We all know the two great pizza quotes, right? The first is Sam Sifton's Pizza Cognition Theory, which goes like this: "The first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes...becomes, for him, pizza." The second is the old chestnut about pizza and sex: even when it's bad, it's still pretty good.
Then we get to the St. Louis-style pizza made popular by their local chain, Imo's , which seems to buck both of these statements. Of the myriad styles of pizza we've got in this country, it's got to be the most maligned.* Its thin, unleavened cracker crust bears no resemblance to the real dough that great pizza is built on. It gets loaded high with toppings that span all the way from edge to edge. It's so unbalanced that it has to be cut into squares just to be able to support its own weight. And let's not get started on that Provel cheese—if it can even be called cheese, am I right?
And yet, ever since tasting it for the first time, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. And I've finally figured out why I love it so much. St. Louis-style pizza is not pizza. It's a big, pizza-flavored nacho. Hear me out.
*With the exception, perhaps, of Ohio-Valley, cold-topping-style, which just makes no sense.
My wife Adri and I ate a lot of things last summer when we were driving from New York to San Francisco. A LOT of things. Many of them hyper-regional, most of them with a good story, and almost all of them delicious. As is often the case, my best intel on local eats came from Twitter. It's what led me to a fantastic hoagie from the Jackson House in Harrisburg, PA and the finest chicken fried steak I've tasted from the Hays House in Council Grove, KS (not to mention those fantastic sliders from the Cozy Inn in Salinas).
But a funny thing happened when I got to St. Louis and inquired about the local pizza scene. The normal OMGYOUMUSTGOHEREIT'STHEBEST tweets I receive when I hit up somebody's home town turned into a slow stream of Tweets ranged from indifference ("Love it or hate it, [Imo's] is an institution.") to outright apology ("I'm...I'm so sorry.") and even warnings.
— ceej (@cjmemay) June 5, 2014
It was odd, and perhaps the first and only time I've ever seen an entire city whose residents seem to buck both the pizza cognition theory (most St. Louis residents seem reluctant to claim Imo's pizza as their own), and the pizza-as-sex theory (why should one ever apologize for leading me to pizza?). I blame it all on the pizza cognoscenti. Folks like myself** who, through our entirely honest and well-intentioned writings and musings have made it seem like a mark of shame to admit to liking any pizza that wasn't made from a cold-fermented, naturally leavened dough topped with D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella pulled from the virgin teats of an Italian water buffalo before being baked at 1,000°F in a wood-fired oven (god pity the pizzaiolo who only gets his oven to 950!)
**Here's a secret: When I'm hungover, I click on the Domino's app on my phone and watch bad movies in my underwear all day while I shamelessly scarf down slice after slice of their original hand-tossed pizza with olives, pickled banana peppers, and extra extra red pepper flakes.
It's as if the chip on St. Louis residents' shoulders about Imo's has gotten so big that they can never let themselves enjoy their own pizza, a pizza which by all rights is extremely enjoyable. Not convinced? It helps a lot if you think about Imo's not as pizza, but as a really big pizza-flavored nacho. And we can all agree nachos are delicious, right?
I'm serious about this nachos thing. A St. Louis-style pizza has more in common with nachos than it does with pizza. Let's start with that crust.
Where a typical pizza crust is made from leavened dough (read: there's yeast added so that it puffs and rises), St. Louis-style pizza is an unleavened dough, which gives it an ultra-thin, crisp, crackery—dare I say it?—tortilla chip-like texture. It also makes the dough a little more dense and resilient than standard pizza dough, giving it an abnormally long shelf life. You know how day old pizza can get a little leathery in the crust? Not so with Imo's! That cracker is still a cracker the next day and even the third, whether you deign to refrigerate or not.
Now let's look at that cheese. Come closer.
A little closer...
...and, there! You see it?
That, my friends, is the magic of Provel, a blend of cheese that's often described as being a mixture of cheddar, Swiss, and provolone, though you'd be hard pressed to find any of those flavors in there. In reality, Provel is a processed cheese*** with the texture and melting qualities of American cheese, but with just a bit more nutty funk to it. When melted, it's outright gooey. I'm talking nacho-cheese-out-of-a-pump levels of gooey. Its origins are in the late 40s, when it was specifically invented with the intent to melt nicely on pizza while avoiding those long, unsightly, shirt-staining strands that mozzarella has a tendency to make as you pull off a bite.
***That is, a cheese product that has extra fat and moisture added to it, along with some chemical salts to help it melt more easily.
Is it "real" cheese? Nope. But it's got that undeniable gooey appeal that nacho cheese sauce has got. The kind that makes you want to swipe up all the drops from the pizza pan with your finger as you eat.
What's even more magical about Provel is what happens to it the next day. Ready for it? Practically nothing. That stuff is nearly as creamy, gooey, and shamefully delicious eaten out of the box in the car at room temperature the second day as it is fresh out of the oven. Forget cold, congealed mozzarella. Gimme Provel for my day-old pizza, please.
Like a good plate of nachos, a St. Louis-style pizza is designed for sharing. Instead of standard wedges, it's cut into small squares—party-cut or tavern-cut for those of you who are in on the lingo—each one about an inch and a half along each side. That means that a St. Louis-style pizza is just as easily shared between two people as it is between 10 or 12. And, unlike standard pizza, you don't have to commit yourself to more than a bite at a time. Just lean in, grab a square, down it, and lean right back to enjoy the game.
You know what else is as fantastic the second day as on the first? The toppings.
We got our Imo's pizza with the works, which in St. Louis means sausage, bacon bell peppers, and onions. The bell peppers, onions, and sausage were as fresh and tasty as you can expect from any self-respecting pizza joint (the sausage is thankfully applied the right way: in chunks, not slices), but it was the bacon that really stood out. I'm not sure exactly how they cooked it, but it ends up as a distinct, crisp layer that tops the pie almost like a lattice pie crust. Ultra-thin and crisp strips that tumble and weave over the other toppings, flavoring everything underneath them and adding a top layer of crispness that reflects the crisp bottom crust.
We ate about half the pizza at the restaurant, then packed the rest in the car for our trip the next day. That bacon stayed crisp as we ate a slice pulling out of St. Louis the next morning. It was crisp as we stopped in central Kansas for a quick swim in a lake around lunch time. It was crisp as we passed by that petting zoo that has advertisements every mile along the highway.**** Heck, it even brought us crisp comfort nearly 24 hours later as we were stopped under an overpass waiting for that Western Kansas tornado to pass us by.
****for the record: do NOT stop there unless you want your heart broken by animals confined to teeny tiny concrete boxes. Getting your picture with the world's second biggest concrete gopher is not worth the trauma.
My point is this: St. Louis, you've got something really unique and special there, and while it may not have that "artisanal" stamp of honor on it, it's still a damn fine nacho pizza in its own right, and one that should proudly take its place, crisp bacon held high, shoulder to shoulder with all the other great regional styles out there.
Imo's, I salute you. Now get in my belly.