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Hip to Be Square: Slicing Into the History of St. Louis-Style Pizza

Less than a century ago, the cracker-thin style was barely known of in St. Louis – let alone debated as one of the city’s most celebrated dishes.

  • 13 min to read

Toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake and pork steaks are thoroughly beloved St. Louis foods. But there’s one thing the Gateway to the West can’t seem to agree on: St. Louis-style pizza. Characterized by cracker-thin crust, oregano-seasoned sauce, creamy Provel cheese and toppings from square edge to square edge, it’s rarely found outside of the metro area (and some nearby cities like Columbia, Missouri).

Earlier this year, top NBA draft pick and St. Louis native Jayson Tatum jokingly told a sportswriter that his No. 1 draft pick would be St. Louis-style pizza. “Never even knew that was a thing,” the reporter tweeted. Unsurprisingly, Tatum has since been named an official spokesperson for Imo's Pizza. But not everyone is on board.

It’s a running joke on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that the host detests Imo’s Pizza, the local chain that made the style ubiquitous, since being introduced to it by his wife, Molly McNearney, who hails from St. Louis. Naturally, when other St. Louis natives like Jenna Fischer, Ellie Kemper and Jon Hamm visit his show, Kimmel asks them about Imo’s. He even had some delivered for Hamm during a 2013 episode.

“For those who don’t know, you’re from St. Louis,” Kimmel says to Hamm. “There’s a pizza place that I’ve been at odds with called Imo's Pizza in St. Louis. Now, it's a beloved chain in St. Louis and ... the pizza, by the way, is terrible.”

Hamm, of course, disagrees, and digs into the pizza as well as Kimmel’s argument. “You want to get the middle piece. Because that's where all the good stuff is,” he instructs.

Kimmel is unimpressed. “What does it taste like?”

“You can taste the Gateway Arch,” Hamm says. “It tastes like 11 World Series victories.”

That’s the thing about St. Louis-style pizza – for locals, it stirs a particular sort of hometown pride. The square-cut pizza is iconic in St. Louis, and today seems almost as central to the city’s identity as beer or baseball. The same is true of pizza in cities like New York City, Detroit and Chicago, which each lay claim to their own definitive styles of ‘za.

Regardless of your zip code, though, we generally consider pizza as fundamentally American as hot dogs, cheeseburgers or apple pie. Yet less than a century ago, it was barely known of in St. Louis – let alone debated as one of the city’s most celebrated dishes.

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Amedeo Fiore didn’t set out to bring pizza to St. Louis when he moved there in the 1930s. Instead, it was his tenor singing voice he hoped to share with his new hometown.

After moving from Chicago with his wife, Betty, Fiore sang with The Muny and the New York Metropolitan Opera when it came to town, and served as director of the Italian Radio Theater. The couple eventually opened a small Italian restaurant in 1945 in the low-ceilinged basement of 204 N. Sarah St., inside the Melrose apartment building, which had hosted a string of restaurants for at least 20 years prior. Much later, St. Louis Post-Dispatch restaurant critic Joe Pollack would describe the space as “especially popular with short persons and athletic types with reflexes good enough to duck the pipes.”

The small but full-service Melrose Pizzeria was close to The Chase Park Plaza Hotel, so legendary Chase Club maître d’ Hack Ulrich would send hotel guests and entertainers who were craving East Coast-style “Little Italy” Italian food – including many who had their first taste of pizza while serving in World War II – to Melrose.

“A lot of it was because of Hack Ulrich,” says Ron Elz, St. Louis radio broadcaster and historian. “He started noticing a lot of people asking him for pizza, and was trying to find it for them. He knew Fiore and started talking to him about it, and Fiore knew about pizza, and that’s how the whole thing started.”

Fiore began to take out ads in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – but in order to expand his audience, he first had to explain just what pizza was. “Say (peet-sa),” he shared in an April 1947 ad. “New arrival in St. Louis, the original Neapolitan pizza. Baked in special oven, three different ways with – tomatoes and cheese, tomatoes and sausage, tomatoes and anchovies.” Fiore had imported an oven from Italy and developed his own recipe.

That month, the newspaper featured Fiore in several photographs making his proprietary dough and cutting the pizza into squares using scissors. “It is part pie, part hot sandwich, and the restaurant where it is baked is called a pizzeria (peetser-ee-ah),” wrote Frances Dawson, although she mistakenly assures readers that basil and oregano are the same thing. She describes the pizza at Melrose as a rich yeast dough topped with tomato sauce, a layer of Provolone – “a cheese similar in taste to Swiss or Gruyère” – strips of anchovies, pitted olives, ground pork and beef, more cheese and olive oil.

“With scissors Amadeo [sic] Fiore, proprietor-chef of the Melrose Pizzeria, cuts pizza into squares for serving,” the caption reads. “The squares, held with a paper napkin, are eaten from the hand.”

Elz, whose grandfather ran Olympia Pharmacy a block from Melrose, remembers the large shears Fiore used. He was just 7 years old when the pizzeria opened.

“Fiore’s had a much more bitter sauce; there was more tomato paste in it than people use [now],” he says. “[Pizza is] cheesier today – it was more sauce with toppings.”

Fiore’s pizza was so popular, he had to move to a larger space by the end of the year. Melrose Pizzeria reopened at 5026-28 Easton (now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive) in the spring of 1948. “Just try it once and you’ll come for it steady!” Fiore promised in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when announcing the new location. “We mean the original Neapolitan PIZZA!”

Over the next 58 years, the pipe-laden basement at 204 N. Sarah St. would go on to house two of the most famous and influential pizzerias in St. Louis.

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After only two years in business, Fiore sold the Melrose basement space to two employees who had started as busboys and waiters, brothers Louis and Joseph Parente.

The brothers reopened as Parente’s Pizzeria in 1948, “serving the famous Italian pizza,” plus a “complete menu of other Italian and American foods,” including steak and spaghetti. Lou and Joe eventually had multiple restaurants in several locations – including Parente’s Italian Village in Rock Hill, in the building that now houses Hacienda – but split into separate ventures as well. “They fought like cats and dogs all the time,” Elz remembers. “Joe was the one who ran the kitchen, and Lou was the one who was always out in front. He was the glad-hand guy, and Joe was behind the scenes.”

In 1954, a third pizzeria opened in the Melrose basement: Rossino’s, a combination of the names of owners Roy and Nina Russo and Frank Gianino. Like its predecessors, Rossino’s served a full menu of Italian dishes – veal Parmigiano, carbonara, lasagna – and thin-crust pizza. The Russos’ daughter Nancy (who began working under the famously low ceiling at age 12) and her husband, Tom Zimmerman, bought Rossino’s in 1963. The restaurant became a hangout for athletes, movie stars and local celebrities, especially Charley Winner, who was head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals football team from 1966 to 1971.

“Winner, who was a trencherman’s trencherman, and his assistants made Rossino’s an almost-every-Tuesday stop,” wrote Pollack in 1977, “gathering in the Pipe Room, named for its plumbing, rather than its smoking, heritage. The head coach even added a dish, though it never stayed on the menu, when he convinced the kitchen that a sirloin steak – a large sirloin steak – would be better with cacciatore sauce than the traditional chicken.”

The names that came out of Rossino’s dining room will be familiar to many St. Louisans: Mike Faille of Talayna’s is Nancy’s uncle, as is Charlie Gitto; the late Mike Del Pietro Sr. was her brother-in-law, and waited tables there. Rossino’s only closed in 2006, when Zimmerman was ready to retire.

“To me, the most interesting thing is the Melrose apartment building itself,” says Harley Hammerman, who runs the website Lost Tables, which profiles bygone St. Louis restaurants from Tony Faust’s to Niche. “It’s amazing how much history was crammed into the basement at 204 N. Sarah. Melrose Pizzeria, Parente’s and Rossino’s were all in that same space. Plus, that’s where St. Louis pizza was born.”

Although the Hill – nicknamed so because it’s the highest point within city limits – in south St. Louis had been an Italian community for decades, it wasn’t the center of St. Louis’ initial pizza frenzy. The neighborhood first gained attention when clay deposits were discovered in the 1830s. Later, clay mine and plant expansion brought Italian immigrants to the area beginning in the 1890s – first from Lombardy, and then Sicily – although the community originally settled Downtown. As the second generation of Italians came of age, the Great Depression “broadened the vistas of the Hill,” writes historian Gary Ross Mormino in his book Immigrants on the Hill: Italian Americans in St. Louis, 1882 to 1982. “Whereas an earlier generation shielded the community from the purview of interfering outside agencies, the Depression forced the neighborhood to look beyond its boundaries.”

The Parentes finally debuted a pizzeria on the Hill in 1975, which Pollack reported on for the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

“After nearly 30 years in the restaurant business, dispensing pizza, pasta and other Italian foods in four area locations, [the Parentes] have finally arrived on the Hill,” Pollack wrote. “‘I guess it is kind of peculiar,’ said Joe [Parente] as he wiped his hands on a long white apron. ‘You’d think that we’d start on the Hill, being Italian, but it just didn’t happen that way.’ Joe was in the kitchen and Lou behind the bar on a couple of pleasant visits to their newest location, 5356 Daggett Avenue.”

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None of St. Louis’ earliest pizzerias used – at first, anyway – the now ubiquitous and divisive Provel cheese. There are conflicting origin stories, but one thing is certain: Chicago-based J.S. Hoffman Co. first applied for a Provel trademark in 1947, but it was denied because the name was too similar to another cheese called Provole. The trademark was eventually granted in 1950 for a processed cheese blend of Cheddar and Provolone (today it also contains Swiss and smoke flavoring).

Provel is ideal for pizza, thanks to its buttery texture and low melting point, which makes it gooey even near room temperature. It’s creamy yet easy to bite through – perfect for topping small squares. A number of companies have owned the trademark since 1950, and it’s now controlled by a subsidiary of Kraft Foods – although it’s still virtually unavailable outside of the St. Louis area.

The first pizzeria to really use Provel was Luigi’s Restaurant, which Luca “Luigi” Meglio opened at Watson Road and Arsenal Street in 1953. Meglio’s parents, Angiolina and Antonio, were Italian immigrants, and after he returned from World War II, he took a job waiting tables for his cousins Lou and Joe Parente. Angiolina mortgaged her house, and Meglio bought the space from Ron Elz’s father. Meglio, along with his brothers Frank and Tony, opened an Italian restaurant using their mother’s recipes. Meglio also developed a conveyor-belt pizza oven, and later opened a “frozen pizza factory” along with three additional restaurants.

“Luca was a true entrepreneur known for hard work, hospitality, and great food,” notes his 2014 obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “At the height of his restaurant career, Luigi’s was known city wide as the place to go. His brothers helped him manage the four locations located across St. Louis City and County which employed 750 St. Louisans.”

Meglio closed Luigi’s in 1981; a few years earlier, his brother Frank was shot in the back and robbed while dropping off a night deposit on Kingshighway. He survived, but it left Meglio worried for the safety of his daughters if they took over the business.

Today, Provel has become synonymous with Imo’s Pizza, which opened with considerably less fanfare than earlier restaurants. A pint-sized space on Thurman Avenue in the Shaw neighborhood housed the very first carry-out Imo’s, which Ed and Margie Imo opened in 1963 with a used oven, two refrigerators and a stove all bought for just $75.

“In the ‘40s and ‘50s, nobody delivered pizzas,” Elz remembers. “Restaurants didn’t deliver anything. With such a tiny storefront, obviously delivery would’ve been a big help to them.”

In 1974, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Jake McCarthy needed an easy dinner for his kids, so he and a friend picked up four pizzas from various establishments to taste test. They discovered, to their dismay, that Imo’s was the only place that would deliver to St. Louis’ central corridor. But satisfying the kids' appetites was the real test.

“Imo’s won hands outstretched,” McCarthy concluded. “The stuff it had was so beautifully blended, including crisp bacon, and it had an ample amount of tasty cheese sauce, I guess you’d call it, that made the last two pizzas look like they’d suffer through a drouth.”

Imo’s no longer slings pizzas in the tiny Shaw space, but Ed and Margie Imo opened a second store just eight months after the first. By 1985, there were 30 locations in the greater St. Louis area, and the family opened the business up to franchisees.

“You want real Italian PIZZA?” asked a 1976 Imo’s ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We have it.”

There are almost 100 Imo’s pizzerias across the St. Louis area today, as well as in Columbia, Missouri; Springfield, Missouri; Overland Park, Kansas; Quincy, Illinois; and as far south as Sikeston, Missouri. You can order frozen pizzas and Provel cheese directly from Imos’ website and have them shipped anywhere in the country. In 2014, Margie and Ed were honored by then-St. Louis mayor Francis Slay for 50 years in business, with April 8 declared “Imo’s Day” in St. Louis.

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The first American pizzeria popped up in New York City in 1906, and the popularity of pizza quickly spread to other East Coast cities. Yet when Fiore opened Melrose Pizzeria in St. Louis some 39 years later, not many locals were familiar with pizza. In the 1950s, the dish had not pervaded the city’s dining scene, despite the success of Melrose, Parente’s Pizzeria and Rossino’s. The first time South City native Helen Hurst experienced the Italian delicacy was on a 1955 high school trip to New York City.

“Nobody [I knew] had a car, so if you couldn’t get there by bus or streetcar, you didn’t go,” says Hurst, who was, at the time, a student at now-shuttered Cleveland High School. “I don’t remember going out to a restaurant for family occasions until after I was engaged. Going out to a restaurant, or thinking about different kinds of food – ‘Oh, let’s get Italian!’ – no, we were German. We ate German [food].”

Hurst, along with hundreds of other Missouri students, made the train trip to Washington, D.C., and then New York to visit the United Nations; you needed an A or B average and $100 (quite a sum at the time). After visiting the U.N. with fellow Cleveland students, Hurst and three friends were exploring the city when they saw a restaurant advertising “pizza pie.”

“And we had no idea what pizza pie was, so we said, ‘Let’s go in and see,’” she says. “We sat in booths – I can see the booths right now – and the guy explained it, so we ordered a pizza pie and it was very big. We thought, ‘Oh, this is good! Maybe they’ll have it in St. Louis someday.”

Eventually, the “Cleveland gang,” as Hurst calls them, hung out at Monte Bello Pizzeria, which remains open today – she says the nearby Roosevelt High School teens preferred Pagliacci’s, a now-shuttered pizza joint at Kingshighway and Manchester Avenue. Like Melrose, Monte Bello is housed in a basement.

The restaurant actually began as a neighborhood bar owned by Mike and Helen Petrillo. During the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Works Progress Administration were expanding the River Des Peres in South City. The Petrillos would send workers lunch orders (although not pizza at the time); after the project was completed, members of the crew came and helped the family hand-dig the basement that eventually became Monte Bello Pizzeria in 1950.

Current owner Tom Nix grew up down the block, and his mother, Peggy Morgan, worked for the Petrillos. When he was just a toddler, he’d ride his tricycle up to the basement window, and Helen would shout, “Peggy, you’ve got a visitor!”

Morgan and Nix’s stepfather bought the pizzeria from the Petrillos in 1965, and the two families remained close. Nix started working at Monte Bello himself in 1967 at age 8, folding pizza boxes and grating cheese. Over the years, Nix and his brother grew up and moved away, and his stepfather began cutting corners to account for a drop in business – not putting sauce and cheese all the way to the edge of the crust, using more sugar and water in the sauce. Steady customers from the nearby Stupp Bros. manufacturing plant kept business afloat even after nearly all the other midcentury pizzerias had closed, but it wasn’t the old Monte Bello.

“I retired from the military in ’96, and I was living in Florida [when] I realized, my mom’s too old to be doing this,” Nix says. He moved back to St. Louis and began working at Monte Bello on the weekends. It didn’t surprise him that once word got out that he was back, old customers showed up during his shifts.

The real work began four years ago, when Nix and his girlfriend, Lynn Cates, convinced his stepfather to retire. They closed for several months to repair water damage, clean the kitchen and replace the plumbing and electrical wiring, among other things.

They couldn’t save one wall of murals due to water damage, but on the left wall of the dining room are the remaining pseudo-frescoes of the Italian countryside originally painted in the 1950s. After you walk down a flight of stairs outside the unassuming white building, you enter the dimly lit space, which has white twinkling Christmas lights strung around the ceiling. Classic red-and-white checkered tablecloths cover a handful of tables. There’s a lone TV and a walk-up window where customers pick up take-out orders next to the kitchen door, which is constantly swinging open and closed as the waitstaff serves customers in the dining room.

“I was looking for the original recipe book from the [Petrillos], because I knew I had seen it before,” Nix says. “When we found it, and it was actually so faded and had sauce all over it, I used a magnifying glass and we wrote everything down until we had all the recipes, and changed everything back to the way it was supposed to be.”

Today that includes handmade dough, sauce, Italian sausage, freshly grated cheese and proprietary spice mixes (think rosemary, fennel, oregano and sweet basil) in each of the different meats, cheese and sauces. The cheese is a mix of Provolone, mozzarella, Romano and Parmesan (plus around seven spices). Nix won’t use Provel; he isn’t shy about his distaste for it. The cornmeal-dusted crust is made in the classic thin St. Louis style, but it’s far from razor thin and holds up well to Monte Bello’s robust toppings.

The square-cut pizza comes out on rectangular trays. The creamy cheese has more flavor than Provel, thanks in part to the visible flecks of fragrant oregano. Toppings are made fresh, like the spiced sausage on the John B. Special, with crispy bacon, sausage, sweet onion and mushroom. The combination of cheeses and a small amount of sauce allows the ingredients to melt together, which Nix says is key.

Nix uses the original ovens, a double stack of U.S. Army ovens from 1942. “I can’t imagine how they got them down here, to be honest,” he laughs. “They’re heavy, trust me.” He also changed the gas valves, which upped the temperature from 350ºF to 585ºF, allowing for a quicker cook time. Staffers still turn the gas valves and light the ovens by hand, and Nix reckons those ovens will last far longer than he will.

Cates says now that the original pizza recipes are back, people come to Monte Bello because it once again feels like home. “People come in here in their 70s, and they came here on their first date in high school,” she says. “The influx of social media has helped people who aren’t familiar find us – we get people from Edwardsville, Kirkwood, Ironton, St. Charles.”

Right now, driving along River Des Peres, you might miss the faded white building among a row of residential homes. Cates says she recently mentioned updating the building’s exterior to some customers who were smoking outside, and they told her to reconsider. It’s part of the charm.

The dining room is steadily busy on a rainy Wednesday night when the phone rings. An employee beckons Cates over from her seat, adding that, “It’s some guy who just ordered a pizza.”

She picks up the receiver, and after a few seconds, she walks back over to Nix and puts the call on speakerphone. “I just want to thank you for the best pizza I’ve ever eaten,” says the man on the other end of the line. “I didn’t even save any for my wife. I ate the whole pizza myself, and it was delicious.”

“What makes us happy is the customer being happy,” Nix tells him. After he hangs up, he and Cates smile and laugh.

“That happens all the time.”

Monte Bello Pizzeria, 3662 Weber Road, St. Louis, Missouri, facebook.com/monte-bello-pizzeria-211250182332605

Nancy Stiles is the managing editor at Feast.

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