Detour: Papa Vito’s

Believe it or not, I really am trying to be better at posting regularly. But what can I say? Life is busy.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I come from the St. Louis area. Technically I’m from southern Illinois, but it’s right on the other side of the Mississippi from St. Louis. I went back to STL a week ago to visit my beautiful and amazing girlfriend.

If you’ve never been to St. Louis before, there is such a thing as St. Louis style pizza. You know of Chicago style pizza and New York style pizza. Well St. Louis style pizza is a thing, too. It is thin crust and cut into squares. The most well known St. Louis style pizza restaurant is a chain called Imo’s. Generally I don’t like chains, but Imo’s knows how to do pizza. Seriously, it’s amazing. There’s this type of cheese called Provel cheese that has a very unique but delicious flavor. And Imo’s pizza is covered in Provel.

So every time I go home, I make a point to get some Imo’s pizza. And some toasted ravioli (another magnificent St. Louis delicacy that I’ll have to inform you about at another time). But my girlfriend had been telling me about this pizza place near where she lives that she claims is better than Imo’s. Now, I’ll be honest: I was pretty skeptical about the veracity of that statement. There are certain foods that when you taste them, you just sort of know that it doesn’t get any better than that. There is only so much flavor that taste buds can handle. Such has been my view of Imo’s pizza. If it were any more delicious, my taste buds just might die and make their way to taste bud heaven. I certainly can’t have that happening!

But, as you hopefully know by now, I love food adventures, and a comparison between two kinds of St. Louis style pizza, with the possibility of overthrowing Imo’s from the hitherto uncontested throne of best pizza in St. Louis, simply could not be passed up.

So on Sunday, Kristina, my girlfriend, calls Papa Vito’s promptly at 4:00 p.m., which is when they open on Sundays. It’s a pretty small business with only a couple of locations in operation. I am told that it can sometimes take two hours or so to have your pizza ready if you don’t time the order correctly because the demand is so high. This is baffling to me. How have I never heard of this place? Moreover, Kristina’s entire family touts Papa Vito’s as superior to Imo’s.

The order is placed: a large pizza with burger and bacon as the toppings, a roast beef sandwich, and a house salad. We didn’t ask the people at Papa Vito’s what their recommendations were before ordering, but Kristina and her family have had it before, so they know what to get. The wait will be 45 minutes, which I am told is pretty good.

We drive to the restaurant, if you can call it that. It is so small that it can probably only seat 15 people inside. Most of the interior space is taken up by the counter and the huge pizza oven. The inside has a good vibe to it. Lots of vintage Coca-Cola ware. It’s pretty hot inside, thanks to the oven being out in the open, which adds to the atmosphere. It just feels like a place where pizza is taken very seriously.

Vintage Coca-Cola machine inside of Papa Vito's
Vintage Coca-Cola machine inside of Papa Vito’s

As we are waiting, the owner, not sure if he’s Papa Vito or not, says, “All boys working tonight; that’s scary.” Sure enough, all of the workers other than himself and a woman I assume to be his wife, are high school boys.

Kristina knows I’m looking to make a blog out of this, so she begins asking the owner about the place. She asks if the pizza at the other locations tastes the same as at this one. He starts talking about the pizza oven in this location. It’s a CTX-70 built in 1982. They don’t make them anymore. It’s all electric, but no forced air. There is control for the top and bottom heat. Now, I don’t really understand what all that means, but the bottom line is that the oven in this particular location is unique and cooks the pizzas in a way that the owner finds superior.

Kristina asks what he recommends for pizzas. Of course, he says, “Everything.” But he adds to that. “Usually, when someone comes in for the first time, I just tell them to order whatever their favorite pizza toppings are. We’ve got all fresh ingredients; they’re never frozen; nothing out of the bag.”

He explains that in the pizza business, pepperoni is the highest selling based on surveys. No surprises there. But at Papa Vito’s, the deluxe pizza is the highest seller. He also says that for the sandwiches, the roast beef is the most popular by far. They get their bread from Ahne’s, a local bakery just down the street.

We get our food and drive back to Kristina’s place, where the family, plus myself, gathers around the table to eat. Here I must apologize, as I did not take any pictures of the food. Ultimately, I forgot, which is pretty terrible, but in any event, snapping pictures of food at the family dinner table is probably not the best idea.

I start with the salad, which can only be considered a salad by the loosest sense of the word as it barely has any lettuce in comparison to the bounty of pepperoni, bacon, onion, peppers, and cheese that top said lettuce. The salad comes with the house dressing, which is a sort of Italian dressing. It is very good, of course. I mean, how can you go wrong with loads of pepperoni and bacon on top of lettuce? The cheese is also good, but I don’t know if it is Provel.

Now to the roast beef sandwich. The bread, the fresh bread from Ahne’s, is soft and buttery. The sandwich is loaded with roast beef and melted cheese (not sure what kind of cheese; maybe swiss?). This is pretty good. Roast beef sandwiches are not my favorite, but it is definitely a quality sandwich.

Finally, cue the drum roll please, the pizza. Topped with lots of burger meat and bacon. A magnificent combination. Also lots of cheese. The pizza is truly delicious. Very good pizza. The pizza sauce is almost sweet, and rather reminiscent of barbecue sauce, but without losing the unmistakable quality and flavor of pizza sauce. But here’s my problem: the meat, though very good, overpowers the cheese. Now, burger and bacon is going to taste pretty similar anywhere; the distinguisher of pizza is the cheese and pizza sauce. There are a few bites with less meat that suggest a very flavorful combination of the two, but it is difficult to really tell.

So my verdict is thus: although the pizza was very good, that particular pizza was not better than my favorite pizza at Imo’s, which is sausage. Given a choice between the two, I would still opt for Imo’s. That being said, I cannot definitively say that Papa Vito’s is not better than Imo’s. I don’t feel that I was really able to compare apples to apples, so to speak. But while the jury is still out, Imo’s will be my St. Louis style pizza of choice.

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