I can't remember who delivered the second adage, whether it was a sound bite from TV or a tossed-off witticism I overheard at a party, but it's stuck with me in boldface letters branded across my chow-addled brain: "Pizza is like sex and Woody Allen movies. Even when it's bad, it's pretty good."
St. Louis Pizza Haus opened several weeks ago in the Loop. It is a family business started by first-time restaurateurs the Beauboeufs: Sande Stevenson (née Beauboeuf) and husband Julian are in charge, with Sande's two sisters and one brother working as a manager, a cashier and a cook. The Stevensons will tell you, as will the pizzeria's Web site copy, that the tight-knit Beauboeuf-Stevenson clan has been wanting for some time to go into business together. Pizza was not the only product they considered selling, and heretofore the family's love of eating pizza outweighed its experience making it; only sister Natasha had already notched the pizza biz on her résumé, working as a manager at a local pie shop for about four years.
Like all pizza joints, Pizza Haus has its list of specialty pizzas. There's the standard supreme (ground beef, pepperoni, onions, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms), the meat lover's (called "the Carnivore" here, with beef, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, American bacon and sausage), and the vegetarian (a.k.a. "the Garden": mushrooms, green peppers, black olives, banana peppers, onions). More inventive house offerings include the "Zesto Pesto" (chicken, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, pesto sauce) and the "Sweet Chick" (chicken, red onion and barbecue sauce). On the menu, at the end of each pizza's list of toppings, the type of cheese used on the pie is also noted. Often this is mozzarella; occasionally it's mozz and Cheddar (as with the Garden) and on one occasion Cheddar flies solo.
Mozzarella is part of a pizza's foundation. Along with dough and tomato sauce, it comprises the holy trinity of pizza-making. Pizza without mozzarella is not pizza. It's an open-faced panini, perhaps, or a Hot Pocket, but it's not pizza. Everybody has their pieces of wisdom about pizza, their hard-and-fast rules about how pizza should or shouldn't be done, and here's one of mine: When a pizzeria lists mozzarella cheese as a topping -- as if mozzarella cheese is an option -- you know you're dealing with pizza that, at best, is pretty good. When a pizzeria square-cuts its pies, you can only hope you're dealing with pizza that isn't awful.
Pizza Haus' pizza is kinda bad, but still pretty good. Some pies are better than others. The "Supreme" delivers a great meat-veggie-spice onslaught, and the "Zesto Pesto" is a nifty white pie with a mild flavor -- kind of like the Supreme's counterpoint. On the "Carnivore," the sliced meat (the pepperoni and Canadian bacon) is stacked under the cheese, while the three-dimensional, curlicued meat, like the scraps of sausage and bacon, rest on top -- a just-for-show stunt that looks neat and doesn't get in the way of the pizza's taste. These are straightforward, tasty pies.
Then there's the "Chicken Club" -- Italian-herbed chicken, Alfredo sauce, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, bacon and, ahem, mozzarella -- which struck me as a pizza without a purpose. It's cute in concept but a bit strange (and lifeless) in execution, as if its invention stemmed merely from a desire to invent; absent is a sense that there's a real bedrock of pizza-making acumen, a passion for and knowledge of individual ingredients and how to bring them together into a cohesive, purposeful, delicious whole. The "Chicken Cheddar Supreme" is the one pie that contains no mozzarella. It is also topped with pieces of chicken and broccoli. It tastes like a casserole baked by a Minnesota soccer mom.
In the Pizza Haus' signage and literature, much fuss is made over the fact that this is brick-oven pizza. While that may not be the norm around these parts, I've never found brick-oven pizza to be any better than metal-oven pizza. In fact, I'll take a pizza that's been cooked in a traditional metal-floored oven any day. I love how the metal's uneven temperatures result in a big cheese bubble here, a patch of burnt crust there, a big, puffed-out crust along the pie's circumference. Bricks result in a more tamed and even cooking, which results in a more tame pizza. Tame isn't necessarily bad, but it's not great.
The waitresses at St. Louis Pizza Haus don’t wear lederhosen, and the walls aren’t stacked with shelves of beer steins. (The name stems from the family’s admiration of a Jefferson City-area pizza place to which they paid a franchise fee.) The décor doesn’t reflect any particular ethnic influence, really. It’s aesthetically sterile: Formica-topped tables, fluorescent lights, chairs upholstered in red vinyl, walls painted in block colors (this one blue, that one green), and a soda dispenser in the back. It looks like an office break room. The pizza-making is done up front behind clear plastic shields, but even with this bit of showmanship the space feels filled with dead air. Maybe that’s because the dough isn’t pounded out by hand but flattened through an electric dough press, or maybe that’s just because the windowed kitchen space at Dewey’s Pizza in Kirkwood just comes off as so much more fun.
Besides pizza, the Pizza Haus sells a nice, wide array of other blue-collar Italian goodies, like fettuccine Alfredo and meatball hoagies. A stab at the spaghetti and meatballs resulted in overcooked starch that stuck to my molars and meatballs that were on the hard, unsubtly seasoned side. I had better luck with a Philly cheesesteak hoagie. Though the steak slices would be considered way too thick in the City of Brotherly Love, the beef was juicy and complemented nicely by a pile of onions and green pepper.
Let it be known, too, that St. Louis Pizza Haus serves up some of the best oven-baked wings in town. Nothing scrawny, burnt or up-from-frozen here. These chicken wings boast bona fide mouthfuls of tender, quality meat, shot through with just the right calibration of melted butter vs. Frank's RedHot. And that's coming from someone who's not much of a wing fan. Which is to say: Even when they're kinda good, I usually find them pretty bad.
Here they're pretty good -- like the pizza.
Correction published 9/7/05: As originally published, this review failed to note that St. Louis Pizza Haus owners Sande and Julian Stevenson paid a franchising fee to the owner of a similarly named Jefferson City establishment. Additionally, some readers felt the review invoked racist stereotypes in discussing the owners’ heritage. That wasn’t our intention; our apologies if it came off that way. The above version reflects the corrected text.