Jackpot! With Epic Pizza & Subs, ex-casino honcho Todd George goes from counting dough to baking it

Mar 8, 2012 at 4:00 am
Kind of nuts: "The Bradley" comes topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano, red onion, rosemary and pistachios.
Kind of nuts: "The Bradley" comes topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano, red onion, rosemary and pistachios. Jennifer Silverberg

"The Bradley" is unlike any other pizza in St. Louis. At first glance it seems normal enough: a thin, hand-tossed crust, fired in a brick oven and topped with cheese, red onion, herbs and crumbs of sausage. The cheese is Parmigiano-Reggiano, though, not mozzarella, and the herbs are neither oregano nor basil, the usual suspects, but rosemary.

And the sausage isn't sausage. It's not even meat. It's pistachio.

The flavors combine beautifully, the complex, nutty Parmigiano and the mild edge of the red onion balancing out the salty-sweet pistachio, with a fresh, springlike hit from the rosemary. And the crust is perfect, airy but lightly chewy, its underside speckled with oven char.

Does St. Louis need another pizza joint? I can't help but ask myself that question whenever a new one opens. But at Epic Pizza & Subs, which opened in Soulard about three months back, after eating one slice of "The Bradley," I told myself to shut the hell up and eat.

By the way, at Epic you can order by the slice, a depressingly rare option in this town.

Owner Todd George comes to the restaurant business from the casino industry. He did stints for Pinnacle Entertainment as general manager of both Lumière Place and River City Casino. When he left Pinnacle at the end of 2010, he was Lumière's senior vice president.

It's safe to say Epic operates on a slightly more modest scale than a casino: The pizzeria/sandwich shop occupies a former garage about half a block south of the Soulard Farmers' Market. The layout, which sprang from a sketch George drew on the bare floor with his daughter's sidewalk chalk, makes the best of a long, narrow space. To your right as you enter the restaurant is the open kitchen, brick oven and all. You order at a counter here and then await your pie at a table in one of two small dining rooms beyond the kitchen. On the exposed-brick walls hang framed prints that appeal to a St. Louisan's nostalgia: vintage Budweiser ads and Cardinals program covers.

If you prefer your pizza in by-the-pie increments, there are two sizes, fourteen or sixteen inches. The style is New York, though the restaurant makes no claim to authenticity that might rile nitpickers. (For contrast, visit Feraro's Jersey Style Pizza just down the street. There you'll find a more pillowy crust and a sweeter sauce.) The crust is the same for each pizza. Though thin, it can support a reasonable number of toppings without the risk of collapse. You can fold it to eat as you walk.

There are two basic pizzas, the Margherita and the "NY Cheese." The former is lightly sauced and topped with slabs of bubbling fresh mozzarella and snips of basil. The latter blankets a moderately sweet sauce with the east-coast style of melted mozzarella, tangy (even a little sour), gooey, a hint of smoke. Oregano dominates the dried herbs sprinkled atop each slice.

The "NY Cheese" is the perfect base for your preferred assortment of toppings. Epic offers all of the favorites (pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, olives, etc.). Aside from feta and ricotta cheeses, there are no "oddball" toppings to tempt you outside your comfort zone. For that you'll have to check out the pizza of the day, which might feature clams, garlic, lemon and herbs (a Lenten special) or a combination of spicy salume (not a Lenten special).

The cheeseburger is the centerpiece of the sandwich side of the menu. In fact, the menu lists it with emphasis as "THE Cheeseburger." It's a plump, hand-formed patty topped with American or cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, sautéed onions and "Epic" sauce — a secret blend that tastes like a much spicier Thousand Island — served in a big, soft potato roll. The patty itself is quite juicy, though I wish I could have specified a temperature. It arrived medium-well, losing a bit of its beefy essence.

The hot dog is called a "Snappy." You can order either a white (pork and veal with garlic) or a red (beef). I opted for the former. It comes smothered in melted provolone cheese, which adds a bit of stringy chew to an exceptionally tender frank. (It doesn't snap, if you were wondering.) The flavor is mild in the best sense, a touch of garlic to the natural sweetness of the meat.

"The Hill" sandwich is a pork lover's delight, which is to say I ordered it: Black Forest ham, prosciutto, capicola, pepperoni and salami with cherry peppers, tomato, lettuce and provolone, all of it dressed in an Italian vinaigrette. I could have done with less of that vinaigrette, but it's a decent sandwich all the same.

You can add fries to any sandwich for $2. These come seasoned with a mixture of garlic, Parmesan and herbs. This makes for good flavor, but the fries themselves aren't as crisp as they could be. The texture suggests only a single frying rather than the blanch-chill-fry method that leads to superior spuds.

There are a few crowd-pleasing appetizers (garlic bread, T-ravs, cheese sticks). Also listed among the appetizers, but substantial enough for your meal, are the chicken wings. These are very crisp and juicy and served lightly dressed in a mild or hot (your choice) Buffalo sauce.

There is a brief list of modestly priced, pizza-friendly wines. Oddly, the menu suggests beer-style pairings for several dishes — "The Hill" would go well with a Belgian strong ale, an American amber or a (dark) dunkel lager, for example — yet the restaurant's beer selection is limited to precisely three, all on tap and all made by Anheuser-Busch. This starts to make a lot of sense when you consider that Epic is located right next door to the International Tap House, which offers 17 bazillion different beers, doesn't serve food and welcomes patrons to bring in their own.

Epic's fast-casual setup allows for prompt service, and the servers on my visits were quite friendly, checking back on my table (and others) to make sure everything was OK and to offer drink refills. The servers and kitchen staff all wear dark-blue shirts with a patch over the heart that bears the Epic logo. It's reminiscent of an old-school gas-station workshirt, and it hints at a brand rather than just a restaurant.

Does St. Louis need more pizza joints? Sure, bring 'em on.