by Cheryl Baehr
A Pizza Story (7278 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-899-0011) 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. (Closed Mon.)
Prior to opening A Pizza Story, business partners Muhammad Alhawagri, Sherif Nasser and Nael Saad had established careers at Washington University: Alhawagri is a biology researcher, Nasser is a professor of marketing and Saad is a radiologist. The three friends bonded over a shared passion for food, often musing about what it would be like to open their own place. It was clear from the start that pizza would be the theme. Alhawagri was a budding pizzaiolo who fell in love with Neapolitan-style pies on a trip to Naples, and he has been perfecting his crust recipe ever since. About a year ago the colleagues decided to get serious about their restaurant dreams by looking for a location. As soon as they found the right spot, things fell into place.
A Pizza Story is located on Maplewood's main drag in a storefront that used to house a typewriter shop. Alhawagri, Nasser and Saad converted the space into a charming eatery that retains the building's vintage charm and architectural details. Poster-sized photographs of St. Louis landmarks adorn the walls, rehabbed wooden floors remain pocked with their old dings, and recycled light fixtures that look like gas lamps recreate a restaurant scene out of a Fellini film. The centerpiece is a large wooden table with a base made from old Schlafly beer barrels -- a "welcome to the neighborhood" gift from the folks at the brewery's Bottleworks location.
The three owners have no plans to quit their day jobs, but after tasting their pizza, it's clear that they could. The classic margherita, the tone-setter of all Neopolitan pizzerias, was about as close to authentic as one can get stateside, with its soft and spongy crust, thin in the middle with thick, char-speckled edges. The tomato sauce was spot on in both texture (crushed but not chunky) and taste -- the basil leaves, crisped by the searing hot oven, permeated the sauce with herbaceous flavor. I must take off a few authenticity points for the cheese, however. A Pizza Story uses small, marble-size balls of fresh mozzarella. There was not much cheese to speak of, and what was there lacked the earthiness and moisture of the more traditional buffalo variety.
The "Fantasy" pizza pairs Gruyere cheese with wild mushrooms and a hint of truffle oil. The umami flavor on this sauceless pie is divine, though I wished there were more mushrooms. A Pizza Story's "Legend" pizza is the perfect choice for heat-seeking carnivores. The dough is covered with tomato sauce, oregano, caramelized onions and a generous portion of fiery cappiacola. My favorite dish at A Pizza Story was, unfortunately, just a nightly special, but I need to mention it anyway: a sauceless, Spanish-style pizza with Manchego cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, green olives and pistachios. The salt from the olives combined with the tart tomatoes and nutty cheese for a dish that begged to be paired with some crisp Albarino and devoured on the Costa del Sol.
The eatery also offers a handful of appetizers and pastas. A salad of arugula and beets was topped with some walnuts and a drizzle of lemon vinaigrette. A dash of mint syrup updated the classic pairing of prosciutto and cantaloupe, and zesty Kalamata olive tapenade was delicious with some simple, wood-fired bread.
The calamari appetizer was unlike any other fried squid I have seen. The tender, meaty rings -- dredged in a peppery flour then fried -- were so large that I thought we'd been mistakenly served a jumbo fried onion. Olive and caper puttanesca dipping sauce served as a welcome departure from ubiquitous marinara.
If the pizza here is authentically Neapolitan, then the pasta is straight out of Rome and Bologna. Fettuccine all'amatriciana, a classic Roman dish, is heaped with hearty chunks of pancetta that have been simmered in tomato sauce. The Bolognese-style shells ragu is akin to beef stew: shredded beef, braised in tomatoes, tops the shell-shaped noodles. Unfortunately, my order contained a very large piece of gristle, but aside from this misstep, the flavor was excellent.
I'm one of the few people on earth who couldn't care less about tiramisu, but the version at A Pizza Story made me reconsider. The espresso-soaked ladyfingers were light and fluffy (my regular complaint about the dessert is that it tastes like mushy coffee) and blended with creamy mascarpone. Had I not known better, I would have thought I was eating espresso cheesecake.
These professors came up with a winning formula, and A Pizza Story more than makes the grade.