Gooey cheese, cracker-thin crust, and manageably-sized slices are all synonymous with one thing -- St. Louis-style pizza. Known as the Gateway to the West, everyone associates St. Louis with the Arch, but do you know about our square-sliced pieces of heaven? I, for one, am always surprised when people say, “I didn’t know St. Louis had its own pizza.”
Of course, some people have heard of our pizza and aren’t as smitten with it as locals are. In fact, late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel despises it so much that his show includes a running joke about his intense disdain for local St. Louis pizza chain Imo’s Pizza.
When we asked Imo’s representative Nick Palank how the company received the media attention, he said they fully understood that the pizza may not be for everyone and actually appreciate the buzz because it could bring customers from all over who are curious to try the pizza.
So is St. Louis-style pizza an acquired taste? Have I triggered you? Do you just have to learn more about all the fuss surrounding this Midwestern culinary anomaly? Read on to get a sense of the unique magic behind every slice (and more on why you ought to give St. Louis pizza a try).
According to Feast Magazine, St. Louis-style pizza all began with Chicago native Amedeo Fiore. He and his wife Betty moved to St. Louis, where they built a new life and eventually opened Melrose Pizzaria. Around the same time, a man named Hack Ulrich, who worked at the nearby Chase Park Plaza Hotel as the maitre d’, hosted an influx of people who had been exposed to pizza while serving in World War II. Ulrich referred guests to Fiore’s pizzaria to get their fix.
Fiore imported an oven from Italy and got to work on his own signature pizza creation. He even took out ads in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to explain what it was. With the help of the Dispatch, Fiore introduced the city to the signature dish in which we St. Louisans have grown to take so much pride.
An iconic caption -- “With scissors Amadeo [sic] Fiore, proprietor-chef of the Melrose Pizzeria, cuts pizza into squares for serving. The squares, held with a paper napkin, are eaten from the hand” -- even establishes that the square cut has been an essential element of St. Louis-style pizza from the beginning.
It’s All In The Cheese
The most unique element of St. Louis-style pizza is the incorporation of Provel cheese. This blob of gooey goodness was invented in 1947 with the help of Roma (formerly Costa) Grocery on the Hill and Hoffman Dairy of Wisconsin (now owned by Kraft).
What was the vision for this new cheese creation? The Kitchn says that local St. Louis pizza owners were searching high and low for a solution for “cheese strings” you often get when you take a bite out of a slice of pizza.
According to Feast, “Provel is ideal for pizza, thanks to its buttery texture and low melting point, which makes it gooey even near room temperature. It’s creamy yet easy to bite through – perfect for topping small squares.”
People’s love for the cheese is so great that many order it by the case. In fact, according to The Kitchn, you usually can’t find the cheese in places outside of St. Louis. Occasionally, however, you may find a spot that sells it. Consider yourself lucky -- and if you’re a Provel fan, consider buying all of it!
If It’s Not A Square, You Better Beware
If you’re ever given a pizza that claims to be St. Louis-style and it isn’t cut into individual squares, then you probably have a phony on your hands. I urge you to run far away! The signature square slices have become so imperative to the pizza that Imo’s pizza has the famous slogan “The Square Beyond Compare.”
We asked Palank, who oversees marketing and advertising for Imo’s Pizza, where the slogan came from, and it’s an interesting story. “When Ed and Marge Imo started Imo’s Pizza in 1964, Ed was working as a tile setter. So, at night, when they were making pizzas, he’d cut them into squares mimicking his day job. As the popularity of Imo’s grew, it became known as the Square Beyond Compare.”
Is It Possible For A Non-St. Louisan To Enjoy A Slice?
The big question everyone wants to know is what St. Louis-style pizza tastes like and whether or not they’ll like it. As a native of the area who grew up eating the staple pizza of the city, Imo’s oregano tomato sauce is in my veins. In fact, just about any St. Louis native you encounter will swear by this cheesy treat. Even a transplant like TravelAwaits editor Linsey Stevens, who first encountered Imo’s at a middle-school pool party, can consider it the ultimate slice (unless a trip to New York for San Matteo Pizza and Espresso is on the table).
If you’re trying Imo’s for the first time, Palank suggests “having an open mind and trying to forget about any preconceived notions of what a ‘typical’ pizza tastes like.” He went on to say, “There are all kinds of pizza styles: New York is a big greasy slice traditionally topped with mozzarella; Chicago’s deep dish is more like lasagna with a hearty sauce; St. Louis style is thin, crispy with the uniqueness of Provel. While all three are different, it is possible to enjoy each by itself.”
Of course, this is the official stance of a proud St. Louis business. To get a truly unfiltered answer, I turned to a Jersey native and self-proclaimed pizza snob for an outsider’s opinion. Linh Duong is a Cheesecake Factory operation support technician who grew up eating East Coast-style pizza, which, for many, sets the bar for American pies.
Duong visited St. Louis this past winter and ordered an Imo’s pizza topped with mushroom and banana peppers. I’m personally more of a sausage, pepperoni, and green bell pepper kind of gal, but Duong has recently given up red meat, which means sacrificing her usual topping go-to: pepperoni. Her initial reaction upon eating a slice was “That’s … interesting.”
This is not a love-at-first-bite story, but one thing’s for sure: Duong grew to appreciate St. Louis’s signature squares seeing as she couldn’t bring herself to return home without ordering another medium pizza before her flight back to Jersey.
“It definitely took a few slices … which I can’t even consider slices. So yeah, I’d rather just say it took a few pieces. It was very different from what I’m used to, but I didn’t hate it. Then a couple more pieces later, I was totally into it.”
This was a very promising response and a win for St. Louisans everywhere, but when I asked Duong for her opinions on the crust, she had less-than-favorable feedback.
“What crust? Haha! I’m really starting to sound like a purist here, but I could never, ever consider that a crust. It was more like a cracker. Cracker pizza.”
Obviously, this was a stab at my heart, but I figured I could survive the blow. That was until I asked her to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being the worst and 10 being the best) and she gave it an underwhelming 4.2!
“That’s low, but you gotta understand where I’m coming from here. I honestly thought I’d end up scoring it way lower prior to trying it. My pizza needs to have more heft and a traditional triangle cut,” Duong explained.
Despite her low rating, she is adamant that visitors should give the pizza a try.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia and pride with Imo’s. If you’re not eating it for the taste and texture, then you’re eating it because it’s unique and that’s something definitely to write home about.”
Palank invites you to do just that. He told me, “When you come to Imo’s, you can expect high-quality toppings. We make our own sauce, shells, and sausage. Again, have an open mind and try it more than once. If you do that, it’ll be a hit!”
Of course, pizza is the topic of discussion here, but we can’t give it all the shine. Other St. Louis treats worth noting for your next trip are toasted ravioli, Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, and a delicious slice of gooey butter cake!
While you’re planning your trip to St. Louis, check out these 12 things you have to do when you're in St. Louis for some of the best the city has to offer.