One day, when I'm an old, retired restaurant critic, as fat as a zeppelin and hobbled by gout, I'll throw the grandkids into the hovercar and take them on a tour of St. Louis pizza past. I'll show them the mixed martial arts arena where the first Imo's once stood and the Francis Slay Spaceport atop the Hill. We'll pay our respects at the memorial to the victims of the Provel Riots of 2041, after President Chelsea Clinton banned processed cheese. And then, just when the little ankle biters start whining about how this is the most boring thing ever and I'm so hungry, I'll point the 'car toward the Albert Pujols Expressway and say, with an avuncular chuckle, "You kids are lucky to have been born in the 21st century."
"Because we can live on the moon?"
"Because a clone can be elected president?"
"Because we cured cancer?"
"No, no, no." (I hope, by then, to have learned patience.) "Because you can get a decent pizza right here in your hometown."
I pray that future generations of St. Louisans can take good pizza for granted. For now, though, I'll continue to bang the drum whenever a decent joint opens. Last year was an especially fruitful one, as we welcomed Katie's Pizzeria Café, Onesto and Pi — with Pi drawing high praise from none other than then-candidate Barack Obama.
To that list you can add the Good Pie, which opened in December in midtown, just east of the intersection of Olive Street and North Compton Avenue. The location is as humble as the name: a tinted storefront next to a tanning salon. But you shouldn't overlook this pizzeria, where a wood-burning oven imported from Italy bakes damn good Neapolitan-style pies.
I say "Neapolitan-style" instead of Neapolitan because only the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana can certify that a pizza is truly Neapolitan, and having already ticked off every Provel-loving St. Louisan with the opening paragraph of this review, I don't want any global bureaucracies riding my butt, too.
In fact, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana mandates everything from the kind of oven (wood-burning) to temperature (800 degrees Fahrenheit) to work surface (marble). In terms of what you, the diner, sees, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana limits what can top your pizza to San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella (either cow or buffalo milk) and fresh basil.
What distinguishes Neapolitan-style pizza is a very thin crust (though with a rim or lip) cooked in a wood-burning oven at a very high temperature for a very, very brief period of time. I didn't have a stopwatch when I visited the Good Pie, but I'd guess the cooks kept each pizza in the oven for no more than two minutes.
The wood-burning oven stands toward the back of the Good Pie's single room. One or two cooks work in a small prep area immediately in front of it. (A second prep kitchen is hidden behind the small bar.) In front of the oven area and the bar is seating for maybe two dozen. Exposed brick walls and wood tables give the space the casual ambiance of a neighborhood joint; actual vintage bicycles hung on the walls add a distinctive touch.
The menu is brief and, with the exception of a few salads and antipasti, devoted entirely to pizza. There are ten different pizzas — all are twelve inches, more than adequate for most diners — as well as daily specials; prices range from $8 for the "Marinara" (tomato, garlic and oregano) to $16 for a pie with prosciutto and Grana Padano. For $4 you can add mozzarella di bufala to any pizza; its depth of flavor is greater, but not distractingly so.
The key to any Neapolitan pizza is the quality of its crust, and at its best, the Good Pie's is very good: Crisp on the bottom, and even dotted here and there with char, but with an ever-so-tender chew and a pleasant, mild sour note. Occasionally the char has a stronger influence than you'd like, and on one pizza that I tried — sausage and roasted peppers with mozzarella — much of the crust was soggy with oil.
Because nearly a dozen different pizzas are available, you can safely assume that the Good Pie's toppings venture beyond tomato, mozzarella and basil. Because Neapolitan-style pizzas cook so quickly, these toppings have been previously cooked — roasted red peppers and mushrooms — or require little (or no) additional cooking to be enjoyed, like the tissue paper-thin sheets of prosciutto draped atop the "Atina" pizza. This looks like nothing so much as a prosciutto pancake, but the pizza is more subtle than it appears. A scattering of roasted mushrooms and thinly shaved Grana Padano cheese add toasty and nutty notes to the ham, while the light, freshly made tomato sauce adds sweetness and a touch of acid.
Pork gluttons might also consider the "Mast'nicola," which includes a generous amount of chopped pancetta along with grated Pecorino Romano and a few fresh basil leaves. There is no tomato sauce on this pie, but the pancetta, by turns crisp and fatty, has an unctuous enough quality that you won't miss it.
For those craving something more traditional, a classic pizza margherita is available, while a pie with thinly sliced Genoa salami is a tastier sibling of a good ol'-fashioned pepperoni pizza. The only combination that doesn't work at all features olives, capers and white anchovies; the result is one step removed from a salt lick.
The wine list is short but was put together with more care than you find at most pizza joints: There's a good range of Italian varietals, and while there are a few pricey bottles, most are affordable. Only a few beers are offered, but they're local and good, like the O'Fallon 5-Day IPA and Smoked Porter.
Service is St. Louis-standard, which is to say friendly but scattered. Someone cheerily implores you to sit wherever you want as soon as you walk in the door, but the open tables aren't always cleaned off. One busy Saturday lunch service found only a single server working, and she couldn't process credit-card payments. Diners had to wait for the cook to finish making a pizza to have their cards run.
One other drawback — though this is hardly the fault of the restaurant — is that parking is less than ideal, with meters along both sides of Olive and no off-street spots of which I'm aware. I mention this only to encourage those intrigued by the Good Pie but put off by the realities of city living to bring change for the meters or walk the extra block or two from a side street.
I can only hope that I will have to explain to my grandkids what a parking meter is. And Provel.