At the end of every year I drop a list of eight pizzas from the previous 12 months that "haunt my dreams." Spoiler: Unless I eat nine better pizzas this year, the Saint Louie at Clinton Hill's Speedy Romeo will be among my great eight of 2012.
I'm still thinking about it, craving it, scheming to re-create it at home days after eating it.
The more pizza-literate among you have probably made the connection that the Saint Louie involves provel "cheese." It does indeed. Slice's man in Chicago, Daniel Zemans, has already written a wonderful defense of the cheese product here, and blogger Andrew Mark Veety provides a great history of the stuff here. Read up if you want to learn more. In short, it's a mixture of Swiss, provolone, and cheddar with some liquid smoke thrown in.
On a traditional St. Louis–style pizza, it can be good. On a pizza with a very good crust and the right combination of toppings, it is great.
I find myself agreeing with Lidia Bastianich, who refers to its complexity and "umami of the flavors." The tanginess, smokiness, the velvety texture. As my dining buddy said, "It's almost like nachos," putting into words the nebulous analogy I had been grasping for.
The nacho comparison should have come to me sooner, given that the Saint Louie is topped with pickled chiles in addition to a very good house-made Italian sausage (and pepperoni whose presence was barely discernable). It's a winning combo.
So how did St. Louis pizza end up in Clinton Hill? Co-owner Justin Bazdarich, who has worked at Jean-Georges and Perry Street, says his dad is from St. Louis (though he grew up in Kansas City and attended the University of Arizona, where he met his business partner, Todd Feldman).
The Saint Louie is sliced "tavern-style" or "party cut" but the crust is not the wafer-thin, crackery stuff found on a true St. Louis pizza. Which is good. The crust at Speedy Romeo, which uses a wood-fired oven, owes more to Naples than it does the "Rome of the West."* It has a nice rise at the rim, enough thickness and sturdiness to stand up to the molten pool of provel, and crispness and chewiness in equal amounts.
This crust has flavor—mostly from salt, granted—but it does inspire you to finish the pizza bones. It is not charred to the point of acridness.
* Yeah, I didn't know that was a nickname for St. Louis, either, until I looked it up.
The Saint Louie was the clear favorite of the night, though there are obviously other pies on the menu, including a grilled pizza:
The namesake Speedy Romeo pie might be the best grilled pizza I've had in NYC. It's less a flatbread-style grilled pizza like you might find at Al Forno (the originator of the form) and looks for all the world like something that came out of the oven. Except for the grill marks I guess.
The Speedy Romeo is the only grilled pizza on the menu. The dough is grilled then topped with room-temperature ricotta and tomato, basil and lemon juice. They give you a little jar of pickled chiles to fork onto your pie.
It would have been a memorable pizza anywhere else, but the Saint Louie so outshines it that it seemed more like an appetizer.
I'm usually a fan of clam pies and wanted to love the Casey Moore, but we could barely taste the bivalves among the spinach. And as my companion that evening pointed out, this one could have benefitted from a squirt of lemon for acidity.
More Than Pizza
Sometimes Slice's singleminded pizza obsessiveness is a hindrance. I've heard great things about the nonpizza half of the menu here — steaks, short rib, branzino, a chicken Parm sandwich, a handful of great-looking appetizers—but I'm saving that for another visit.
If I can avoid the siren call of the Saint Louie.
PS: It's named Speedy Romeo after co-owner Todd Feldman's family's racehorse. Plus, as the website says, "It feels perfect for an Italian restaurant situated in an old auto parts store."