Notes from St. Louis

Imo’s Pizza: “The Square Beyond Compare” or “Cheese Whiz on a cracker”?

As regular readers of this weblog know, whenever I visit a city I usually have some idiosyncratic bit of local cuisine that I make a point of trying out. In Cincinnati it was Skyline Chili or Graeter’s Ice Cream or the Montgomery Inn’s baby back ribs. In Chicago, it was various coffee shops. In St. Louis, the single item on my list was Imo’s St. Louis style pizza. In contrast to the famed creations of Chicago or New York, you’ve probably never heard of St. Louis style pizza. That’s because Chicago and New York have done great things for the pizza art. St. Louis, in contrast, has not. The city took pizza one giant step sideways and somehow created a weird dish that’s surprisingly appealing to the locals, defining the way pizza is done there.

I say sideways because St. Louis pizza isn’t necessarily bad unless you walk into it with some preconceived notion of what pizza is supposed to be like. That’s what I did the first time I tried it with my family on a long-ago road trip when we all agreed it was terrible; Imo’s became synonymous with bad pizza for us for years to come. Then, a few years later, we were drawn to it once again upon our return to the city. “Could it have really been as bad as we remembered?” we asked ourselves. The theory had to be tested. The decision: Yes, it really was that bad. Well, maybe not that bad, but still pretty bad. Strike two for Imo’s.

Fast forward six years and I’m back in St. Louis for this current road trip. I’ve been bitten twice now, yet still I’m drawn in by Imo’s enchanting lure. I have to try it one more time to compare my childhood traumas to the reality of this St. Louis staple. I go in with an open mind this time. The result? It’s ok. The crust is thin and crunchy, the cheese sticks to the roof of my mouth in a not particularly pleasant way, and the flavor is nothing to write home about. But I can sort of see the appeal now. It’s not evil. It’s not delicious. It’s inexplicalicious. Next to bubble tea, it may be the single most inexplicalicious food product on earth, making no sense, achieving nothing great, but somehow demanding to be consumed at irregular intervals. All one can do is submit, enjoy the experience, and ponder the odd taste of the people of St. Louis.

What makes St. Louis style pizza special? The super thin crust and the round pie cut into square pieces are two of its notable aspects; the Imo’s website suggest these may have been subliminally inspired by founder Ed Imo’s pre-pizza job as a tile installer. What really makes Imo’s unique, though, is its use of Provel cheese. From the “Special Foods of St. Louis MO” webpage:

Provel cheese – Developed as a shelf-stable topping for the next entry (St. Louis style Pizza), it’s name may lead some to think it is a shorthand name for provolone. It is in fact a processed cheese of cheddar, swiss and provolone as Velveeta (or any other American cheese) is a processed cheese based on cheddar and colby cheese. I suspect that this then is were the name comes from: Pro(volone)vel(veeta). Not too bad on salad.

Who doesn’t like a cheese that’s known for its shelf stability? Lest my lukewarm review be construed as the last word, however, I think it only fair that we get some opposing viewpoints. Let’s start with Teruah’s one-star review on epinions.com:

Ever had Cheese Whiz on a cracker before?

Pros
Came in a nifty cardboard box

Cons
Terrible pizza

I will be the first to admit that I am probably biased when it comes to pizza having spent the first 20 years of my life in Chicago. One of the first things I looked for when I moved here was a good place for pizza. Every St. Louis native talked to raved about Imo’s pizza. I heard love stories of crust, sauce and cheese that I never dreamed could be describing a pizza. I ordered my first Imo’s pizza with great anticipation. After all it was a “St. Louis original”. Well let me tell you why it is an original. No where else in this country could make something so horrible and pass it off as pizza.

Let me start with their ‘famous’ crust. It is hard and brittle and I nearly cut the inside of my cheek while eating it. Their wonderful cheese is actually provolone [JG: No, it's Provel. Think of the shelf stability!] which any true pizza lover know is not pizza cheese. Their cheese is quite sweet and actually reminds one of Cheese Whiz. The sauce is not horrible. It is comparable to Pizza Hutt or Dominoes. The main problem I had with the sauce is that you can see it through the cheese. There is so little cheese you can see through to the sauce. They must know the cheese is terrible so they limit what they force poor hungry people to endure. I figure it’s a mercy thing.

The toppings are sparse and consist of precut prepackaged veggies or frozen meat parts. The pepperoni had little flavor and the onions were thin and stringy. I have not had chance to taste too many other toppings since I would rather eat cardboard dipped in ketchup rather than pay money for that stuff again.

I am often confronted by quizzical looks from the natives here when I express my dislike for their favorite pizza. I decided they must be brainwashed as children to eat it. Either that or they have not had the opportunity to try anything better. In any case I sort of pity them. One day I will take them on a field trip to Chicago and show them what they have been missing.

Recommended
No

That’s a little harsh. My pizza was far from lacking in the cheese department and I didn’t notice any deficiencies in the toppings, though that may be because they were preserved in the layer of Provel like eons old flies preserved in amber. But I digress. Let’s hear now from Imo’s defender Pattiboy13:

Imo’s pizza is great!

Pros
Great Pizza and Service

Cons
Very Busy On Weekends

The Bottom Line
I enjoy Imo’s because of their quality service and large menu of great tasting food.

Imo’s is one of my favorite places to order pizza from. Imo’s is the “Square Beyond Compare” when it comes to pizza. This St. Louis original is loved by many.

Imo’s is not the place to be if you only enjoy thick crusted pizza because they only make thin crust pizza. One of the many good qualities of Imo’s is that they have a large menu to order from. This menu will make any person happy. They serve hot and cold sub sandwiches, chicken wings, ravioli, salads, and much more! They have there own house dressing that is very good. They also allow you to buy glass bottles of the dressing to enjoy at home. Most Imo’s offer dine-in, carryout, and delivery. The best thing to do is go eat in an Imo’s so your food comes out hot from the oven.

On the weekends Imo’s gets very busy. I find it hard to get through to Imo’s because of their busy phone lines. When I do get through, the wait for the pizza is often 45-60 minutes long. This is the only time that Imo’s has slow service.

There are many other places to order pizza from such as Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s. My favorite overall has to be Imo’s because of their great tasting pizza and quality service.

Recommended
Yes

Nothing wrong with that review, but one may find it curious that in a post meant to defend Imo’s pizza he spent most of his time extolling the restaurant’s other virtues. I’ll let that be the last word in the debate unless anyone else who’s had the Imo’s experience wants to drop a note in the comments section. And if you’re feeling adventurous but can’t get to St. Louis, you can buy your own St. Louis pizza kit right here.

Non-pizza material begins here

Crazy as I am, I didn’t go to St. Louis just for the pizza. An even bigger draw was a lecture by renowned close-up magician Michael Close. Close is one of the most creative guys in magic and many of his creations have found their way into my repertoire; if you’ve ever run into me at a party and asked to see a trick, odds are good that one of the effects I performed came from Michael Close. I’ve been reading his commentary and material since picking up my first issue of MAGIC Magazine in 1997, so finally getting to see him perform in person was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.

(One of the questions I’m often asked when people find out I’m a magician is where magicians learn their tricks, so now’s a good time to mention that lecture tours are one common source of information. Well-known magicians will go on these from time to time, traveling across the country from magic club to magic club. Admission fees and additional sales of books, notes, videos, and props that are often pitched during the course of the lecture generally finance the stops. Quality varies greatly, but Close’s lecture is one of the better ones. He’s blogging about his tour here.)

My other purpose in going to St. Louis was to check out the coffee scene around Washington University. It was on the whole unimpressive, so I won’t go into detail on most of the shops I visited over the course of two days. Only one coffee shop, The Coffee House out west in Chesterfield, seemed to be really in touch with espresso culture, and I had a good time talking with the owner there and working behind the bar for a bit.

Closer to Wash U, the only place I went back to was the new Kayak’s Coffee. If dining establishments could reproduce sexually, Kayak’s would be the love child of Caribou Coffee and Vanderbilt’s X-treme C Room. The owners went for the ski lodge look, using lots of logs and natural wood chairs and tables throughout the place; kayaks and other outdoor sporting gear hang from the walls and ceilings; stickers from various ski companies adorn the La Marzocco espresso machine. A philosophy grad student I talked to hated the artificiality of it, but I thought the owners did a great job getting the image they wanted. Perhaps my Yooper roots make me a sucker for the log cabin look (the wood even comes from dead trees in Michigan forests). It was the only shop around the university that I visited on multiple occasions.

Kayak’s hasn’t been open long but it’s clear that they’ve become the place to contend with in the Wash U market. The shop is large yet was filled almost to capacity with students on a Tuesday night. It’s located right next to the school and offers free wi-fi access. They do this in a way I haven’t encountered before: to guard against customers camping out at a table without buying anything, the network can only be accessed with a user name and access code. These come printed on the receipt for free with a minimum order and are good for 100 minutes. When your time is up, you need a new receipt. I got the impression that in practice they’re pretty loose about the rules, but this does provide a way of allocating a scarce resource at peak hours and guaranteeing a steady flow of business from the laptop using population.

The one real downside to the shop was that they use an auto-tamping grinder. The owners obviously did their homework because they have great equipment. It’s obvious they had plenty of money to invest in the shop, too. Their attention to detail is impressive, yet they completely forego the opportunity to encourage good barista techniques by making their shot preparation such a hands off process. The result is that the espresso puck comes out with lots of dust, the shot pulls too long or too fast (at least the one I had did, even after the barista adjusted the grind and poured out the first shot he made), and on milk drinks the milk is steamed and poured in the Starbucksy milk-with-plops-of-foam kind of way. They’re still above average, but it’s disappointing to see a new shop get everything else right only to get careless with the keystone product.

So what does this mean? Lesson One: A coffee shop can invest in all the best equipment and still put out an inferior drink if it doesn’t have good training. Lesson Two: None of this necessarily matters if the shop is right off a university campus, offers free Internet access, and the competition is worse.

Coming up: no more coffee shop reviews, the end of these lengthy travel notes, fun with projectiles, and a new fish from Eternal Recurrence favorite Mark McGrouther.

Comments

  1. Justin says:

    No, the problem with Imo’s is the sauce. It’s so cloyingly sweet, and they slather that shit on there so much that it mucks up the whole pizza. Imo’s, despite what the locals will tell you, is a poor reflection of STL-style pizza.

    You shoulda tried Cecil Whittaker’s.

  2. Adrienne says:

    “if dining establishments could reproduce sexually…”

    get thee back to the District! we need that kind of word-smithing here!

  3. LHM says:

    This entire thread is making me go crazy.

    Velveeta is like Freedom. You never learn to appreciate it until you lose it.

    LHM
    An American Expat in Southeast Asia

  4. Jim Caskanett says:

    Hey, I’ve got an idea. If you don’t like St. Louis or St. Louis style pizza, then don’t come here. The rest of us St. Louisians enjoy it just fine. I’d suggest that you go back to Chicago, and do what you do best: sit in the back of a dimly lit coffeehouse and perform slight of hand tricks on your boyfriend’s cock. Thanks.

  5. K.M. Linder says:

    Your pizza is as good as your baseball team.

  6. Jim Caskanett says:

    Are you referring to the baseball team that consistently cleans the floor with your sorry ass, no talent, steroid-fueled dominican led, haven’t won a world series in so long it’s too sad to make fun of Cubs? Yeah, they’re pretty good.

  7. Ken says:

    St louis style is a hit or miss. As a native, I honestly think Imos is a tad over-glorified. In local surveys Cecil Whitakers or Talanya’s usually creams “the Original” and why not? the ingredents are fresher and more plentiful, Plus half of the Imos stores around here have serious quality control issues. Not all Imos are created equal. By the way Provel is NOT Provolone, its a process cheese made with Provolone and has alot of flavor….your better St Louis pizzas are usually a mix of Mozzarella and Provel. As for Chicago and New York styles, we have them. We have good examples of them as well (Talanya’s probably has the bes Chicago pie outside of Chicago. Next time your in town forget Imos and hit Talanya’s

  8. Danny Z. says:

    For truly excellent pizza in St. Louis, your only stops should be: The Black Thorne Pub, Pizza A Go Go, La Pizza, or Talayna’s. As far as thin crust, Guido’s Pizzeria on The Hill, or Fortel’s Pizza Den. Gianino’s in Sunset Hills has excellent thin crust pizza. Giovanna’s on Hampton also has incredible pizza but the WORST service of any restaurant you’ve ever gone to in your life. But the food is incredible. Imo’s is crap, but WAY better than any other delivery pizza outside of Gourmet Pizza World on Kingshighway. They have great delivery pizza!

  9. Ryan says:

    St. Louis Style Pizza is a tradition and surely a required taste. I’m not sure how this Jacob fellow became a food critic seeing as he is a bartender. I’m sure you don’t eat out any more than a normal person – so the validity of your opinion makes me question this entire write up. Moving on, pizza in Italy is served thin with light sauce and heavy toppings – like Imo’s. Authentic Italian pizza is not “deep dish,” covered with mozzarella cheese, and served by the slice (ha!). Chicago and New York style pizza being served over a counter one slice at a time was something invented by a New Yorker who was looking to make money – not replicate a “food art.” Furthermore, Imo’s Pizza locations are franchised so only a few of the franchisees use the ingredients required by the franchisor. In conclusion, Jacob, before you attack a St. Louis pastime I think you should remind everyone on this blog what Portland, Oregon, your hometown is known for – free lance writes who don’t know shit about food.

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