St. Louis pizza is the style everyone loves to hate. Why can't Missouri be proud of that?
In St. Louis, Missouri, Imo’s Pizza is an institution.
Customers flock here for what Imo’s calls “the original St. Louis-style pizza”: a square-cut pie with an unleavened cracker crust and topped with processed Provel cheese, a city-specific blend of cheddar, Swiss and provolone.
“It all just goes together so well and it just melts perfectly, and with that crispy crust, it’s to die for,” says customer Stephanie Meyer, a lifelong St. Louis resident. “You know, growing up on it, it's always been a staple. It’s always been good pizza.”
Not everyone agrees. At nearby Pi Pizzeria in St. Louis, servers used to wear shirts with the word Provel crossed out. And TV talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, whose wife hails from St. Louis, regularly makes celebrity guests like Simone Biles debate this pizza live on air.
Actor Jon Hamm, a St. Louis native, is a ready defender — saying that, to him, Imo’s Pizza tastes like “the Gateway Arch” and “11 World Series victories.”
Of the many regional pizzas in the U.S., is there another that elicits as much scrutiny and debate as St. Louis-style and its iconic cheese?
Kenji López-Alt — author of The Food Lab, food writer for the New York Times and self-proclaimed pizza enthusiast — saw this phenomenon firsthand when he traveled to St. Louis in 2014. He took to Twitter to ask locals where and what he should eat while he was in town.
“People would tell me to stop and get St. Louis-style pizza,” López-Alt says, “and then in that same thread, other people were like, ‘But before you go, we should set your expectations because this is not like any other pizza you've ever had.’”
López-Alt did try it, and found he actually liked it. He loved the crispy crust and how the toppings went all the way out to the edges, and the creamy, slightly smoky blanket of Provel cheese holding everything together.
And, to top it all, he loved how the pizza tasted almost exactly the same the day after he first ordered it. That’s thanks to the stabilizers and emulsifying salt in the Provel, which doesn’t congeal in the same way that mozzarella does.
“If you go into this comparing it to other styles of pizza, say New York or Chicago style, thin crust… that's where you can come away disappointed, because there’s really nothing like any other style of pizza because of that cheese and that unleavened crust,” explains López-Alt. “I think my enjoyment of it went up significantly once I stopped thinking about it as something I needed to compare to other styles of pizza.”
Meet pizza in St. Louis
Trying to put together an origin story for St. Louis-style pizza is tough — especially considering there’s varying opinions on what even classifies a pizza as “St. Louis-style.”
As Ed Levine recounts in his book “A Slice of Heaven: A History of Pizza in America,” when Italians began immigrating here, they brought pizza with them. Many of America’s original pizza makers were documented as entering through Ellis Island in New York, which is where Gennaro Lombardi applied for the first U.S. license to make and sell pizza in 1905.
During the 1920s and 30s, pizza restaurants followed Italian Americans who moved for factory jobs in cities across the U.S. After World War II, many G.I.’s who served in Europe returned home with a taste for pizza — and helped bring the dish mainstream.
St. Louis was relatively late to the American pizza party; the city did not get their first pizza parlor until 1945 with the opening of Melrose Café & Pizzeria.
Its owner, Amadeo Fiore, was a second-generation Italian American opera singer, a tenor, who originally moved with his wife from Chicago to sing with The Muny Opera Theatre. Fiore decided to open his own Italian restaurant in the basement of the Melrose Apartment building.
“So you might hear him singing in the restaurant, which is not uncommon in Italian restaurants,” says Ron Elz, a St. Louis historian and longtime radio personality.
Pizza wasn’t even on the menu until a suggestion from Fiore’s friend, Hack Ulrich, the manager of the Chase Club at the Chase Hotel a few blocks away. Ulrich told Fiore that hotel guests who were visiting from New York and Chicago kept asking where they could find pizza pie in St. Louis. So Fiore started making pizzas for out-of-towners, until soon his regulars wanted to try it too.
Fiore knew he had a marketing opportunity: Outside of the Italian community, most St. Louisans still hadn’t heard about pizza. So he took out ads in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch promoting his hot new dish “peetsa” pie. Eventually the newspaper did a story on Melrose Café, kicking the popularity of pizza into high gear.
Fiore’s original pizza revealed the beginnings of the style we know today. The Neapolitan-style pie boasted a thin albeit yeasted dough, topped with tomato sauce, provolone, and only a few toppings like anchovies, olives and ground pork.
When the pizza comes out of the oven, photos show Fiore cutting the round pie into squares with shears — like they do in Italy — creating what may be the first square slice in St. Louis. “The squares, held with a paper napkin, are eaten from the hand,” the Post-Dispatch’s story reads.
For Elz, it’s that crust that defines the style.
“St. Louis-style pizza is thin crust pizza, that's it, OK?” Elz says. “You can put whatever you want on it. You can put olive oil on top of it, or you can do a corn meal underneath it, but it is thin pizza. That's St. Louis-style pizza. It's not the cheese, it's the pizza, it's about the dough. It must be thin.”
Soon after the newspaper feature on Fiore, several other Italian American restaurateurs began to open pizza shops in St. Louis, with all of them pretty much serving the same style of pie. Some even trained with Fiore himself.
“Oddly enough, anchovy was really, really popular,” Elz says of the time. “Recently, I went to a place that I really liked for pizza with the thinnest of the thin crust pizzas I've ever had anywhere. The owner came by when I was eating a pizza and he said, ‘Oh, old school guy, huh?’ because I had anchovies. He said not that many people order anchovies anymore, but it was a big deal at that time.”
Provel: the pride of St. Louis?
While Elz may consider the crispy thin crust as the main hallmark of a St. Louis pizza, that’s not necessarily unique to the city.
Chicago’s other notable varietal — tavern style — features a thin, circular crust that’s cut into squares, as do the pizzas in Columbus, Ohio.
One thing that none of those other pizzas have? Provel. But it’s not until the middle of the 20th century that we see this iconic cheese enter the picture.
Tony Costa, owner of Costa’s Grocery in the Hill in St. Louis, reportedly worked with J.S. Hoffman Co., a Chicago importer of meats and cheeses, to create an entirely new cheese that would maintain a melted, creamy texture even when it cooled.
They succeeded in 1950, when they were granted a patent for Provel — an “arbitrarily coined word in the English language,” according to the application. Soon the cheese made its way to Italian deli cases in St. Louis.
“It's a smoky blend that's got a nice tangy flavor, and we love it because it has a low melting point,” says Mandy Manley, the social media and communications manager for Imo’s Pizza. “When it goes into the oven, it turns into this ooey, gooey, creamy cheesy mixture that, oh my gosh, when you pull a piece off, you don’t get the same stretch that you would with mozzarella, but the cheese stays on the slice”
Perfect, really, for a pizza being cut into squares, so the slices don’t lose their toppings and can be eaten pretty neatly.
Luigi’s Restaurant was the first to offer Provel cheese as pizza topping in 1953, Elz says, after one of their chefs found it in a local Italian deli.
But Provel didn’t get its big break until 1964 when Ed and Margie Imo made it the default cheese on all the pies at their new restaurant: Imo’s Pizza.
“When you say St. Louis, Imo’s pops into people’s heads,” says Dutch Guidici, owner of the franchise location on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis. “We’re so intertwined with St. Louis.”
Imo’s strong association with St. Louis-style pizza came, in large part, because the shop used a very effective gimmick: Delivery.
Imo’s was the first pizza shop in St. Louis to offer delivery, with Margie’s brother serving as their dedicated driver. The revolutionary-for-the-time convenience helped to make Imo’s a mainstay, and eventually spread this unique pizza through the region. There’s now over 100 Imo’s locations throughout Missouri, Illinois and Kansas, all serving St. Louis-style pies.
Sam Sifton, food editor for the New York Times, has a “pizza cognition theory” asserting that, for every individual, the first style or type of pizza they eat will remain, for the rest of their life, their personal definition of “pizza.”
Most people really like that first pizza they eat, whether it’s New York’s giant slices or Detroit’s rectangular pan pizza, but López-Alt claims that St. Louis was the exception.
“It was funny because everybody thinks that their town has the best pizza, but St. Louis was the only town I've seen where there were equal parts, people who seemed to love it and people who kind of apologized for it,” López-Alt says.
During López-Alt’s adventures, he found Provel to be a consistent hang-up — the element that determines whether people think St. Louis-style pizza is crave-able or cringeworthy.
But he also offers a different perspective.
“There is sort of this, I think, European chauvinism about processed American food. The idea that America doesn't have its own food culture because we just imported culture from everywhere else,” he explains. “First of all, all cheese by definition is processed, right? It's all American cheese, it just happens to have an extra emulsifying salt added to it.
“The analogy I use is, if you say that American cheese is not real cheese, well, then it’s like saying sausage is not real meat,” López-Alt continues. “A sausage is made from meat and it has a couple other things added to it and then you kind of knead it together. That's what a sausage is. And American style cheese, or Provel, starts with regular cheese, whatever kind of cheese you want, then you add a couple of ingredients to it and you mix it together and that's American cheese.”
López-Alt may be an outsider, but he wants to see St. Louisans embrace their pizza — in all its unconventional glory.
“I still think it's great to sort of celebrate the uniqueness of where you live, because that's what makes it interesting to travel and what makes it interesting to meet other people,” he says. “Especially with something like pizza where, the landscape is dominated by a few major cities – Naples and New York and Chicago and Detroit these days. I think you can celebrate your own regional pizza style, partaking in its history, appreciating it for what it is, you know?”
A pizza influenced by many, but duplicated by none. Much like St. Louis itself.
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