St. Louis is known for many things – beer and baseball come immediately to mind – and locally, one of the most popular topics of debate is St. Louis-style pizza. The distinct cracker-thin crust is sturdy enough for the pile of toppings and thin layer of seasoned sauce that reach from edge to golden edge, and it is always cut into squares.
At the center of the dispute is Provel cheese: a buttery-yet-tangy, creamy and easily melted blend of Swiss, Cheddar and provolone, famously used and popularized by pizza powerhouse Imo’s Pizza. In business for 54 years, Imo’s is the grandfather of St. Louis-style pizza and serves the “square beyond compare” that’s a must-try for anyone looking to see what all the discussion is about.
“When someone says Imo’s and St. Louis-style pizza, they’re almost interchangeable,” says Dutch Guidici, franchise owner of multiple St. Louis-area locations. “Imo’s is an iconic part of the St. Louis food scene – you can get items at Imo’s that you can't find in other parts of the country.”
Although the original location at the corner of Shaw and Thurman avenues in the Shaw neighborhood is now shuttered, the Imo’s empire has now expanded to nearly 100 locally owned and operated locations across the state and Midwest. Plus, you can purchase Imo’s frozen pizzas, cheeses, sauces and appetizers and have them shipped anywhere in the United States.
“We’re in every neighborhood in the City of St. Louis,” Guidici says. “We don’t have to do fancy demographic analytics – our owners grew up with our customers, went to high school with our customers. Each store is a member of the community and part of the fabric of the neighborhood – they sponsor sports teams and give back to the community.”
Smiling Imo’s employees clad in “Peace. Love. Provel.” T-shirts happily serve up toasted ravioli (another local culinary signature), cheesy Provel bites, pasta and that legendary, square-cut staple. Guidici recommends the Deluxe Pizza, with sausage, mushroom, onion, green peppers, bacon and Provel; the veggie with mushroom, onion, black olives, tomatoes and green pepper; and the Egg-Ceptional Pizza with Imo’s Italian dressing, eggs, sausage and bacon – and all topped with that gooey Provel cheese.
Squarely (no pun intended) in the middle of the cheese debate is Pi Pizzeria, which holds a firm anti-Provel stance. Although founder Chris Sommers concedes the impact that Imo’s and its cheese have had on the local pizza scene shouldn’t be discounted, he wanted to open a place for those looking for a different taste.
“When we opened 10 years ago, you could probably count on one hand the number of [local] places you could get a non-Provel pizza,” Sommers says. “Our original customers were mainly people who moved here for [their careers] but who grew up eating anything but Provel. They didn’t have a home here until we opened up Pi, where they could enjoy a pizza that either reminded them of home or just didn’t have Provel.”
Now with four area locations in the Central West End, Downtown St. Louis, Chesterfield (carryout only) and the Delmar Loop (plus the D.C. metro), as well as a food truck and fast-casual sister concept, ‘Zza, Pi’s cornmeal deep-dish, thin or whole-grain crusted pies definitely won’t be confused with Imo’s.
The pizza names are derived from Sommers’ favorite U.S. cities and neighborhoods – Berkeley to Delmar to The Hill – and feature delicious, creative toppings made with fresh and local ingredients. The South Side Classico deep dish, for example, has mozzarella, sausage, mushroom, green pepper and onion underneath a thick layer of chunky tomato sauce. Another signature, the Maplewood, features mozzarella, spicy sausage, cherry peppers, Fontina and basil.
“Ten years in, we’re trying to continue to keep the menu fresh and make sure our attention to quality is the same every time you visit any of our stores,” Sommers says, “whether it be one of our new signature products or the South Side Classico, which has been on the menu for 10 years.”
For a taste of pizza that’s “sorta close to Italy,” head to Pastaria in Clayton, Missouri. Run by James Beard Award-winning chef Gerard Craft under his Niche Food Group operation, Pastaria is a favorite for organic housemade pasta, refreshing gelato and wood-fired pizzas that play off traditional Italian recipes. The Italian eatery’s pizzas are hand-tossed and fired in the 950°F oven for about 90 seconds to achieve a crispy crust with a soft crumb. Offerings range from classics like the Margherita or one with housemade pepperoni to the inventive, like a pie with Salume Beddu spicy ‘nduja pork salumi, mozzarella, garlic, oregano and honey.
“Pastaria is a must-stop because we have what you want,” says executive chef Ashley Shelton. “Everybody loves pizza, right? Our pizzas are approachable, and we source the best ingredients possible, so that helps make a pizza as simple as a Margherita a classic here.”
Take a bite of the Big Apple at Epic Pizza & Subs, which serves massive, foldable slices and whole pies of wood-fired East Coast-style pizza at its family-owned Soulard storefront. Along with rotating slices of the day (for example, the Frank Sriracha with olive oil, garlic, mozzarella, chicken, pineapple and goat cheese with a Sriracha drizzle), there are a number of whole-pizza options to choose from, as well as subs, burgers, wings and salads.
“The reason we named it Epic is because that’s what we think it is,” says general manager Dan Simpher. “We’ve had people from New York City come here, eat our pizza and tell us it’s better than anything they can get there.”
Perhaps most famous is Epic’s toasted ravioli pizza, which features a house meat blend plus provolone and mozzarella cheeses, served with a side of marinara. “It’s not a pizza with little toasted raviolis on it; it’s a toasted ravioli pizza,” Simpher says. “We worked for months to try to get it just right, to try to get it epic. It became such a hit and is now a favorite menu item.”
Walk up and buy a piping-hot slice of the scratch-made, hand-tossed best-sellers including classic New York-style cheese, Buffalo chicken and the Epic Supreme with pepperoni, sausage, bacon, green peppers, mushroom and onion.
Fortunately for St. Louisans, no matter your opinion on our eponymous style, there are plenty of worthy pizza contenders in all categories, from square to pie cuts, thin to thick, wood-fired to frozen.
“We put our heart and soul into everything we do here in St. Louis,” says Pastaria’s Ashley Shelton. “We love what we do, and you can taste that in the passion that every chef is putting into his or her twists or own take on pizza.”
Epic Pizza & Subs, 1711A S. Ninth St., Soulard, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.436.3742, epicpizzaandsubs.com
Imo’s Pizza, multiple locations, imospizza.com
Pastaria, 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, Missouri, 314.862.6603, pastariastl.com
Pi Pizzeria, multiple locations, pi-pizza.com