Welcome to Hidden Gem, a short love letter to restaurants, coffee shop and bars we at Gut Check have discovered off the beaten path. These are the places that soldier on in relative anonymity, beloved by their regulars and largely overlooked by the greater populace. Hidden Gem will attempt to rectify these terrible oversights. Have a Hidden Gem of your own to recommend? Tell us in the comments.
In what seems like a top-secret pizza lair in south St. Louis -- in a Lemay basement, to be specific -- 54-year-old Tom Nix spends six nights a week single-handedly baking up what he calls St. Louis' original thin crust pizza. That claim sounds like a tall one coming from a place that many St. Louisans aren't even aware exists, but Nix seems determined to show us how it's done.
Last April, he took over management of Monte Bello Pizzeria (3662 Weber Road; 314-638-8861), equipped with all the restaurant's original recipes from 1950. Those pies are now flying out of the oven for the first time in decades.
The original owners, an Italian family by the name of Petrillo, built the restaurant in 1950 and lived in an attached building next door, says Nix. In its heyday, the restaurant had a bar upstairs and turned out upward of 270 pizzas a night into the late evening, not including the pastas and entrees they also served, he says.
Though not related by blood, Nix simply knew the owners Mike and Helen as "Grandpa" and "Grandma" and still remembers peeling potatoes, grating cheeses and helping them out with other kitchen prep work while growing up around Monte Bello's kitchen. By age ten, he was already assisting with the actual making of the pizzas.
His mother, Peggy Morgan, worked there from the time that he was born, with the Petrillos' son and his wife running the restaurant. In 1967, Morgan bought the restaurant from the Petrillos with her husband, who was a bartender upstairs. From that time, however, the products deviated from the original recipes and business slowly declined, Nix says.
After his return to the restaurant in August of 2012, Nix found the original recipes locked away in a drawer. With a magnifying glass, he transcribed them letter for letter -- everything from the four-cheese blend, sauce and dough to the homemade toasted ravioli, meatballs and Italian sausage. He went on to post signage, something the building lacked for over a decade, and says business has picked up nearly 75 percent since last April.
"We're using all original ingredients to make everything again. People are happy with the quality and the quantity," says Nix. "I think it should be the way it was, you know. That's my whole thing. We went back to to the original recipe to make it the way it should be made."