Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Peel - Wood-Fired Pizza in St. Louis

It seems every region of the world has a food practice that leaves much of the world puzzled.  Belgians use mayonnaise on their fries.  New Englanders like cheddar on their apple pie.  Minnesotans eat their lutefisk.  Some travelers discover regional tastes and love some.  To each his own… and St. Louis does have its own –

In recent years St. Louis has seen some great additions to its pizza world.  This has to be a welcome change, as the local pizza favorite has been Imo's.  If you have never been to St. Louis and sampled this odd concoction, let me explain.  It is one of those regional practices that leave’s many puzzled.  An Imo’s pizza is thin, very thin…but then, many regional pizza styles are.  They cut their round pizzas in squares.  Most may call that a gimmick, but it can prove easier to pick up.  They cover the pizza in toppings, leaving no crusts to hold on to.  But their calling card is something called Provel – not to be confused with provolone.  Provel is something you love or hate, and I am pretty sure loving it requires being born in the 314 or 618 area codes.  Provel is a processed cheese combining the attributes and flavors of cheddar, swiss, and provolone.  I think it resembles more a blend between the texture and taste of Elmer’s School Glue and smell of Play-Doh.  Again…to each his own, and I do know people for whom an Imo’s pizza is a beautiful taste of home. 

Fortunately for others, a Neapolitan pizza trend has swept into town.  First, some understanding of the Neapolitian style.  Like Chicago deep dish or NYC-style, Neapolitan has some specific requirements.  I am linking to a couple articles here because they capture more than I will explain here.  The keys to me…a lack of uniformity, a somewhat soggy middle, charring and bubbles on the crust from being cooked at 900 degrees, light, fresh tomato sauce, simple, fresh ingredients and a selection of traditional combinations such as Margherita, Tutto Mare, Napoletana, Quattro Stagioni, or Capricciosa.  In St. Louis a few places have done quite a good job gathering a following with faithful renditions of traditional Neapolitan pizza, notably Good Pie and π.  In Edwardsville, we stopped by Peel. 

The first two things I noticed as we entered were the beer selection and the crowd at the door on a Sunday at 11:30am.  Much like Cleveland Heath, the waiting area is at the bar which is right at the door.  It is far too crowded, making it impossible to get to a table without becoming far too intimate with strangers.  But that beer selection – two beers from San Diego’s Stone Brewing on tap and a great selection of others, including Ommegang, Anderson Valley, Magic Hat and Chimay. 

The dining space features huge windows so the space is filled with natural light.  The kitchen is open and busy with the wood-fired oven in full view.  The décor is sleek and polished, if a little too new and shiny to feel like a proper pizza spot. 

The menu goes well beyond pizza, featuring sandwiches, pastas, salads and wide variety of wings…all except the salads are finished in the wood-fired oven, imparting a pleasant smokiness.  But we were here for pizza.  The pizzas have plenty of names that sound traditional but they each seem to throw in a trendy, unique ingredient.  I know there’s a market for maple glazed pork or cheddar on a pizza, but it’s just not…right.  I constructed my own.  I started with the coppa – coppa ham, tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh oregano.  I asked to add anchovies and to have raw egg dropped on top as it came out of the oven.  The server seemed to think that was all possible.  A few minutes later she returned to confirm that I wanted the egg added when the pizza came out.  Confirmed.  A few minutes later she returned.  I needed to be aware that the egg was unpasteurized and it might be a little runny – was I okay with that?  Check.  A+ for attentive careful service and a willingness and ability to create virtually any pizza.

Eventually all our food came just about at the same time.  That’s not easy with a single wood-fired oven and a table of eight.  My pizza looked just as it should…not exactly round, charred bubbles, the smell of anchovies, coppa curled at the edges from cooking and a bright white, runny egg with a yolk the color of sunshine looking up at me.  I just inhaled…it smelled great.  Digging in, the dough and sauce had the right consistency.  First bite…delicious.  The sauce was light with no pasty sweetness.  The cheese was mozzarella, just the right quantity and not overpowering.  I must admit, I just dug in and concentrated on my pizza with little notice of others’.  But I can say this…the funghi was good, though a few more funghi would improve it.  The chicken wings looked huge (apparently there are some gigantic chickens in southern Illinois) and incredibly hot after finishing in the oven.  The serving was large enough to share.  The maple-cured pork pizza got a good review.  And almost all the pizzas were completely consumed, so it is fair to say the sizes were just right. 

I would recommend this place if it is convenient.  I prefer The Good Pie over near St. Louis University, but that’s 20 miles away and more expensive.  Anticipate a crowd at Peel…all the time.  It is extremely popular, even after being open for at least 5 years.  You can count on Peel providing a quality Neapolitan pizza and a good time for a family outing or a date.
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