A Hamburger Today
Imo's Pizza: St. Louis' Inexplicably Addictive Pie
Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel from the road, this time in St. Louis. —The Mgmt.
742 S 4th Street, St. Louis MO 63102 (map); 314-421-4667; imospizza.com
Pizza Style: Cracker thin crust
Oven Type: Convection
The Skinny: St. Louis's signature pizzeria is a treat for those of us who have acquired the taste but understandably far from it to those who have not
Price: 12-inch with sausage, $10.66
Gefilte fish. Chitterlings. Thousand-year-old-eggs. Provel cheese. What do these four foods have in common? To the extent that it's possible to have objective evaluations of whether a food is good, all four of those foods are, to put it mildly, not good. Yet all of them have staunch defenders, typically people who grew up in a house and within a culture where the food is definitely appreciated, probably loved, and possibly exalted. But occasionally there are outsiders who embrace the food as if it were their own. In one case, I am such a person. My name is Daniel, I'm a proud Chicagoan with little good to say about St. Louis despite having lived there for a year, and I like Provel cheese, especially when it's part of a pie at Imo's Pizza.
The first Imo's was opened by Ed and Margie Imo in 1964. In this video from St. Louis Public Television, Margie claims that before Imo's came along, there were no pizzerias in St. Louis, only some Italian restaurants that sold pizza. She also claims that Imo's was the first restaurant of any type that delivered pizza. I have no idea whether either claim is true, but what is undeniably true is that Imo's is, by far, the most successful pizza business in St. Louis. Today, there are 94 locations, nearly all of which are in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
Any discussion of Imo's really must begin and end with Provel "cheese." Cheese is in quotes because Provel is technically not cheese, but rather a cheese product, a fact that critics of Provel like to focus on. But the cheese-product categorization only means that Provel doesn't meet the FDA's requirements for cheese. According to internet chatter, Provel's failure is that its moisture content is too high. Unlike other cheese products, such as Velveeta, Provel is actually made from cheese, specifically swiss, provolone, and cheddar. According to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that is no longer accessible online, Provel came from the joint efforts an Italian grocery store in St. Louis and Hoffman Dairy in Wisconsin. Kraft has since purchased both Hoffman and Churny Company, the holder of the Provel trademark. Mysteriously, a search on the Kraft website for any information about Provel turns up nothing.
What matters not is Provel's history but rather its taste and texture. The three-cheese blend, with the addition of liquid smoke and a chemical or two, makes a tangy bite that tastes like no cheese I've had elsewhere. It was successfully designed so that, when melted, Provel is easy to bite through—it is soft, but not gooey or stringy. Another result of the chemical engineering behind Provel is that the waxy foodstuff can retain heat seemingly as well as any substance on earth. If you buy a pizza at Imo's, you will burn your mouth in your first bite. It's almost as if the cheese knows to wait to scald the roof of someone's mouth before it decides to let go of the heat.
Other than the Provel, there is not much to report on Imo's pizza as the cheese thoroughly dominates the pie. A Parmesan-and-herb mixture is sprinkled on top of the pizza prior to cooking, but that's a nonfactor. The sausage, which is the only topping I've had on an Imo's pizza in years, is fresh but indistinguishable in taste from factory-produced pellets. There's some chew and some fennel flavor, but it's really not particularly appealing. The sauce is a step removed from ketchup with herbs. Fortunately, it's not overly sweetened, so even though there's a lot of it and it covers every inch of the pizza, it really just serves to add a hint of tomato flavor to the cheese.
There's no reason for much sweetness in the sauce because Imo's actually delivers a sugar supply through the crust. According to multiple recipes available online, people who have tried to re-create an Imo's pizza in their kitchen agree that the crust recipe contains corn syrup or molasses. But the crust's role is not to add flavor to an Imo's pie. Its function seems to be to hold the sauce, cheese, and toppings—which it does well—and add a tiny bit of texture to the pile of Provel eaten in every bite.
Given that 100 percent of my appreciation of Imo's comes from its use of Provel cheese, I should mention that there are a lot of pizzerias in St. Louis that sell pizzas with Provel, but I've never tried any of them. There are also restaurants that put Provel in other dishes like lasagna, sandwiches, and various salads. It's a cheese that, no matter what the Judah Friedlander's of the world have to say, hundreds of thousands of St. Louisians and I will defend to the grave.
There are plenty of people in St. Louis who abhor Provel. The servers at Pi (reviewed here) wear shirts that, on the back, have the word Provel in a circle with a line through it. But no food is universally loved by everyone connected to the culture that embraces it, not Provel, not thousand-year-old eggs, not chitterlings, and not gefilte fish. But Imo's pizza is a comfort food that makes a lot of people happy when they eat it, and isn't that all that really matters?
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