February 15, 2020

Tony Gemignani’s Take On The Once-Obscure St. Louis Pizza

by Joe Bonadio

As much as a pleasure as it is, eating at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana always involves some hard choices. Everyone has favorites, but unless you’re a newbie, you know there is always something new to try here. And with a menu this varied, it’s a shame to get pigeonholed.

So it took a while for me to get around to the St. Louis. A staple in that city, St. Louis-style pizza is not seen outside the Midwest very often, and it counts as one of the more unusual pizza styles on the Tony’s menu.

I recently sat down with Tony to talk about the virtues of the St. Louis pizza, and the fierce loyalty it seems to inspire in some of his customers. You’ll find our conversation (along with a few tasting notes from yours truly) below.
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Joe Bonadio: So when did you try St. Louis-style pizza for the first time?

Tony Gemignani: Years ago, I worked in St. Louis with a cancer camp called Camp Quality. This was back in the mid-Nineties. When I was there, I tried St. Louis style for the first time.

It was interesting. I had always heard of Imo’s Pizza, which was popular in St Louis. I was there for this camp where I helped kids, and taught them how to make pizzas. It was a sad but amazing place. Everything you’d do in a lifetime they had at this camp, because these kids might not make it. They had bowling, and magic, and sports….everything you could do. And making pizzas. A week of adventure for these kids. Bucket list stuff.

So while I was in St. Louis, I was gonna have a Budweiser, and eat a St. Louis pizza. Back then, I didn’t know it was going to be part of my life. But I ended up researching the style, and I had a student in my class, and we ended up talking about it.

I told him I had tried it, and that what I had was okay. And he kept talking about the cheese, this Provel, and how you couldn’t get it. So I called BiRite, the distributors, and I talked to Herb. He’s the cheese expert, the cheesemonger there. And he’s like, “What’s Provel?

I’ve done that a couple of times importing with BiRite. When I was looking for dry mozzarella, they didn’t know about it, and I explained that pizzamakers were using it in coal ovens back east. And now it’s available here.

You can just look at the stuff that’s here in California now, all the things that are accessible to pizzerias: there’s provel, there’s brick cheese, there’s coal-fired cheese that never existed here before we brought them in at Tony’s.

So all these fuckers out here who are like, “Oh, I’m buying brick for my Detroit…!” They should at least say you’re welcome. Because they never knew about what the hell these things were. People would just settle for something close, if they even bothered.

Another perfect evening on North Beach’s Washington Square Park, home of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: That reminds me of Ralph Di Palo, the cheesemonger at Di Palo’s in New York.

TG: Di Palo’s! I love that place.

JB: Me too! Ralph used to tell me how he worked to get these products from Italy over to the U.S. Piave, the mountain cheese—they didn’t have it here at all. Ralph worked hard to get cheeses and other products distributed over here.

TG: And it’s funny, this is an “imported” cheese from the U.S.! It’s not like we had to get it from
another country. It’s from the U.S., but people had no clue what it was.

Yeah, people don’t realize that I would pay big money to get that….because I was the only one buying it. I’d get a line on provel, which might be 99¢ a pound or something in Wisconsin—and by the time I get it here it’s more expensive than my Bufala, which comes all the way from Naples! (laughter)

But it really starts with the cheese. If you’re making St. Louis pizza, it has to be provel.

JB: How would you describe Provel?

Provel is like Velveeta and cream cheese went on a date. It sticks to the roof of your mouth, and it’s slightly gummy, almost like a vegan cheese—but not that gummy. It’s a blend of provolone, mozzarella and cheddar.

The most interesting pizza you’ve never tasted: the St. Louis pie at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: I understand your St. Louis has some pretty obsessive fans.

TG: I hear it all the time. I just had a guy doing tree service at my house—his boss was from St. Louis, and every time he comes he gets one to eat at the restaurant, and another to go. He told me, “Your pizza’s better than it is in St. Louis.”

I ended up judging the championships in St. Louis a couple of years ago. So I had the chance to be there for four days…and Eat. Everywhere, all the places!

JB: So what separates your St. Louis from all the others?

TG: St. Louis pizza is a round pizza with a slightly sweet sauce, provel cheese, an oregano finish, and cut into squares. But sometimes the dough is leavened, and sometimes it’s not, meaning yeast or no yeast. My dough is leavened. It has flavor to it, it’s pliable.

There’s nothing like a leavened dough—flavor, texture, everything.

Another thing is, I put my provel on halfway through the bake. If you cook with provel, it has a very low burn point, meaning it browns fast, and it becomes scabby. Mine is never scabby, it’s always creamy white.

I did that because I understand cheese as I’m looking at it; so my answer was to cook the pizza halfway, take it out, and put the cheese on.

Also, we use deck ovens to cook it, and a lot of guys are using conveyors. For me, I think you get a better bake with the deck oven. And we actually use two ovens: we start it off in the electric and move it to the gas, so we do a two-step process that’s a little different. We use Stanislaus tomatoes on it, it’s a great tomato sauce. Really, just those things.

St. Louis pizza is a love-hate thing. You either love it or hate it. If you grew up with it, and you loved it as a kid, you’re like, man…

But it’s not for everybody. It actually didn’t work at Pizza Rock, my place in Sacramento. Neither did the Clam & Garlic.

JB: I’ve had the St. Louis in your place with some serious pizza purists.

TG: Did they hate it?

JB: No, they really liked it. I’ve never heard anyone say they didn’t like it.

TG: Oh, I have! It’s just like the margherita, we have to make sure people know what they’re ordering so they get what they want. Most of our complaints at Tony’s are people who don’t understand the margherita. “Oh, it’s the winner! I’ll take it!” We’ve got to be careful to explain that the margherita is wet, and it’s soft and pillowy, not crispy.

JB: How does the St. Louis sell?

TG: They sell okay. When the Cardinals are in town, we sell a lot. And if somebody from St. Louis comes in, they’re a customer for life. I just had one the other day. A guy told me he came with his family, and that they drove in from Modesto—and they always get an extra one to go. Customer for life.

It’s nice to have something on the menu that’s so regional, something that people grew up with. Like our Clam and Garlic, from New Haven.

JB: Yeah, those are probably your two most obscure pies, I’d say.

TG: Yes, along with the Detroit—though that style is becoming more mainstream now. Now, on the new menu, with the St. Louis you’ll be able to get red-hot riplets seasoning. Have you ever heard of them?

A bowl of Red Hot Riplets, St. Louis’ favorite potato chip. | Photo: Wikipedia Commons

JB: No. Riplets?

TG: It’s a type of potato chip that you can get in St. Louis, by a company called Old Vienna. Sometimes they actually put the chips on the pizza, in some places. We’re going to have the red hot riplet seasoning, that you can get for 50¢. I can’t wait to have it, I love it—and all my kitchen guys do too.*

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Having learned all I could from Tony about the St. Louis style, it was high time for a tasting, which I engineered for the following Monday. I brought along my good friend Tom (one of the aforementioned pizza purists) for a second opinion.

The verdict was good. It is a very unconventional pie, to say the least, but the flavors work well together, and it’s unlike any pizza you’ve ever tasted. The sweet sauce complements the gentle provel cheese, and the cracker crust is as delicate as can be. Even the smaller, square slices (what’s sometimes called a ‘party cut’) lend something to the overall effect of the pie.

For my money, the St. Louis is a solid, and almost compulsively eatable pizza. Tom agreed, and he and I wiped out that pie in seven minutes, tops. And then we were on to the next one—but that’s for another blog post.

So are you a lover, or a hater? Get yourself over to Tony’s and try the St. Louis.

*Red Hot Riplet seasoning premiered on the Tony’s menu just in time for Valentine’s Day weekend.