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We’ve been writing a lot about New Haven-style pizza recently, and of course it’s hard to avoid discussing Neopolitan pizza here in the District. But, needless to say, pizza exists in many forms unique to particular regions, many of which are not locally—or widely—available.
Take St. Louis-style pizza. Looks pretty good, right? (An aside: You’ll note that the pizza is cut into squares rather than triangles. This is not unique to St. Louis; it’s characteristic of thin-crust pizza in the Midwest.) On a recent trip to St. Louis, I made a point to try a pizza from the city’s largest local chain, Imo’s. The pluses: toppings galore, plenty of cheese, a crispy cracker-thin crust. In addition to being plentiful, the toppings were fresh, too. The minuses: the cheese. Yes, there’s plenty of it, lending a nice cheese-to-topping ratio, but the cheese leaves something to be desired.
Provel is the pizza cheese of choice in St. Louis. No, not provolone—Provel. Provel is a processed cheese made with Cheddar, Swiss, and provolone. The word processed says it all—it’s got a gooey, Velveeta-like consistency, and it doesn’t brown. Imagine putting American on your pizza and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Provel’s like. Unsurprisingly, Provel is rarely used outside of the St. Louis area.
Imo’s was actually not the first pizza I had in St. Louis. When I initially expressed interest in getting one of their pizzas, my friend Beth in St. Louis was less than thrilled. “Ugh, I hate Imo’s,” she said. “We can go there if you want to, but there’s also this place with San Francisco-style pizza, Pi.” Reasoning that it’d be easy for me to find an Imo’s without her, and that I’d never even heard of, let alone tried, San Francisco-style pizza, I told her Pi would be just fine.
This framed T-shirt by Pi’s bar—which is also worn by many Pi servers—conveys the pizza joint’s attitude toward the cheese that their St. Louis-style counterparts use.
Beth definitely did right by me. Pi’s San Francisco-style pizza is similar to Chicago-style pizza. It’s deep dish, and the sauce is on top. (Armand’s, take note.) The sauce seemed to be chunkier than most Chicago style-sauces; typically, the sauce is thin enough so that the cheese below the sauce can still get a nice carmelization on it, and on this pizza the sauce was too thick to allow for any browning beneath. But the main difference is in the crust, which is made with a liberal amount of cornmeal. Chicago-style pizza crust is made with cornmeal, too, but in a lower proportion. The San Francisco-style result is a crust that’s less dense—it’s almost airy, despite the thickness.
Pi also makes a mean thin (cornmeal) crust pizza. That sausage you see? It’s not sausage at all, it’s Match meat. Match is a St. Louis-based manufacturer of meat alternatives, and this stuff is the best fake meat I’ve ever eaten—ideal for vegetarians who have a hard time quieting their carnivorous urges. The texture of the Match sausage was spot-on, and the caraway seeds really added that extra dose of sausage authenticity.
Pi produces legitimately good pizza, and I’ll definitely be back the next time I’m in St. Louis. But the novelty factor is really the main thing they’ve got going for them in the Gateway City—in a town of Provel, mozzerella’s got to be a welcome change from time to time.