Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel from the road, this time in St. Louis. —The Mgmt.
6144 Delmar Boulevard, St. Louis MO 63112 (map); 314-727-6633; restaurantpi.com
Pizza Style: Deep dish and thin crust
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: President Obama might not be a pizza expert, but Pi has some excellent deep-dish pizza. The thin crust pies, however, do not measure up as well
Price: Deep dish pies start at $12 and thin crust starts at $11
Notes: Second location just opened in Kirkwood; third location in Central West End opening late 2009
The current occupants of the White House have attained an unprecedented level of celebrity for a political family. Clothes and jewelry worn by the First Lady or the Obama children immediately become hot items. And, of course, President Obama's noted love for his BlackBerry made a fortune for RIM. Honestly, some of the reactions to the First Family's consumer choices make sense. The First Lady is fashionable, the kids are adorable, and if a communication device is good enough for the leader of the free world, chances are it's good enough for the rest of us. But there is nothing in the known history of any Obama that suggests they should be trendsetters in culinary adventures, something that is particularly applicable to the skinny man who is going to get me some high-quality health care on the cheap.
Yet I, like everyone else at Serious Eats and many around the country, talk about what the Obamas eat again and again and again. When word got out during the campaign that a place called Italian Fiesta was the Obama family's favorite pizzeria, for the first and last time in the nearly year and a half that I've been writing for Slice, Adam actually requested I review a specific pizzeria. In the course of my research, it turned out that the Obama love for Italian Fiesta was overstated. Michelle Obama was on record for having loved it, but there was nothing suggesting that the arugula-loving candidate cared for the greasy yet delicious comfort pies. Instead, pizza lovers learned, President Obama identified Pi Pizzeria in St. Louis as his favorite pizza. When I heard that, I was skeptical for two reasons. First, then Senator Obama ate pizza from Pi right after giving what had to be an adrenaline-pumping speech to 100,000 people. Second, Missouri was a swing state and Obama had to know picking St. Louis over Chicago in anything would go over very well. But having doubts and knowing he was playing politics are two different things, so on my recent trip to St. Louis, I went to Pi for some pie.
It's impossible to know just how much of Pi's success is due to President Obama, but it's clear he had a big impact. Not only did his praise bring in pizza tourists like me, but after word got out about Obama and Pi, residents of that that provel-loving town (they still choose Imo's as their favorite), happily waited over an hour for a table. Given Obama's stature in Pi Pizzeria lore, I was pretty surprised when I asked my server what pizza President Obama had declared his favorite and she didn't know (Pi had sent 5 different pizzas to the candidate). Knowing about his health-conscious ways, I'm guessing President Barack "What's a Half Smoke" Obama only bothered to try the thin crust. But to be safe, I went ahead and tried both.
The deep dish, which I got with Berkshire pork sausage and fresh mushrooms, was excellent. It's not the best I've ever had, but it's in the top few. The thick, corn meal heavy crust, was crisp, but not crumbly. It held up well, literally and in terms of taste, to the impressive amount of cheese, toppings and sauce. The rich, well-seasoned sauce was packed with nice bits of tomato. The only flaws in the pizza were the sausage and the overuse of oregano. Too much oregano is a forgivable, easily correctable error. But the choice of sausage, small bits of crumbled sausage, made no sense at all on a deep dish pizza. When you cook tiny pieces of sausage, you cook out more of the fat. When sausage loses fat, it gets dry and loses flavor. If the pizza is particularly thin and the sausage has a really good flavor, that can still work. It does not work on a deep dish pizza.
Most of the specialty pies at Pi are named after neighborhoods in St. Louis and San Francisco. St. Louis because that's where the pizzeria is located and San Francisco because that's the location of Little Star, the pizzeria Pi paid for use of its recipes. For the thin crust, I went with The Hill, named after the old Italian neighborhood in St. Louis. The Hill comes with pepperoni, salami, onions, green bell peppers, kalamata olives and banana peppers. This pie, which looked so good on paper, disappointed me.
The crust had some corn meal, but not nearly as high a corn ration as the deep dish. It had a good flavor and the texture, which was appropriately crisp and chewy, was right on. The mixture of flavors were a good idea, but the execution fell short. The salami was very good, but was completely overwhelmed by the pepperoni. The vegetables were all fresh but, as was the case with the meat, there was just too much for the cheese, sauce and crust to handle. Not a bad pizza by any stretch, but not one to go out of the way for.
So is President Obama's proclaimed love of Pi genuine? And, more important, is it worthy of our respect? On the first question, the fact that the White House had the people at Pi bring some pizzas to D.C. long after the election when buttering up Missourians was necessary suggests that Obama really did like Pi. On the second question, I don't have enough information. If the deep dish was what he loved, then it's a respectable choice. I can name five places in Chicago I think are better (Lou Malnati's, Pizano's, Pequod's, Burt's and Caffe Florian), but not by so much that someone liking Pi more is ridiculous. But if President Obama was speaking of the thin crust, then the man needs to broaden his pizza horizons.
Lou Malnati's: Home of Flawless Deep Dish
Pizano's: More Greatness from the First Family of Chicago Pizza
Pequod's: Come for the Carmelized Crust, Stay for Great Pizza
Burt's Place: Home of the Pizza King of Chicago
Caffe Florian: A Tourist-Free Gem in Hyde Park, Chicago
Italian Fiesta Pizzeria: The Obamas' Chicago Pizza Favorite, Reviewed