by Bryan Peters
The Veggielante has had it up to here with people bitching that St. Louis restaurants are vegetarian unfriendly. Sure, we'd like to see more restaurants offering more meatless dishes, but there are excellent choices out there if you take the trouble to look for them. We're not here to proselytize about greening up your diet. Our only motive is to spread the word about places where you can order good grub that ain't got no meat. To enhance your reading experience, we've settled on a handful of criteria we'll use to suss out a restaurant's vegetarian friendliness.
Destination: Peel (921 South Arbor Vitae, Edwardsville, Illinois; 618-659-8561)
Neighborhood: Edwardsville, Illinois
Overview: Edwardsville is a fast-growing community, and chef/owners Brandon Case and Patrick Thirion have helped their local culinary scene with a unique pizza-pie enterprise. They know there's nothing quite like a wood-burning oven to create the perfectly blackened crust infused with a delicately woody flavor. One of the benefits to the 800 degree blaze? Your pie only takes 90 seconds to bake, in a masterfully orchestrated carousel to ensure equal doneness. Even the most devoted Pi-hards can appreciate this thin crust.
The Grub: Part of Peel's commitment to making fresh pizza includes not only making the dough and sauces from scratch every day, but also using only fresh vegetables and cheeses. And, mama mia, can you taste the difference!
We started with the involtini: The doughy nuggets are filled with spinach, artichoke and fontina, and are served with roasted red pepper hummus, parmesan crème and roasted garlic olive oil. We would've preferred a little more of the filling to balance the bread, but the best part of the dish was actually the hummus -- it was almost fruity in its vibrant flavor, but still plenty savory.
The "Chevre," with its blend of goat cheese, spinach, roma tomatoes, artichoke and pesto, was a lovely, refreshing pie; while it isn't mind-blowing, it's easily good enough to eat again. Extra points for feeling like it was actually nourishing!
Our favorite was a seasonal offering at the time, the "Ratatouille": dressed with eggplant, squash and roasted garlic, the flavors and textures were complex, and just downright delicious. Another unexpected hybrid pie, this one almost makes us wonder if this was how ratatouille was meant to be enjoyed.
Seasonality/sourcing: Peel does offer special seasonal pizzas; right now, they're featuring a spaghetti-squash pie we'd certainly wade across the river for.
Resistance to clichés (vegetable medleys, pre-made veggie burgers, etc.): While they do offer the standards, there are other, more adventurous options like the "Thai Red Curry" (one of Thirion's culinary passions is Thai cuisine) and the "Hot Brown." If only Peel would offer veggie meats as substitutes, we'd be able to give them a much higher score.
Improvisations & accommodations (vegan, gluten-free, etc.): Unlike some other local pizza joints, Peel does not offer gluten-free crusts, nor do they offer vegan cheese. Still, you do have the option of creating your own pie with ingredients like granny smith apples and mission figs, so you can do your own improvising.
Extra credit: An exceptional beer list.
Standout item: Ratatouille pizza