Exposing St. Louis’ Food Secrets
They say you don’t really know a place until you leave it.
It wasn’t until I moved out of St. Louis, Missouri in my thirties that I came to realize what great food the city had to offer. Now I’m not talking about that great hamburger joint on the corner or the nostalgia of Grandma’s cooking. I’m also not talking about the mysterious St. Louis-style barbecue.
No, I’m referring to foods that I took for granted all my life only to realize later that they were only found in the St. Louis region. If I wanted them, I had to fly home.
Or get creative.
St. Louis-style pizza
The quintessential regional food, St. Louis-style pizza, is the one I miss the most. It’s also been the hardest to reproduce in my Oregon kitchen.
Picture a typical pizza and then replace all the ingredients.
Thick, chewy dough transforms into a cracker-thin crust. The tomato sauce is slightly sweet and liberally sprinkled with oregano. But the ingredient that makes St. Louis-style pizza stand out is the cheese.
Mozzarella is never used. Instead, a unique cheese called Provel makes this pizza shine.
And the presentation? St. Louis-style pizza is cut into squares.
The taste is unmistakable and completely unique. Actor Jon Hamm, also from St. Louis, describes it best. “You can taste the Gateway Arch,” Hamm says. “It tastes like 11 World Series victories.”
Imo’s is the most famous local chain. But to get the really good pies, travel to The Hill, St. Louis’ Little Italy.
Here, you can taste the pizza the way that Amedeo Fiore intended when he brought the recipe to the Gateway to the West in the 1930s.
Fiore was hoping to make an impact of another kind. An opera singer, Fiore, found some success singing with the New York Metropolitan Opera when it traveled through town. He also performed at the local venue, The Muny, and directed the Italian Radio Theater. But it was a cozy restaurant that he opened with his wife that would make him famous.
Fiore’s Melrose Pizzeria was located close to the opulent Chase Park Plaza Hotel, and guests who craved Italian food would swing by. Soon, Fiore made enough money to import an authentic pizza oven from Italy.
Pizza had arrived in St. Louis.
Eventually, the newspapers got wind of the new craze in town, and due to their coverage, his pizza became a hit. However, that original recipe featured Provolone cheese, similar in taste to Swiss or Gruyère.
The ubiquitous Provel wouldn’t be invented until much later — 1950.
This creamy cheese, its low melting point makes it gooey at room temperature, is rich and ideal for pizza. Today, Provel is owned by Kraft but is virtually unavailable outside of the St. Louis region.
So with all this authentic pizza why is Imo’s the best known? The original Imo’s opened in 1963 with a simple, yet unbeatable, concept. They offered carry-out and delivery.
Don’t want to fly to St. Louis to try the pizza? There are a number of recipes online. For the most authentic taste, look for one that uses liquid smoke. This simple ingredient makes all the difference in getting that true Provel taste.
Growing up, I had an inkling that St. Louis-style pizza was unique. I’ll admit to wanting mozzarella on my pizza more than once. But toasted ravioli? I was stunned to find out that no one outside of my hometown knew of this.
Toasted ravioli, or t-ravs, is another iconic food from The Hill, though its origin story is debatable.
The best-known story was spun by a waiter named Mickey Garagiola who worked at Oldani’s restaurant in the 1940s. The legend goes that a tipsy cook was making traditional ravioli and accidentally dropped a batch in the deep fryer.
Not wanting them to go to waste, Evelyn Oldani sprinkled them with Parmesan and sent them to the bar. Mickey and his fellow waiters loved the crispy puffs of meat and dough so much that they became a permanent fixture on the menu.
Why toasted? In the words of Lou Oldani, “You didn’t want to use ‘fat fried’ and you didn’t want to use ‘greasy fried.’”
A competing restaurant’s story is similar, but blames the accident on a German cook who didn’t understand the meaning of the phrase, ‘drop some raviolis.’”
Today, both restaurants claim to be the birthplace of t-ravs, but either way, this popular appetizer dipped in marinara sauce, remains a local secret.
Gooey butter cake
I grew up on this rich, uber-sweet dessert. So naturally, this is the recipe I crave the most and has also been the hardest to perfect.
Gooey butter cake is not for those watching their waistline.
This coffee cake dessert consists of a yeast-raised crust covered with a sticky filling loaded with butter and sugar. A liberal dusting of powdered sugar tops the whole thing off.
Moderation is key here.
The creation of gooey butter cake also stems from a 1930s happy accident. A German-American baker was churning out standard coffee cakes. In his haste, he mixed up the proportions of sugar, butter, and flour. The result was a cake with a pudding-like consistency held together with a dry crust.
Though the cakes tasted delicious, they looked like a gooey, unbaked mess, and at first, the bakery couldn’t get their customers to buy them. Eventually, they caught on, and now gooey butter cakes are sold in every St. Louis bakery and come in a variety of flavors.
For ease in preparation, many recipes use a yellow cake mix and cream cheese. But keep in mind, these won’t provide an authentic flavor. Instead, look for recipes that feature yeast in the crust and corn syrup in the filling.
Other quirky foods
Ted Drewes is famous for selling frozen custard, a creamy concoction so thick you can turn it upside down without fear of it falling out. Originally founded in 1929, the small building on Chippewa Street always has a line out front.
Pork steaks are cut from the pork shoulder. The meat is typically cooked ‘low and slow’ in the oven or barbecue pit and drenched in barbecue sauce and beer. The result is a tender and flavorful, if somewhat messy, steak and is best served with a generous side of coleslaw and potato salad.
So the next time you visit St. Louis, try one, or all, of these local favorites. And please let me know if you have a copy of the original gooey butter cake.