened; some aren’t. Pizza dough, though, always is. It’s also usually rolled or tossed thinner than flatbread dough. What comes out of the oven can further clarify things.
     
  • All-important is the “bead.” It’s a baker’s term, referring to the bubbles inside the crust. Flatbread’s beads are usually uniform in size and distribution; in pizza, those big, irregular bubbles define the slice at its best. Commercial pizza dough can’t replicate this, incidentally. It must be house-made. That’s why the crust from chain pizza joints looks and feels in the mouth more like Bunny Bread than anything else.
     
  • The crunchiness of that crust is vital. A flatbread is soft. Pizza crusts crunch.
     
  • Will the baked results be tasty slathered with tomato sauce? If so, the base bread is likely suitable for pizza. If it seems more amenable to a sheen of olive oil, a scattering of pine nuts or olives, chances are it’s a flatbread, like focaccia.
     
  • Finally, while flatbread tastes best and is meant to be eaten at room temperature, pizza’s eaten hot or—with that cheese-begunked box as an elegant serving plate—nicely chilled right out of the refrigerator for a “casual” breakfast.

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