Peel Wood Fired Pizza takes its name — the peel part — from the tool used to shuffle pizzas into and out of its wood-burning oven: a broad paddle at the end of a long pole. How many peels had I seen in action before finally learning what it is called? Many. I've filed the term with other cool, useful words like aglet and ferrule.
The name is Peel, but the centerpiece of this year-old Edwardsville restaurant is its wood-burning oven. Imported from Italy, it crackles with 800 degrees of life, crisping the crusts of pizzas in a couple of minutes, imbuing chicken wings with a whisper of smoke. During these bleak, snowy January days, the temptation to curl up beside the hearth is strong.
The kitchen is open to the dining room, though a counter for prep work and plating and a phalanx of black-jacketed cooks stand between you and a nap by the fire. Call the design, as a whole, modern rustic: a patchwork of stone and wood that doesn't suggest a pizzeria so much as the great room of a vacation home in Vail or Sun Valley. The space is always buzzing, a steady stream of pizzas delivered from the oven to the pass, where a cook then calls a specific server to claim the order. Even at lunch, patrons crowd the bar while they wait for a table. (On one lunch visit, I waited for more than twenty minutes just to sit at the bar.) It is this energy, more than anything else, that gives Peel its character.
Pizza cooked in a wood-burning oven is often synonymous with Neapolitan-style pizza. In fact, there are stringent requirements for what is true Neapolitan pizza — there's even an agency that will accredit your pizza as such. (The Good Pie, in midtown St. Louis, is certified.) Peel makes no claim to be authentically Neapolitan, though at a glance its most basic pie could pass: lightly blistered fresh mozzarella, thin crust, imperfectly round, blackened here and there on the bottom from the oven's searing heat. There is one size: eleven inches in diameter. You can choose one of the specialty pizzas or build your own from an extensive list of sauces, cheeses and toppings.
Those specialty pizzas run the gamut from the expected combinations of different meats and cheeses to "Thai Red Curry," "Buffalo" and "Hot Brown" (after the famous turkey-bacon sandwich). Of these, I tried to get a sense of both the sophisticated and the playful. The "Prosciutto" pizza is the former, with a sheen of olive oil spiked with roasted garlic as the sauce and fontina and Parmesan as the cheeses. The gossamer slices of prosciutto are lightly crisped around the edges; the meat's saltiness is balanced by tender, medium-thick slices of fingerling potato. Fresh rosemary and a few whole cloves of roasted garlic offer elegant accents.
The "Jerk Chicken" is a somewhat upscale take on barbecue-chicken pizza. The chicken, roasted in the wood-burning oven, has a lightly smoky flavor and a very mild kick — not reminiscent of true jerk seasoning, but pleasant on its own merits. Most barbecue-chicken pizza suffers from insipid barbecue sauce or too much barbecue sauce (or both). Peel's version neatly sidesteps both pitfalls. The sauce is actually a glaze atop the crust, and its flavor adds the luscious sweetness of mango to a tangy base. Black beans, cilantro and chopped mango round out the toppings. A restrained amount of mozzarella pulls everything together.
To get the best sense of Peel's pizza, both plus and minus, try one of the basic pies. I went for the pepperoni, which is the traditional arrangement of meat, mozzarella, tomato sauce and oregano. I liked the sauce, neither too sweet nor too doctored up with herbs and spices, and the ratio of cheese to pepperoni to sauce was appropriate. Where I found this pizza slightly lacking — in the sense of keeping it out of the St. Louis area's uppermost tier; emphatically not in the sense of being bad — was the crust.
The texture is very good, especially around the edges, soft with a decent chew to it. (Those who object to "soggy" pizza should know that at Peel, the centers of the more sauce-heavy pizzas can be a little wet — as happens to many thin-crust pies.) The flavor left something to be desired. It could be as simple as adding a little extra salt in the dough, but at the moment, once the initial hint of woodsmoke fades, I'm hard-pressed to come up with an adjective to describe it.
A pizza and a small salad — I suggest the menu's new addition, baby spinach tossed with Gorgonzola, slices of green apple, toasted pecans and sun-dried cranberries in a maple-cider vinaigrette — will probably be more than enough to satisfy the average diner. That said, the chicken wings are a standout appetizer. (Of course, you can also order these as an entrée.) Rather than being fried, the wings are roasted in the wood-burning oven, resulting in a fuller flavor of chicken (as opposed to frying oil). There are several variations, including a classic Buffalo and the aforementioned mango-barbecue sauce. I'm a fan of the "Fire" wings, tossed in a blend of sea salt, crushed red pepper flakes, basil and grated Parmesan cheese, with just a dash of roasted garlic olive oil.
The beer list is strong, with several craft brews on draft, ranging from hoppy American brews like Founders Centennial IPA to sophisticated Belgian Trappist ales. (Macrobrew bottles are also available.) The modest wine list is pizza-friendly, both by the bottle and by the glass.
The throngs suggest that in the year since it opened, Peel has found a sizable fan base in Edwardsville. For St. Louisans who don't sweat a short trip across the river, it's a name worth learning.