In less than a century, a humble Italian street food called pizza - leavened flatbread with a modest application of toppings - made its way from the shores of the East Coast to virtually every corner of the nation.

Small, family-run shops in cities like New York; Trenton, N.J.; and New Haven, Conn., made the country's first pies. Today you can enjoy more than 20 distinct regional styles. Each variation of American pizza, from East Coast thin crust to the West Coast take on Midwestern deep dish, traces back to the pizza styles of Italy. Examples are the chewy and fire-blistered pizza alla napolitana of Naples; Roman pizza al taglio, the original street slice bought by weight; and the thick-crust pizza square of sfincione - also known as focaccia - from Palermo.

The heart of Italian pizza is bread, an aspect often missing from American-style pizzas, which tend to highlight toppings over crust. Make no mistake; both approaches can be delicious. The distinction is important, however, and a function of utility. Piling sauce, cheese and toppings on a less bready crust ensures the integrity of the pizza is maintained. That's not to suggest that a dish like pizza alla napolitana isn't about toppings; it is. But it does mean additions usually are restrained and true to the guidelines of the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, an international organization dedicated to the preservation of the traditional pizza style from Naples.

Another difference between Italian- and American-style pizzas is how and where they're eaten. Although all pizzas are at their best minutes after they've been pulled from the oven, a majority of American pizzas are consumed outside of the pizzeria. Packaged in cardboard boxes and bags to keep them warm, to-go pizzas are affected by captured steam, which makes the crusts less crisp. It's not uncommon for a pizzaiolo, a pizzamaker who understands that time and distance from the oven are the enemies of a quality product, to discourage or even refuse to sell takeout pizzas - such is his commitment to serving the best-possible pies.

St. Louis has experienced a pizza renaissance in the past few years. Our town is full of pizzas and pizzerias, including a beloved style named after our fair city. But where do we find authentic Italian pizza? Feast has rounded up five can't-miss pies - from wood-fired-oven pizzas to honest-to-goodness authentic East Coast pies - that should top every pizza lover's list. Here's to getting back to pizza's roots. Enjoy.

THE LINGO

  • Skin: a disk of uncooked pizza dough
  • The skirt: the underside of a baked pizza
  • The collar: the rim of dough running around the outside of a pizza, also known as the crust or bones
  • Leoparding: darkened charring from baking near an open flame, typically noticed on the skirt and collar of a pizza
  • VPN: Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, an international nonprofit organization that cultivates and protects the culinary art of making Neapolitan pizza
  • Pizzaiolo: pizzamaker

MARIO'S PIZZA

Mario's Pizza is a relative newcomer to St. Louis (although its owners grew up in the restaurant business). The pizzeria quietly - almost silently - opened last spring in a small shotgun space in a Florissant strip mall. Mario's pizzaiolos create authentic Neapolitan pizzas that you can take out, have delivered (depending on your location) or eat at the café.

Hand-tossed, thin-crust pizzas have tight collars that are perfect for folding and that stand up to a generous amount of toppings. The sauce is a family recipe that is simmered for hours before being ladled onto waiting pizzas and topped with enough shredded mozzarella to make an extra-cheese order unnecessary. The menu features a number of topping-heavy pizzas to satisfy meat and veggie lovers. Winners are The Venice, with mozzarella and ricotta cheeses and strips of eggplant and the pizzeria's take on a classic Margherita, finished off with a drizzle of rich olive oil.

472 Howdershell Road, Florissant, 314.831.9111, mariospizzacafe.com

LA PIZZA

Actually, "New York-style pizza" is a misnomer; the Big Apple serves multiple styles of pizza. The first type is a street slice, convenience food from pizzerias like Famous Ray's, which sells giant triangular swaths of thin-crust pizza, with sweet tomato sauce and mozzarella waxy from sitting under a heat lamp. There are the legendary coal-fired pies from Lombardi's and Grimaldi's, with history that stretches back to the Italian immigrants who brought their recipes for pizzas to America. There is also a third group of pizzas, with slightly thicker crusts than street-slice pies and more-distinctive tomato sauce, from neighborhood joints located just far enough from a subway stop to remain relatively unknown beyond a 10- or 15-block radius. La Pizza belongs to the third group.

Although La Pizza does a brisk takeout business, the best way to enjoy one of its pies is to eat at the pizzeria. Watch out for that first slice, which can burn the roof of your mouth. Notice how crisp the skirt is compared with the slight give in the collar, especially when you fold the slice. The crusts of subsequent slices will change as the pie cools. But that first slice, topped with some crushed red pepper flakes and oregano, might be the closest thing to actual New York-style pizza in St. Louis.

8137 Delmar Blvd., University City, 314.725.1230, lapizzamenu.com

PIZZERIA TIVOLI

Driving down South Kingshighway Boulevard in Princeton Heights, you might not notice Pizzeria Tivoli. The small brick storefront with black awnings hides in plain sight among its South City neighbors. Locals are lucky to call it their pizza joint or, rather, their wood-oven pizza joint.

Walk inside, and the first thing you'll notice is a pizzaiolo casually tossing pizza skins in a small prep area tucked behind the bar and adjacent to a rustic brick oven. His dough throwing and stretching are more showmanship than authentic pizza making, but the efforts do help him create an evenly distributed disk of dough that can be topped and sent into the oven to bake.

Pies are baked at 600ºF, resulting in a collar and skirt that are nicely browned, crisp, foldable and almost devoid of the charring you'd expect from pie baked near wood. Pizzas are topped with a simple tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella. Many of the pizzas are variations of pies from Rome and its surrounding areas, including Mediterranean pizza with capers, anchovies and basil and a sauceless pizza bianca with garlic, ricotta, mozzarella and Parmigiano cheeses.

5861 S. Kingshighway Blvd., Princeton Heights, 314.832.3222

FERARO'S JERSEY STYLE PIZZA

The Feraro family's pizzerias in Soulard and South County make real-deal East Coast pies. Feraro's pizzas are thicker than traditional thin-crust pies. But the added dough in the skirt provides a good chew and supports the sauce, freshly grated mozzarella and toppings. The give allows each slice to be folded into a compact canoe shape for easy eating.

Despite the utility of their crusts, the pizzas are different from other East Coast pies because of the tomato sauce, which is naturally sweet, a deep crimson and rich with fragrant Italian herbs. The pizzeria offers a menu of traditional and specialty pies. New Jersey expats will be happy to see a regional specialty topping (at the Soulard location) called Taylor Ham, or pork roll, which adds a nice smoky flavor to a pizza.

Looking for an authentic Seaside Heights, N.J., boardwalk pizza experience and a giant-sized pie that will get you thinking about warm summer days spent wandering on the shore? Try Feraro's Jersey Style Pizza.

1862 S. 10th St., Soulard, 314.588.8345

11726 Baptist Church Road, South County, 314.843.3456, ferarospizza.com

THE GOOD PIE

The best introduction to The Good Pie is a simple pizza bianca - an oblong disk of bread with Pecorino Romano, rosemary, sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil - pulled steaming, charred and smelling of fire from the Forno Napoletano wood oven that holds court in the back corner of this narrow Midtown pizzeria. The pie can be sliced tableside but is more satisfying when torn, with the dough ripped into long strips that are folded up and eaten. The dish has its roots in a favorite Italian street food and highlights the role freshly baked bread plays in Italian pizzas, without the distraction of tomato sauce and toppings.

Introductions out of the way, it's time to move on to bread, tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella (made from the milk of domesticated water buffalo) and basil. Pizza Margherita satisfies the requirements dictated by VPN; it's an authentic pizza alla napolitana that is arguably the finest in town.

Classic toppings like salami, sausage and mushrooms, with a dusting of crushed red pepper flakes, are always crowd pleasers. Pies that are out of the ordinary, but still classic Italian, are topped with wafer-thin slices of prosciutto di Parma (dry-cured ham from Parma, Italy) and spicy arugula or with pancetta (Italian bacon), basil and the creamy yolk of a freshly baked egg. Great bread from the start. Good pies to the last.

3137 Olive St., Midtown, 314.289.9391, thegoodpie.com