St. Louis has caught a pretty bad rap lately food-wise; a few weeks ago, it was the doughy epicenter of #bagelgate, in which the internet cried foul at an image of a “St. Louis secret” way to slice bagels—straight down, from top to bottom, in bread-like slices that seem the stuff of absolute madness.
I’m not here to defend what is obviously a bagel-slicing method for fools and madmen. But I did feel a sense of personal sadness when #bagelgate metastasized on Twitter into a broader rebuke of St. Louis food culture:
Clearly, these are tongue-in-cheek, painting St. Louis food culture as a Mad Max dystopia where up is down, black is white, and breakfast breads are sliced the wrong way across. But some went too far:
You do not slander St. Louis-style pizza.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m not from St. Louis. I grew up in corn-fed rural Illinois, the part of the state that wishes more than anything Chicago would split off from the rest of the state and take all its big-city liberals (and, apparently, its tax revenue) with it. However, I did go to college in northeast Missouri: Truman State University, the “Harvard of the Midwest” as we call ourselves. Our greatest exports are Jenna Fischer, WWE’s Kane, and annual placement on U.S. News And World Report’s list of colleges that have the “best value.”
Growing up a shy, nerdy, closeted bi kid in a rural farm town, it’s safe to say I hadn’t really found “my people” yet. But college was a lovely, transformative experience for me. Most Truman students tend to hail from St. Louis and the surrounding suburbs, thus forming the bulk of my new friend group. I was taken with their strange ways—calling pop “soda,” their die-hard devotion to the Cardinals, and yes, their delicious pizza.
What is St. Louis-style pizza, you might ask? Imagine if pizzas were nachos, and you’ve got the general gist of it. The base is a buttery, cracker-thin crust, the shyer cousin to traditional leavened pizza dough. Rather than triangular slices, St. Louis-style pie is cut tavern-style (or party-style) into squares or rectangles for easy dissemination to the hungry masses (much like many Chicago tavern-style pizzas, actually).
This is where I tend to lose many potential converts to thin-crust pizza. You can’t fold it!, they say. But who needs folding when you’ve got a perfect, four-square-inch slice of sturdy, crispy crust that can handle whatever toppings you put on it? As a man who admittedly still doesn’t finish his crusts, St. Louis-style pizza is the perfect sauce/cheese vehicle for me. There’s no awkward, unflavored breadstick to push aside at the end.
At this point, I could still be describing Chicago tavern-style pizza. But what sets St. Louis style pizza apart from the other schools of Midwestern thin crust is the much-ballyhooed Provel cheese: a processed combo of cheddar, Swiss, and provolone that basically tastes like a classier Velveeta. It’s a curious vehicle to be sure, especially if you’re not used to it; it can taste a little plastic-y and gummy to the unaccustomed palate. Processed cheese is never the healthiest option, and there’s a layer of artificiality to the entire affair—but hey, pizza was never a health food anyway, and it’s easy to just tell yourself the thin crust makes up for it. That’s what going low-carb means, right?
If you’re searching for the Mecca of St. Louis-style pizza, look no further than Imo’s. While the chain has branched out into nearly a hundred locations spread out across the Midwest, the original Imo’s, located in St. Louis proper, is ostensibly the ancestral home of the Provel-coated version of St. Louis-style pizza. Not all St. Louis style pizzas have Provel, and its critics might do well to leave it off entirely. But if you want the pure strain version of this pizza variant, you need Provel.
I only took the pilgrimage to Imo’s a couple of times in my college days, but it was always worth it. The rectangular slivers of St. Louis pizza we all pulled apart tasted like crispy, crackery heaven. Paired with that St. Louis delicacy of toasted ravioli, there may be nothing better. I haven’t seen or tasted a classic Imo’s pizza in more than a decade, but the strength of those first few semesters of college, and the Imo’s trips that ensued, still linger in the back of my mind, and my taste buds.
I’m a pizza pluralist at heart. I live in Chicago, home of deep-dish pizzas that effectively function as week-long casseroles, the kind only tourists really eat anymore. I’ll never say no to a big ol’ chunk of saucy meat-bread cooked for an hour in a cast-iron skillet (especially if it comes from Chicago’s actual-best pizza place, Pequod’s). But there will always be a special place in my heart for the thin-crust, party-cut communism of the St. Louis-style slice.
And for the haters out there who want to use bizarre-cut bagels as an excuse to slander St. Louis-style pizza? A Provel pox on their houses, I say. If they need to intellectualize away their next bite of grid-sliced, unleavened heaven, just tell ’em it’s Chicago-style thin crust.