What can I get for you, buddy?" croaked an earnest, fresh-faced server in a preppy gray ribbed turtleneck. But no sooner had he posed the question than he began to crimson, chagrined at having taken such liberties in addressing his customer. The blush crept up to the roots of his tawny hair, a helmetlike crew cut that jibed due north above his forehead, terminating in a pert, cowlicky crest. "I'm sorry I'm calling you 'buddy' so much -- it's just a habit," he stammered in a feeble, unnecessary retraction. Here at the Pie Pantry, in Belleville, customers are charmed by the staff's uncontrived, small-town civility, a manner so polite that this young man was actually apologizing for being too chummy.
In addition to the courteous service, diners are drawn in by the voluptuous procession of pies, many of them crowned by soft white tufts of meringue. The quivering orbs are strung together behind the glass like strands of dewy pearls in a jeweler's case. The Pie Pantry and Eckert's Country Restaurant, also in Belleville, both offer three meals a day, as well as dessert. We opted for dinner at each place and sampled more than a dozen kinds of pie between them.
The Pie Pantry, settled across Main Street from its former quarters, has composed a fancy though conventional new dinner menu to encourage Metro East residents to dine in downtown Belleville. The food at the Pie Pantry, such as crab-stuffed shrimp and Asiago ravioli, would be at home on the menus of such franchise family restaurants as Red Lobster, the Pasta House and T.G.I. Friday's. Items such as spinach salad, heaped with chopped egg and inch-long strips of bacon, radiate freshness and simplicity. Our 6-year-old taster approved of the gooey, cheesy spinach-artichoke dip, though he continued to regard the weird green flecks with deep suspicion. The restaurant is attracting new customers with special-events dinners, such as the German-night celebration it hosted in January and the Lenten seafood buffet it's offering every Friday in March. The restaurant's unique stage-set décor has warm wood floors, faux walls papered with a floral print and vaulted stained-glass church windows suspended like bookends flanking a sunny seating platform.
Eckert's Restaurant, an offshoot of Eckert's Orchard and Country Store, has a more makeshift look about it, as though the owners snatched a few knickknacks from the store, scooched together a knot of red-and-white-gingham booths and flicked the cardboard sign to "OPEN." It's the customers -- many of whom pick strawberries, peaches, apples and pumpkins here in season -- who vivify the setting with belly laughs that crinkle the crow's feet at the corners of their eyes. No doubt they're lured in by the biscuits -- deep-fried biscuits, downy and white as cotton batting inside, golden as hush puppies outside and gingered up with apple butter from a crock on the table. These doughy rolls are the kissing cousins of those plush, urbane beignets that lade the breadbaskets at the Sidney Street Café. The rest of the food on the homey menu -- fried chicken, turkey clubs, catfish and the like -- sticks to the ribs, and the restaurant's fresh-baked bread makes the satisfying sandwiches taste homemade. But sometimes quality is sacrificed in the name of efficiency. For example, a serving of red potatoes -- mashed, skins and all, with a goodly amount of butter -- had apparently been pre-scooped, plopped into a dish and slid under a heat lamp, so that a shiny, discolored sheath had formed over the mound by the time it reached our table. If they'd been spooned straight from the hotel pan when we ordered them, they would have been irresistible.
But never mind that -- we had our sights pinned on dessert. In the Middle Ages, pies contained a queer hodgepodge of ingredients; hence the pastry was named for the magpie, the packrat of the skies. The dish originated in Northern and Central Europe, where a shortage of sugar forced medieval cooks to make savory pies rather than sweet ones. Peasants sometimes tinted the crust yellow with saffron, a practice that's still followed in many English bread recipes. Pie fillings of the day included beef marrow, fish liver, eels and unboned birds. To moisten the interior, a sauce was sometimes sluiced in through a steam vent after baking. The first sweet pies contained fruit, such as apples tossed with figs, raisins, onions, wine and spices. Ovens were a luxury, so pies were fried in lard or baked in a skillet, with a second pan full of glowing coals set atop the pie.
Modern pie makers have splintered into stubborn factions over issues of ingredients and technique. Some swear by butter, shortening or lard. Others insist that using cake flour or bread flour is the secret to a tender crust. Many claim it's essential to throw in a pinch of sugar or salt, or to incorporate liquids such as buttermilk and vinegar. And there's bitter disagreement between those who fully or partially prebake the finished crust and those who do not. The Pie Pantry uses vegetable shortening to produce a puffy crust with a bubbly, airy texture. Eckert's purchases a commercial frozen crust, its fluted edges molded into a curving rickrack pattern. The chalky pastry hasn't been brushed with egg wash, so it lacks shine and isn't properly browned, the crumb as pale as shortbread, friable as a saltine cracker and utterly devoid of taste.
And then there are the fillings. In baking a fruit pie, the challenge is to prepare a filling that's juicy but not runny. At the Pie Pantry, we tried raspberry pie, insulated with a full top crust. A lattice crust is preferable, because you taste more fruit and less crust in each bite. The pastry fretwork is prettier than a blanket crust, too, but to create the filigree, the dough must be cut into narrow strips and then woven -- a time-consuming operation but a tipoff that no shortcuts have been taken elsewhere. The jamlike raspberry center had lost its juiciness, was a bit tart and concealed too many firm seeds. At Eckert's, the Dutch apple pie groans with fleshy Jonathan and Golden Delicious apples under a crumb topping made with flour, sugar, butter and cinnamon sugar.
In a cream pie, the filling is held together with a thickener such as cornstarch or gelatin and poured into a fully baked crust. The key is to create a creamy filling that doesn't make the crust soggy. The Pie Pantry's banana cream pie was short on fruit, but the slices were in the right place -- mixed into the custard, that is. Layered on top, banana slices will quickly oxidize and turn gray. If they rest on the bottom, the crust will become sodden. The Pie Pantry's coconut cream, though, was nearly flawless, with a puddinglike filling and a golden tiara of meringue. Only freshly grated coconut, toasted to bring out its tropical flavor, could have improved the pie. The chocolate cream pie at Eckert's, on the other hand, had a rather pre-fab taste, like a Weight Watchers frozen dessert. Worse, it had been sullied with corrugated cylinders of pockmarked whipped topping rather than plumed with velvety whipped cream. The Pie Pantry uses a squirt-can nondairy topping as well. We realized too late that a dollar extra would have bought us the real thing.
We liked the Pie Pantry's chocolate-chip pie, which had a pleasantly cloying, sticky filling like that of a pecan pie, and Eckert's raspberry cheesecake, which was tinged pink with raspberry juice. It had no crust -- just pure, unalloyed cheesecake. And that brings us to another hotly debated question: Is a cheesecake a pie or a cake? Neither, really -- it's a tart, a term that could technically be applied to any pie that has no lid. But why quibble about the finer points of pastry nomenclature when you have at least a half-dozen unfinished pieces of leftover pie -- or whatever -- in the fridge? Ah, time to finish off that smooth, puckery wedge of lemon meringue ...