New York and Chicago-style pizzas may be better known around the country, but the St. Louis-style was engineered to stand apart from every other place in the country.
In the 1950s, a collaboration between a local grocery store and dairy producer led to a cheese product with the, arguably, most desirable pizza traits. With toppings stacked to the edge of thecrust, every full-mouthed bite of a St. Louis pizza reminds you that other cities still have a thing or two to learn. Buttery, crunchy, oozing with cheese, and smothered with cheese, it is easy to mistake your St. Louis pizza with a pile of nachos.
While you might not see St. Louis-style permeating too far out of the midwest, it checks the boxes of many pizza lovers:
Oozing with cheese? You bet.
Flavorful and crunchy crust? Got that right.
Smothered with toppings? To say the least.
Well, what puts it over the edge compared to others? Bacon. Lots and lots of bacon.
What Is St. Louis-Style Pizza?
St. Louis-style pizza is popular in the Midwestern American city of St. Louis, Missouri and surrounding areas. It has a thinner crust when compared to other kinds of pizza and uses Provel, a processed form of cheese (from provolone, swiss and white cheddar).
St. Louis-style pizza differs from that of other styles most clearly in its crust. Almost every other pizza style includes yeast in their dough, but that norm is outright rejected in St. Louis. Without the yeast, the dough takes on a dense and flavorful cracker-like consistency that can support hefty loads of toppings.
When you first look at a St. Louis-style pie, the ultrathin style make it almost look like chips, rather than a pie. It is argued by some of the premier pizza connoisseurs that St. Louis style pizza even crosses into the domain of nachos. To hammer home that St. Louis communal nature, St. Louis-style was born ready to party with a tavern style cut, rather than arbitrary eight friends limitations.
While mozzarella may be ubiquitous with pizza in most cities, St. Louis reminds you that it is not like most cities. Here, the cheese (cheese product) of choice is none other than Provel. Provel is the champagne version of Velveeta or Cheese-Whip. It is a processed white cheese that was made in St. Louis and can be found in dishes across the city and region. Provel combines cheddar, swiss, and provolone cheeses in one processed chunk. While mozzarella is stretched and pulled, Provel is poured in an almost soup like fluid. It takes on a unique flavor that surprises a first-time taster with its sharp and smoky undertones. The fattiness and low melting point make it a perfect choice in a pizza oven. And if you managed not to be sold by Provel yet, you should know that it holds one of the longest shelf lives, meaning you can enjoy it days after with the same flavor and consistency.
The History of St. Louis-Style Pizza
Cheese historians and St. Louisans can trace the origins of Provel to Costa Grocery. Mad cheese scientists at Hoffman Dairy Company collaborated with the ambitious grocery store to make this cheese specifically for unique pizza taste. Unlike Chicago, New York and the other mainstream choices that fell in line to King Mozzarella, St. Louis decided they could do better.
Provel is composed originally of cheddar and provolone, but now includes Swiss and smoke flavor. To signify the blend of cheeses, the one was dropped off the name provolone. The cheese is now found in dishes throughout the city but is scarcely found outside of the region. Though the copyright to the cheese blend has changed hands a few times, Kraft is now its holder.
Fiore Pizza, while not using the beloved Provel, is a pivotal restaurant in the history of St. Louis Pizza. The crispy, thin crust nature of St. Louis-style pizza is attributed to the man who introduced pizza to St. Louis back in 1945. Amadeo Fiore, a successful tenor, opened his restaurant to a public that, to that time, had been largely unaware of what pizza even was. Fiore’s restaurant grew rapidly and its style became a staple in the community to this day.
The first pizzeria to make Provel their mainstay was Luigi’s Restaurant. The founder, Luca Meglio, was an Italian immigrant that opened it in 1953. The restaurant operated for almost 30 years, allowing the current style to permeate across the city. At its height, Luigi’s was the pinnacle of St. Louis pizza, the be all and end all of what they had to offer.
In 1964, Ed and Margie Imo decided they would throw down a whopping $75 and establish a pizzeria that delivers. With next to no experience as restaurateurs, the couple relied on a chef to create a special recipe. That chef, of course, used Provel. With a sprawling franchise, the company is still managed by the children of its original owners. While the company is not the first to use Provel, they are the undeniably the most responsible for spreading it around town.
What Makes St. Louis-Style Different Compared To Other Types of Pizza
St. Louis pizza is quite different when compared to other types of pizzas. The key differences between St. Louis-style and that of other pizzas are found in three main categories: cheese, crust, and toppings.
The cheese of St. Louis-style pizza is found exclusively around Missouri. The cheese, Provel, was invented by local businesses to establish a flavor that distinguishes the city’s pizza from the rest of the world. Provel is a blend of other cheeses and comes in a soupy, Velveeta like texture. When baked, it has a rich flavor that separates it from the classic mozzarella. As Zach Links of Slicelife wrote, “Provel melts better than any of them, because that’s what it was designed to do. With extra fat and moisture added during its production, Provel is the meltiest “cheese” out there.”
The crust is attributed to Amadeo Fiore, who moved to St. Louis from New York. With experience in Italian cuisine, he was able to capitalize on the flavor of New York crusts while creating a dough that can support many more toppings than a traditional pie. The crispy pies are sliced in a tavern cut, rather than the usual eight-slice pie. The crust is so crispy that it is not only compared to nachos but, to Stephenie Ellis of USAToday, maybe more aptly a cracker or matzo.
Lastly, the topping game in St. Louis is no joke. Pizzerias in this town are determined to take the additional structural integrity of the crispy crust to pile on as many toppings as possible. The toppings used to coat the pies in restaurants here are a bit different, too. Instead of the usual pepperonis and mushrooms, St, Louis-style employs the only food that captures that hearts, minds, and tongues of every American: bacon. As many slices as can fit, and then a few more.
What Are Some of The Most Well Known St. Louis-Style Pizza Restaurants
St. Louis is home to countless options for an amazing slice of pizza. From chains like Imo’s to local mom and pop pizzerias, there are enough options for all of the city’s residents to have a favorite. On Yelp, Melo’s takes the number one position. St. Louis magazine’s George Mahe, of St. Louis Magazine, chose Anthonino’s for his top choice. Foursquare had Pi Pizzeria at the top of their list. The premier choice for pizza aficionados, Sauce Magazine, selected Monte Bello’s Pizzeria for their St. Louis champion.
There is no shortage of options to choose from when it comes to grabbing a slice in St. Louis. For every St. Louisan you ask for a recommendation, you’ll get five or more “must visit” pizzerias.
Here are some of our favorites:
Imo’s is a St. Louis icon. Imo’s is one of the original pizza chains in St. Louis, dating all the way back to 1964. The first restaurant was secured by Ed and Margie Imo for $75. They combined the usage of Provel cheese with a special cornmeal crust to create a truly one of a kind pizza. In addition to a special flavor, Imo’s distinguished itself as a pizzeria by delivering its pizza directly to customers. In a time when dining in and carrying out were the de facto options, Imo’s disrupted a culinary market and paved the way for many other chains. By 1985, the small restaurant had swelled up to 30 locations. The company anticipates having more than 100 by the end of 2020.
Imo’s is the subject of popular culture foodie wars, such as spats between native St. Louis actors Jenna Fischer and John Hamm and Jimmy Kimmel Live! host Jimmy Kimmel. With such a differing taste compared to traditional pizza, it is no surprise Provel cheese causes such division. Fischer and Hamm were, of course, fierce defenders of their hometown brand, such as Hamm’s reminder that Imo’s tastes like the Gateway Arch and “[i]t tastes like eleven World Series Victories.”
2. Anthonino’s Taverna.
Anthonino’s Taverna is a St. Louis specialty location since 2003. The Italian restaurant blends its menu with items from Greek cuisine in an ever-expanding menu. The family-owned restaurant operates out of a building originally made in the 1930s and maintains a rustic, traditional atmosphere.
3. Pi Pizza.
Pi Pizza was the first food truck to grace the city of St. Louis. Pi launched its first truck in 2010 and, despite having plenty of franchise locations around town since 2008, still operates two food trucks. In October of 2008, President Barack Obama called Pi Pizza to let them know they made the best pizza he has ever had. In addition to the Provel cheese, Pi offers vegan cheese, dough, and mock meats.
Why People Love St. Louis-Style Pizza
St. Louis-style pizza is deliberately different than pizza from nearly any other place in the world. The cheese, Provel, was designed to be the ultimate pizza spread. With that gooey cheese, combined with a buttery crust, a flavor is created that no other city can rival. St. Louis-style pizza not only has a one of a kind flavor, but it also reminds people of home.
Chicago has deep dish, New York has a ton of grease, California has thin crust, and St. Louis has Provel. Provel’s gooey and intense characteristics make it stand out from slices anywhere else. Native St. Louisans grew up surrounded by the special creation, but it remains a foreign oddity to much of the country. With Kraft still retaining rights on most Provel production, it is not easy to come across the style too far out of St. Louis.
Unlike a New York slice that you can fold over or the whole cutlery set necessary for a Chicago deep dish, the St. Louis-style is eaten more like a nacho. Or as Clint Worthington of The Takeout writes, “What is St. Louis-style pizza, you might ask? Imagine if pizzas were nachos, and you’ve got the general gist of it.” The pie is sliced extra crispy in manageable bite sizes, smothered in toppings and extra gooey cheese.
With monotonous chains that cross states, regions, and even countries, it becomes increasingly special to have a unique trait from your home cuisine. America is a melting pot with culinary inspiration from every place in the world. While Champagne can only be made in Champagne France and Bourbon only made in Kentucky, the great city of St. Louis has staked the claim on Provel cheese.
Whether you are visiting the St. Louis area or passing through on a road trip, giving St. Louis-style pizza a try is a necessary task. The great pizza rivalry may rage on in other parts of the world, but St. Louis can rest easy knowing that, so long as copyright laws are protected, their Provel cheese will keep them, unlike all the other major styles. St. Louis certainly owes people some answers on other questionable food choices, but pizza is one area that they have made a big mark.
PHOTO BY: MABEL SUEN