Lust for Crust: Katie's ain't your typical St. Louis pizza joint

Katie's Pizzeria Café

6611 Clayton Road, Clayton; 314-727-8585.
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun.
(Open for coffee at 6:30 a.m.)

Katie's Pizzeria Café
Fried artichoke salad...$7.95
Margherita pizza...$11.95
Prosciutto-apple pizza...$14.95
Fingerling potato pizza...$14.95

A neon sign hanging in the window of Katie's Pizzeria Café advertises Budweiser "N" pizza. This is, technically, true. You can order both a Bud and a pizza at the three-month-old restaurant. But if you expect Katie's to be a typical beer 'n' pizza joint, especially in the cracker crust-and-Provel St. Louis style, you'll be surprised, maybe even a little disappointed. A more telling advertisement might be the sculpture of a giraffe on the lawn of the business next door: unexpected, different, funky. Even if it's not your thing, you'd have to be a real sourpuss to dismiss it out of hand.

Katie is 26-year-old Katie Lee. Katie's is her first restaurant, but she has a connection to the local dining scene: She's the niece of well-known restaurateur Zoë Robinson (of I Fratellini and the late Zoë's Pan-Asian Café, not to mention Café Zoë).

Katie's occupies a long storefront where Clayton meets Richmond Heights. The décor falls somewhere between urban chic and first-apartment what-the-hell. Tables don't match one another or their chairs, and if you arrive when the place is crowded, you might be stuck at the worst table I've ever had anywhere, so small that I was forced to sit with my knees braced against the outside of opposite legs. But I like the moody, blue abstract paintings, the old movies projected over the kitchen entrance and the big, spherical light fixture that throws watery shadows on the walls.

The menu is straightforward: There are ten different pizzas, each available in only one size, roughly twelve inches in diameter (though in an artisanal touch the pizzas here are rarely perfectly round). I found the pizzas too small for two to split, too big for me to finish by myself. I'd order one for each person at the table and share.

In addition, only one kind of crust is available: Neapolitan, very thin and crisp from the heat of the brick oven but retaining a slight tenderness. There are rules for what truly is authentic Neapolitan-style pizza. I have no idea whether Katie's crust meets these rules exactly, but it's simple and delicious, with just the right tang of salt.

The topping combinations are uncommon, if not outlandish: one pizza features shrimp, pesto, pecorino cheese and cherry tomatoes; another fingerling potatoes, parsnips, onion, pancetta, rosemary and Parmesan.

The most basic pizza — and closest to the Neapolitan ideal — is the margherita: tomato, basil and mozzarella cheese, the only sauce a brushing of olive oil. The key here is the freshness of the ingredients. Too often (around here, at least), margherita pizzas suffer from pale, insipid tomatoes. Katie's avoids the problem by using whole grape tomatoes, which literally burst with flavor. (Careful: You can easily squirt tomato juice across the table.) The fresh mozzarella is sliced thin but not very thin; each slice retains a definite shape and texture.

Another simple combination brought together prosciutto, apples sliced paper-thin and fontina cheese. While the combination of prosciutto and the crust might be too salty for some palates, I didn't mind, and I found the combination of salty, savory, sweet and, in the case of the fontina, slightly nutty, to be excellent. Fontina cheese was also an inspired choice for a pizza with fennel sausage and leeks.

The pizza with fingerling potatoes is the most intriguing. As with the apples, the potatoes are sliced as thin as paper. The heat of the oven lightly browns them and curls their edges. Upon seeing them, you might think, "Potato chips!" But the texture is soft, and the flavor, combined with the onion and cheese, is much like that of potatoes au gratin. In truth, it was enough like potatoes au gratin that I wanted more pancetta, to provide a meaty balance.

Pizza is the only entrée on the menu, but the dinner salads are large enough to serve as a meal. My wife and I each ordered one before dinner and, later, wished we had split one instead. The fried artichoke salad is especially tasty, the soft, earthy vegetable nicely paired with creamy, pungent goat cheese.

There are a few appetizers: If you like Katie's crust, you can pair it with a dip made from cannellini beans. This being St. Louis, there's toasted ravioli (filled with artichokes and Gorgonzola cheese). The only appetizer I tried was the prosciutto spring rolls: a single stalk of asparagus, sliced zucchini, portobello mushroom, basil leaves and Parmesan cheese wrapped in a slice of prosciutto. These are a clever idea and look nifty on the plate, but the flavor is blunt: asparagus and, from the prosciutto, salt.

The wine list is brief, mostly Italian and affordable, with only a couple of bottles priced over $40. Wines are served in short juice glasses, which I guess looks rustic but doesn't do the wine any favors. The beer list is short and predictable. I suppose you can't go wrong pairing any cold beer with pizza, but given that these are higher-end pizzas, I would have liked a larger selection.

Service was brusque on the first two of my three visits. On both occasions our server (a different woman each time) asked if we were done or if we wanted our check while my wife still had a slice of pizza in her hands. On my last visit, our server was friendly but still took her time to bring us drinks and (ironically) our check. Empty tables weren't cleared very quickly, and when they were, the deed was done with aggressive sprays of Windex. While we're running down the list, the menu could use a proofreader. Overall there was a sense of sloppiness, bordering on carelessness, at Katie's that I found troubling, especially given the quality of the pizzas.

But service aside, Katie's brings something new to the St. Louis pizza landscape: a freshness of spirit, and a dedication to doing one kind of pizza — and one not seen as often here in St. Louis — very well. It might not take the top spot in your Pizza Parlor Top Ten, but it sure should command your attention. Just like that giraffe on the lawn next door.

(At least until I steal it.)

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