May 29, 2013

Taste Bud: It’s a St. Louis thing

I don’t normally venture so far outside Louisville for a Taste Bud, but this one sort of found me. A couple of months back, a reader contacted me regarding a column I’d written about Pizza King, a unique pizzeria in Southern Indiana.

He asked if I’d ever had Imo’s pizza from St. Louis. I told him I had not, but after some online research, it appeared to me that Pizza King was probably the closest he was going to find in this area. So he took my advice and gave it a try.

The verdict: Close, but no cigar.

“I found the crust and style to be similar to our St. Louis standard,” said James J. Natsis, a transplanted (from St. Louis, obviously) Louisvillian. “However, they use a Provel cheese in St. Louis that gives it a unique flavor.”

Provel cheese? Wha? Natsis encouraged me to try Imo’s next time I was in St. Louis. As fate would have it, I had plans to go there with my girlfriend just a few weeks after receiving his recommendation. And by chance, there was an Imo’s location in the same building as our hotel. Ah, serendipity.

Guess what? I love Imo’s pizza. LOVE. Chicago is known for deep dish, and New York has its thin, floppy mega-slices. For St. Louis, it’s the thin and crispy Imo’s with Provel cheese. The sauce is similar to Pizza King’s, but the pepperoni is in traditional slices versus diced. And like at Pizza King (as well as Arni’s, another Southern Indiana staple), the skinny pizzas are sliced in squares vs. pie slices.

After further research, I learned that this Provel cheese literally is something you can only get in St. Louis. It’s 2013, people — we have railroads for this sort of thing. And yet, somehow, Provel cheese remains mostly unique to St. Louis, for some strange reason. Apparently, much like how Germans love David Hasselhoff, St. Louis folks love Provel cheese.

One reason for the exclusivity could be that, as far as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration is concerned, Provel isn’t even a real cheese. It’s a “pasteurized process cheese” that is a blend of provolone, mozzarella and swiss, with a few other additives thrown in. As such, it can’t be marketed to consumers as “cheese.” I read up on it, and it has to do with government-mandated amounts of moisture and milk fat in the end product.

Tell you what: Moisture and milk fat notwithstanding, the stuff is good.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch food critic Joe Bonwich wrote that Provel was invented specifically for St. Louis-style pizza more than 50 years ago by Costa Grocery, a store located in a primarily Italian St. Louis neighborhood, with some help from the Hoffman Dairy Co. of Wisconsin. What sets it apart? For one, it doesn’t stretch when melted like mozzarella; it was developed to have a “clean bite” so that the cheese and toppings don’t slide off the slice when you eat it. And it works. Unlike mozzarella-covered pies, you don’t have to fight to keep your cheese and toppings from bailing into your lap.

But what makes Provel truly unique is the rich, almost smoky flavor — it’s like eating a pizza with sharp white cheddar on it. With one bite, I knew I’d just experienced something unique. And I kept eating even after I was full. We still had four or five pieces left, so guess what I had for breakfast the next morning in the hotel room?

Imo’s uses Provel on pretty much everything. Our server, Karen, when she learned of our interest in Provel, showed us a salad — which basically was a bit of leafy greens and a couple of vegetables under a mountain of the white cheese. If someone added bacon to that, I’m afraid my head would explode.

“I thought,” Cynthia said afterward, “‘Is there actually a salad under all that cheese?’”

As for specific comparisons with Pizza King and/or Arni’s Pizza, the crust is thin and crispy like the local pies, but not cooked to darkness like at Pizza King or Arni’s. It stays a light brown, showing no scorch marks at all. For my money, the scorching adds something. But the Imo’s pizza needs no help, thanks to that delicious cheese.

I really should import the stuff and open my own pizzeria that features Provel cheese. I know I’ll have at least one customer in Natsis if I do.

“We have NuLu, the champion Cardinals, bourbon and much more,” Natsis said. “But Louisville will never be quite complete in the eyes of this native St. Louisan until I can get my Imo’s pizza somewhere in our beloved Louisville.”