March 19, 2011

St. Louis-Style Pizza

The subtitle of this post should be something like “Imo’s Pizza for the Purist.”
I mean “pure” in the sense that it’s made with all-natural ingredients, including real cheese.


Brian has plenty of food memories from his growing-up years in St. Louis.  Among them is a preference for super-thin-crust pizza with melty, flavorful cheese and sweet, oregano-laden sauce, usually in the form of Imo’s pizza (topped with pepperoni or bacon and mushrooms).  It’s tough to find anything like it anywhere but St. Louis.  In fact, the cheese used on Imo’s pizza is a St. Louis original, obtainable only from online merchants in most parts of the country.  It’s called “Provel,” and it creates controversy wherever it goes.

Outside of St. Louis, Provel is most certainly divisive, the major point of contention being that Provel is not actual cheese, but processed cheese (much like American or Velveeta).  On the package, it’s described as “pasteurized process cheddar, swiss and provolone.”  In my experience, the majority of St. Louisans are Provel devotees.  However, even in the St. Louis area (and I just discovered -- coming soon to DC!), there has cropped up a small franchise of pizzerias called “Pi” who unabashedly protest fake cheese.

We had the opportunity to eat at one of these St. Louis pizzerias when visiting Brian’s family last year.  It was a great time – craft beer on tap and delicious pizza (thick or thin crust).  And I’m a big fan of their focus on sustainability.

When we make a trip back to St. Louis, we inevitably have a meal of Imo’s pizza at Brian’s request.  It’s quite good, as delivery pizza goes, and Brian’s nostalgia for the pizza outweighs any protest I might have over the processed the cheese.  It’s only once a year.

This year, as Brian’s birthday drew near, we set out to achieve Imo’s-like pizza using high quality ingredients and no processed cheese.  Luckily, Cook’s Country magazine had already developed a recipe, which had been subsequently posted on and shared with us by Brian’s dad.  It was a great place to start. 

The first time, we followed the recipe to the letter – except for the Provel substitute, which called for American cheese.  It didn’t quite make sense to go to the trouble of avoiding one processed cheese just to replace it with another.  Instead of CC’s blend of American and Monterey Jack, we used sharp provolone, white cheddar, and Swiss cheeses with some whole milk mozzarella thrown in for its melting properties.   We decided that the smoke flavor called for by Cook’s Country gave the cheese a chemical aftertaste, but the sharp cheddar and provolone did the trick without the added smoke.

The crust on a St. Louis-style pizza is super thin and yeast-less.  It does its job but is nothing to write home about. (That is, unless you’re from St. Louis.)  The crust is unremarkable in the sense that it exists merely as a vehicle for the toppings.  While many St. Louisans appreciate its texture, it does not boast any of the fabulous chew or multi-dimensional flavor of a yeast-fermented/-risen crust.  With a chemical leavening (baking powder) rather than yeast, it can be made in about one-tenth of the time of traditional crust.  No rise and very little kneading are necessary, making it the quickest and easiest from-scratch pizza crust you’ll ever find. 

For our second attempt, I reduced the oregano and eliminated the sugar from the pizza sauce. (I’ve never trusted a tomato sauce with added sugar.)  My home-canned tomatoes were plenty sweet on their own.

Brian says the pizzas were spot-on.  About as close as we could get to the real thing without actually ordering Imo’s. 

St. Louis-Style (Imo’s) Pizza with real cheese
(sauce and crust recipes adapted from Cook’s Country as published on

Makes 3 10-12” pizzas (depending on crust thickness).

1 cup (8 ounces) jarred or canned tomato sauce (passata)
3 tablespoons tomato paste (preferably double concentrated)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano

all cheeses should be grated
1 ¾ cups sharp provolone
1 ½ cups sharp white cheddar
½ cup Swiss cheese
½ cup whole milk mozzarella


2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 475°F, with pizza stone (or inverted baking sheet) on lower middle rack.

Whisk together all sauce ingredients and set aside.

Toss grated cheeses and set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together flour, cornstarch, sugar, baking powder and salt. Combine water and oil in a small bowl or measuring cup; then stir into flour mixture until dough starts to come together. Knead a few times in the bowl or on a lightly floured surface. Dough should be uniform but does not need to be perfectly smooth.

Divide dough into 3 equal pieces. Working with each piece separately on a lightly floured surface, form into a ball, press flat, and use a rolling pin to roll dough into a circle or rectangle, turning and stretching as you go, until desired thickness is reached. The crust should be very thin. (Ours was 2mm thick, cooked.) If dough shrinks back to smaller size, allow it to rest for 5 minutes, then roll again. (If you have room, begin rolling out another piece while the first one rests.)

Transfer dough to parchment paper.  Top with 1/3 of sauce, 1/3 of cheese, and any additional toppings you desire. (Our favorite combos include salame/kalamata olives/red onion and mushroom/bacon. Plain cheese is good, too!)

DSC_0800Uncured Calabrese salame and local red onion.

Use a pizza peel or the back of a cookie sheet to transfer pizza to the preheated stone or baking sheet in the oven. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the cheese is melted and crust begins to crisp and brown.

Repeat rolling/topping/baking process with remaining pieces of dough. Serve pizza cut into two-inch squares.

(Dough can be made in advance; wrap tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 days.)

DSC_0850Gooey, melty UNprocessed cheese.


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