A revelation: Provel isn't the reason I loathe St. Louis-style pizza. Or, I should say, Provel alone isn't the reason I loathe St. Louis-style pizza. I have no qualms with processed cheese, in general, and after five years in St. Louis I've learned to tolerate Provel on sandwiches or shredded over a house salad. But melt that shit on a cracker-thin crust and its alfredo-sauce-esque texture is as appealing as a mouthful of crude oil.
But would Provel be so terrible on a thicker crust? Not a thick crust, necessarily, just not cracker-thin: a little more dough, a little more chew, over which the goopy "cheese" can diffuse.
A good crust can redeem a pizza from any number of sins. And while I'm fairly ecumenical in my crust preferences — from thin, crisp Neapolitan style to fold-it-in-half New York to deep-dish Chicago and countless thicknesses in between — cracker-thin crust just doesn't cut it.
I had my epiphany while eating the "South Side Classico" at Pi, the new pizzeria in the former Mirasol space east of Skinker Boulevard in the Delmar Loop. This is one of four deep-dish pizzas Pi offers. Melted mozzarella cheese and sliced green pepper, onion and mushroom make up the bulk of the pie; above this is a layer of thick, tart tomato sauce — more like a tomato mash than a purée, really — and pieces of Italian sausage. The various ingredients were good — though, with the exception of the sauce, not very different from what you find at tens of thousands of pizzerias. The sausage was disappointing, its flavor much too mild.
But the crust is something else entirely. It is medium-thick and made, in part, with cornmeal, which imbues the texture with a faint granular quality. The exterior is crisp and a lovely, summery golden brown, while the interior has a spongy softness that absorbs the flavors of the various toppings while retaining its own individual qualities. It turned the "South Side Classico" from an ordinary sausage pizza into a distinctive, memorable dish.
This cornmeal crust originated in a San Francisco restaurant. Owners Chris Sommers and Frank Uible bought the rights to the recipe and then opened Pi in March. In fact, Pi had a soft opening on March 14 — 3.14 — a fact that always makes me smile. And, yes, I'm as big a dork as you are probably imagining.
(For those who break out in hives at the mention of geometry: Pi (Π) is the Greek letter that symbolizes the circumference of any circle with a diameter of 1. Its value is a decimal that continues endlessly: 3.14159.... In a classic Star Trek episode, the crew defeats the computer that has taken over the Enterprise and is attacking other starships by having it compute the exact value of pi, which causes it to break down.)
(I did warn you I'm a big dork.)
Pi retains the basic layout of its predecessor, Mirasol. There is a main dining room, with seating for a few dozen, flanked on one side by the bar and a few more tables, and on the other by a second, slightly smaller dining room. The décor is funky. At least one wall has a polka-dot paint scheme, and the open space between the main dining room and the bar is marked by three figurines: a small chicken, a medium-size chicken and a large chicken.
The menu is small: four deep-dish and four thin-crust pizzas (both available as a nine-inch small or twelve-inch large), five salads, three appetizers and (if you can somehow save room for dessert) a couple of pies. I skipped the salad and dessert courses, but from the appetizer menu I tried the prosciutto "Pi'tites," which are basically high-end cheese balls, a mixture of fontina cheese and prosciutto coated with bread crumbs and then oven-baked. These struck me as relatively innocuous and, given how quickly our pizzas were delivered, not really necessary to sate my hunger.
You can create your own pizza from a long list of toppings, but I stuck to Pi's signature dishes. Of these, the "Bucktown" was the most impressive. The deep-dish crust is topped with mozzarella, feta, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted chicken, red onions, red bell peppers, green olives and artichoke hearts. I think the highest compliment I, an avowed carnivore, can pay the "Bucktown" is that the chicken was superfluous, the white meat's flavor downright bland compared to the tomato, artichoke and red onion. As with the "South Side Classico," the crust was fantastic.
I wasn't as enamored of the thin cornmeal crust. Here the crust's granular quality was more noticeable and its flavor more dependent on how quickly the kitchen yanked it out of the oven. One of the thin-crust pizzas I had was crisp and flavorful, but another was slightly burnt on one side, adding an unwelcome note of char.
What's more, the thinner crust means the toppings play a much larger role in the pizza's success. Here Pi scores more points for freshness than for creativity. The "North Beach Classico" features the same toppings as the "South Side Classico": sausage, mushroom, green pepper, onion and mozzarella. Here the humdrum sausage really stood out. That is, it didn't stand out at all.
The "Lincoln Park" would have been a total success were it not for the burnt crust. As it was, the vegetable toppings — garlic, tomato, very thinly sliced zucchini and fresh basil — were excellent. Each retained its individual flavor while meshing well with mozzarella and feta cheese.
Service is a crapshoot. Servers took our orders promptly enough, and our food arrived at a reasonable pace, but at other times our servers seemed distracted. They took too long to bring a drink from the bar or, when one person ordered a second beer, neglected to ask if the others at the table were ready for another. It's especially notable because, if anything, Pi seems overstaffed.
Many servers wear T-shirts that have Pi's logo on the front and on the back the motto, "Green is the new black." This refers to Pi's commitment to being an environmentally friendly restaurant. A certificate on the wall credits Pi with a significant carbon offset (a measure of how much of a reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions is caused by Pi's operation), though you are more likely to notice its dedication in small details: To reduce waste, the bar serves beer on draft, but not in bottles. (The beer list is standard, the wine list brief.)
I commend the restaurant's efforts. Are the T-shirts a little pretentious? Maybe, though they are a sobering reminder that even in 2008 a business that sees its duty to the planet as something more than a few recycling bins is still worthy of special mention.
Now if only Pi could find a way to convert Provel into automobile fuel. That'd be worthy of a Nobel Prize.
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