This week I planned to tell you about a barbecue joint where I had a pretty good rack of pork ribs a couple of months ago. Actually, for several weeks now I've planned to tell you about that place, but each time I went back to eat my way through the rest of the menu, something went awry. First came a church conference, which had the kitchen turning out steam-table stuff rather than barbecue. (The owner urged me to try some fried chicken. It was good, but nothing even approaching those ribs.) Then the restaurant shut its doors for a week while the staff catered an event off-site. Most recently the restaurant was closed, with no explanation.
A shame, because I really wanted to tell you about that barbecue. I hope I get my chance. Meantime, fish gotta swim, restaurant writers gotta review establishments that are, at the very least, open for business, and so I turned to my list of recently opened restaurants. Which is how I found myself eating pork ribs, this time at a spot whose stock in trade is upscale comfort food. Trouble is, I'd ordered beef short ribs, not pork ribs, the first sign that the place might not be ready for its RFT close-up. The second sign was the ribs themselves, which weren't ready, period. And so I found myself at yet another new restaurant, a neighborhood Italian place that opened in a location that previously had been occupied by a neighborhood Italian place, debating whether to order the baked mostaccioli, the St. Louis-style pizza or stab myself in the eye with my salad fork.
Which is how I found myself driving south on Morgan Ford Road, past the Bevo Mill, to Mr. X Pizza.
Mr. X isn't new — it opened in 2009 — but I want to tell you about it.
To answer the obvious question, there is no Mr. X. That was what the place was called when Damir Islamovic bought it, and he saw no reason to change the name. A man of few words, Islamovic loves pizzas.
"I used to work in a four-star restaurant," he tells me when he has a minute — and no more — to spare for an inquisitive food writer. Making pizza isn't as complicated an endeavor as dishing up four-star cuisine, he says, but it is no less a labor of love: "I can care about each pizza."
And clearly, he does.
Mr. X is, at first glance, more café than restaurant (which might be due to the fact that the location was a coffee shop before Mr. X came along). The main room features a coffee bar with counter seating, plus additional counter seating along the walls. The dining tables are relegated to an adjacent room. Odd, in a way, but Mr. X does a brisk business in carryout and delivery — perhaps to the point of eclipsing the sit-down-dinner trade. At any rate, while the dining room is comparatively placid, on a given evening you're likely to find Bosnian Americans of all ages gathered in the main room, chatting over small cups of strong black coffee.
Mr. X offers two crust styles: hand-tossed and thin. On my first visit, several months ago, I tried the thin crust, which proved to be thin in the St. Louis sense (as in: bordering on matzoh). The hand-tossed crust is a far better investment of your pizza dough: chewy, its mild flavor tinged with a slight, pleasant sour note.
For the most part, Mr. X's pizzas are conventional. That's not meant as a put-down; to be honest, the recent boom of brick-oven and Neapolitan pretension makes "regular" pizza a sight for sore eyes. The pizza margherita (or, as the menu spells it, "margarita") is a straight-up cheese pizza: a thick layer of beautifully blistered mozzarella seasoned with oregano atop a lightly sweet sauce tinged with a touch of heat.
The toppings are the expected range of meats (pepperoni, sausage, hamburger), vegetables (black olives, green peppers, sliced mushrooms) and the "unusual" toppings that by now are fairly commonplace (pineapple, artichoke). If I had to single out one topping for special notice, it would be the sausage: tender, with a nice hit of fennel and red pepper. The various pies I ordered were all topped in moderation, no one ingredient overwhelming another, or the pizza as a whole. Again, a welcome sign of simplicity.
In keeping with the Bosnian backdrop, Mr. X makes a nod or two to the dietary restrictions of Islam: You can order turkey ham or beef salami. Bosnian cuisine makes one appearance on the menu, and it is both the most intriguing and the best pizza here. Named for the restaurant, the "Mr. X" is a standard pizza with tomato sauce and cheese, topped with chicken, green peppers, mushrooms, beef salami and suho meso, which is not unlike beef jerky. The strong, spiced flavors of the salami and suho meso imbue this pie with a level of complexity right up there with the trendier offerings at fancy-pants pizza joints (hold the pretension).
Mr. X might be best known for its "Big One," a 30-inch pie that by my reckoning is the largest in town, beating out the famed "Pointersaurus" by two inches. Unlike Pointer's, Mr. X doesn't reward you for eating an entire one by yourself, but I'm sure the staff would be impressed if you try.
Pizza's not the only item on the menu. There are the tried-and-true appetizers — toasted ravioli, wings, jalapeño poppers. But pizza is what will bring you here. (Take note: Mr. X doesn't serve booze, which might help explain the heavy to-go/delivery trade.
To review: Weeks of on-again, off-again travail finally deposit me on the doorstep of a pizza parlor so low-profile that it goes by the name Mr. X, owned by a Bosnian who's quietly turning out some of the best pies in all of St. Louis.
And what, pray tell, might this experience teach us?
First, that even in a time of chaos and upheaval on the restaurant scene — the past few months have seen a veritable boom in openings, a stunning fact, given the uncertain state of our economy — you never know when or where you might encounter something rare, something good and distinctive.
And second, that Mr. X marks the spot.