The OGs of St. Louis pizza
Loyalty is fierce when it comes to St. Louis pizza institutions. Everyone has a favorite, earned over countless Little League victory feasts, family meals, drunk second dinners and cozy delivery nights. Some hidden gems have served house-made pies since the 1950s, while other local chains have made names for themselves in less than 10 years. When it’s time for checkered tablecloths, Parmesan and red pepper flakes, we return to these 12 St. Louis classics to give us what we need.
Monte Bello Pizzeria
The Petrillo family opened Monte Bello Pizzeria in 1950, making it the oldest on our list. “I pretty much grew up there,” said current owner Tom Nix. His mom and stepdad bought the place in 1965, and he started helping out when he was just 8 years old.
“The whole place was always totally packed back then,” Nix said. Unfortunately, that didn’t last. “My stepdad changed all the recipes. They were kind of crappy, and he lost a lot of business.”
When Nix took over, he wanted to turn things around. He painted, replaced windows, brought the kitchen up to code and more important, he searched the place.
“I was digging through old drawers and I found the original handwritten recipes. I had to use a magnifying glass to [read] them,” he said. “I knew we needed them.”
Now Monte Bello is making the same toothsome thin crust, barely sweet tomato sauce, Provel-free cheese blend and toppings that were served in the ’50s. “It’s back to the way it was,” Nix said. “Back to the way it’s supposed to be.”
While we’re partial to the house Italian sausage (with a hint of fennel and a wink of spice), Nix is pretty passionate about his Tom’s Special: sausage, pepperoni, ground beef, salami, ham, banana peppers and light onions. He’ll allow substitutions, but expect your pizza with a side of snark from Nix: “You don’t think I would know what tastes good?” – H.H.
3662 Weber Road, St. Louis, 314.638.8861, Facebook: Monte Bello Pizzeria
Inspired by trendy little pizzerias while exploring Chicago more than 20 years ago, Joanie Thomas decided to open her own. “Back then, there weren’t any pizza places down in Soulard,” she said.
Like many St. Louisans, this decision has benefitted Sauce staff a lot since then. For years, we have celebrated holidays and powered through press days with the help of those thin-crust pies. The Joanie’s Favorite Veggie with fresh spinach, yellow squash, mushrooms, onions and roasted garlic is how we eat pizza and still feel like we had something nutritious. The Johnny’s Special Meat Pie is reserved for late nights at the office.
Thomas still owns Joanie’s To-Go, but she sold the original location to longtime manager Jeff Schneider, who continues to turn out the same quality pies.
“My favorite is the Grilled Chicken BLT pizza, but our best kept secret is the double-crust pizza,” Thomas said. A hand-tossed base layered with sauce, cheese and toppings is then covered with another thin round of dough, brushed with melted butter, sprinkled with Parmesan and baked. It sounds like a pie to get when wonderful news or a terrible day come your way. We’ll add it to our repertoire. – M.N.
2101 Menard St., St. Louis, 314.865.1994, joanies.com
In 1967, Frank LaFata opened Pizza-A-Go-Go on Grand Avenue. Fifty years and two locations later, his son, Paul LaFata, carries on the family tradition. Here, four things to know about Pizza-A-Go-Go:
Nothing has changed since 1967 – including the recipes.
“We’re pretty simple," Paul LaFata said. "We make pizzas and serve sodas. … The customers would notice if I changed anything.”
The customer base spans generations.
“I think [our longevity] is due to being on Grand and Gravois for 30 years. [My dad] built up a very large clientele, much of which has followed him to Scanlan Avenue. If those customers wouldn’t have followed him, then I don’t think we would have made it.”
Frank LaFata never suffered fools – or order cancellations.
“Once you work the dough, it’s not like you can change your mind and put it back,” LaFata said, recalling a customer who changed his mind and walked out after Frank started preparing his pizza. “I guess it must have set my dad off. He took the dough, walked outside and as the guy was walking down the street, he threw the dough at him.”
No, there were never go-go dancers at Pizza-a-Go-Go.
“I’m sure he didn’t tell me every story from back in the day, but I’m sure he would have mentioned that.” – C.K.
6703 Scanlan Ave., St. Louis, 314.781.1234, pizzaagogo.blogspot.com
Farotto’s Pasta & Pizzeria
Walking into Farotto’s, you’ll notice the layout is a little quirky; 61 years of additions and renovations have resulted in the odd nook and cranny – like the pizza pickup area, which is offset from the main dining room and has its own entrance. “That was the original space,” said owner Jeff Parrott.
Parrott’s aunt and uncle, Betty and Lou Farotto, opened the pizzeria in 1956 with just three tables and carhop service in the tiny building that grew to approximately 6,000 square-feet, with a bar and a large enclosed patio.
Aside from the building and the people in it, not much has changed at Farotto’s. “I like seeing kids come in time after time, growing up in front of my eyes. I look forward to seeing them becoming adults,” Parrott said.
About 10 years ago, a man came in with a relic from his own childhood at Farotto’s: a beat-up old pizza pan. “He said he dined-and-dashed back when he was a kid, around 1958,” Parrott said. More than 50 years later, the man came across the pan at his mother’s house and decided to return it. “It would have been nice if he’d offered to pay for the pizza,” Parrott joked. – T.L.
9525 Manchester Road, Rock Hill, 314.962.0048, farottos.com
Nestled between a pair of aging strip malls a bit off the beaten path of the The Loop, La Pizza is cozy – tiny, even, with barely enough room inside for the pizza oven and the folks behind the counter. But what it lacks in size, the restaurant makes up for in heart.
Co-owner Paul Bishop cultivated a passion for pizza when he was living in Queens, New York, and his dream to run his own place came true when La Pizza opened 14 years ago.
The smells, sights and sounds of the place will make you swear you’re in an old-school pizza joint in one of the outer boroughs. Bishop and his son, Paul Bishop Jr., still make the giant, foldable New York slices daily. “Come in and you’ll get fed,” Bishop said – if you’re waiting for an invitation. – M.S.
8137 Delmar Blvd., University City, 314.725.1230, lapizzamenu.com
Jay Jaworski and Rick Puckett started working at Pirrone’s in 1980, when they were 14-year-old freshmen. At just 21, they bought the place. “We were young and foolish enough to not be scared,” Jaworski said.
Much has changed since then – a second location in St. Peters, a newly remodeled dining room in Florissant – but Jaworski said the recipes for the dough, sauce, sausage, meatballs and hamburger are all the same as the first St. Louis-style pie that was slung in 1976. “People in Florissant grew up on it,” he said.
Though “sausage and pep” will always be Jaworski’s go-to pie, Jerry’s Special holds the distinction of being Pironne’s only original pizza on the menu and a crowd favorite.
Named for a veteran manager, Jerry’s Special starts with Pironne’s ultra-thin crust, lightly oiled for a buttery, crisp texture and smeared with a slightly sweet Sicilian-style sauce accented with crushed red pepper flakes for a pleasant heat that lingers long after the last slice is devoured. Pepperoni and nubs of extra crispy bacon offer sublime crunch that contrasts with the molten St. Louis-style cheese blend. – C.K.
1775 Washington St., Florissant, 314.839.3633; 299 Salt Lick Road, St. Peters, 636.278.3800, pirronespizza.com
Feraro’s Jersey Style Pizza
Feraro’s Jersey Style Pizza is a true family affair. Started by the mother-and-son team of Nancy and Jon Feraro, this beloved establishment produces New Jersey-style pies in homage to the family’s East Coast roots.
So what’s New Jersey style? Jon said it’s all about the oven: brick-bottom deck ovens that cook hand-tossed pies just a little lower and slower than New York-style. They’re made using recipes he picked up working for a family friend’s pizza joint down on the Jersey shore.
Feraro’s started in a tiny converted garage in Soulard and made its bones with the Mardi Gras crowd. Success resulted in moving to bigger digs in South County and eventually expanding to South City. While it’s a St. Louis go-to, it’s the love for Jersey that makes Feraro’s pizzas special.
“Everything goes back to stepping out onto the boardwalk,” Feraro said. “I cherish those memories so much, and I want to share them.” – M.S.
7704 Ivory Ave., St. Louis, 314.256.0500; 11726 Baptist Church Road, Sappington, 314.843.3456, ferarospizza.com
Racanelli’s New York Pizzeria
Growing up around New York pizza in a Bronx restaurant family, it was only natural for John Racanelli to follow the way of the pie. In 1994, he opened the first Racanelli’s location in University City. Since then, the brand has expanded to the Central West End, Webster Groves, Kirkwood and St. Peters, making sure all corners of the metro area have access to those huge, foldable slices.
The key to longevity has everything to do with family recipes. The dough and sauce are made fresh each day, and the final product is baked in brick ovens (no electric conveyor belt ovens here). The classic, no-frills pizza has a light, soft crust that’s fluffier than some New York-styles and makes for a great walking pizza when folded. If you’re looking for pizza without pretention, this is the ultimate working man’s slice. – M.S.
Various locations, racanellis.com
Blackthorn Pub & Pizza
Blackthorn Pub was a Tower Grove South institution back when news of a Starbucks opening on South Grand Avenue would have been taken as a joke.
“The neighborhood has changed,” said owner Dave Difani, who bought the place in 1986. “When I moved in, housing prices there were under $100,000. Now the houses are going for, well, quite a bit.”
But rocketing property values haven’t much affected the graffiti-covered bar – a tradition Difani doesn’t actually approve. “I did not start that,” he said. “I recognize that people like to see it, that some people come just so they can read the walls, but I’ve never liked it.” But he and the staff do end up adding to the vandalism occasionally, editing saltier artwork to keep the place family friendly.
Built sometime between 1897 and 1911, the building has been a bar since at least the early ’40s, but it’s been a deep-dish pizza destination since Difani bought an oven.
Famous for gut-punching amounts of stringy cheese and filling, fluffy crusts, these pizzas were inspired by Difani’s disappointment with St. Louis-style, which he said simply doesn’t satisfy a guy his size. “My deal was I never wanted anybody to walk out of my place hungry,” Difani said. At Blackthorn, “You get your money’s worth.” – H.H.
3735 Wyoming St., St. Louis, 314.776.0534, Facebook: The Black Thorn Pub
Originally located in Ferguson, Faraci Pizza is now housed on Manchester Road in Ellisville, in a building that looks like it used to be a Taco Bell. Blink, and you’d miss it. Inside, framed paintings of the Tuscan countryside line the walls and the same family that’s been in the pizza business since 1968 still works in the kitchen.
“My brother Pete and I oversee and do everything in the restaurant,” said Vince Faraci, whose parents opened the place. “I cook every pizza that comes out of here.” He takes pride in making every component from scratch. The dough undergoes a three-day process before it’s ready. The sauce, which has a slight wine fruitiness, takes hours to make. The cheese is sliced Provel for even texture, finished with a dusting of Romano. Aside from pepperoni, all the meats are boned, cut, ground and seasoned at the restaurant. All melt together in the brick-bottom oven for a classic St. Louis thin (but not cracker) crust pizza. And after all that work, it’s gone before you know it. – M.N.
15430 Manchester Road, Ellisville, 636.230.0000, faracispizza.com
Compared to others on this list, Pi Pizzeria is a recent addition to the St. Louis pizza universe, but it has made a name for itself that can’t be ignored.
Founder and St. Louis native Chris Sommers was working in the tech industry in San Francisco when he fell in love with the pies at Little Star Pizza. He was so enamored that he bought the recipe for its dense cornmeal crust and moved back to St. Louis in 2008 to reintroduce the pleasures of a deep-dish to a hungry populace. “We had a little bit of luck, fresh eyes and great pizza,” Sommers said.
These “new” pies immediately caught the attention of the anti-St. Louis-style camp, producing acolytes who helped spread the word. Sommers’ political activism also garnered immediate national attention for Pi, attracting the restaurant’s most notable partisan: Barack Obama. The former president tried a slice while campaigning in St. Louis in 2008, and was so impressed he invited Sommers to cook for the first family in the White House shortly after winning the election.
Now Pi has five locations throughout the metro area, two in Washington, D.C. and one in Cincinnati, Ohio. With less than 10 years in the business, it has more name recognition than St. Louis staples three times as old. We can’t wait to see what Sommers does with his next pizza project, ’Zza, opening soon. – M.S.
Various locations, pi-pizza.com
No St. Louis-centric dish is more contentious or provokes more passionate discourse than “The Square Beyond Compare.” The Imo’s pie, featuring the thinnest of thin crusts topped with sauce and Provel cheese, has for years had purists crying foul, while sending diehards into a frenzy for those crispy, four-sided slices. The Provel, of course, is the provocateur here, that creamy amalgam of Swiss, provolone and cheddar that provides a smoky tang and an unmistakable, unnatural texture.
The Imo’s saga started in 1964 when Ed and Margie Imo opened their first pizzeria in a tiny space at Thurman Avenue and Shaw Boulevard. Originally, Imo’s only offered carryout and delivery during evening hours, since Ed still worked days as a tile setter. After opening 30 locations, the company began to allow franchising in 1985, spreading the St. Louis-style gospel even further. Today, there are nearly 100 stores, and no matter your pizza allegiance, Imo’s is forever ingrained in our local culinary consciousness.
Though some may think all Imo’s are created equal, our loyalties lie with the location on Hampton Avenue near Forest Park. Maybe it’s the oven or the lady who always takes our orders, but those pies have the best sauce-to-crust ratio in town. – M.S.
1000 Hampton Ave., St. Louis, 314.644.5480, imospizza.com