When I moved to St. Louis three years ago, the first place I stopped was Chesterfield Commons. This wasn't by design. I was on Highway 40, needed to pee and wasn't going to make it to my new apartment.
I ran into Wal-Mart, did my business and got back on the road. Five minutes, tops. Until a week ago, I hadn't returned.
What brought me back was pizza.
Specifically, I wanted to try spinjuine at Caito's Pizzeria. Spinjuine, Caito's menu claims, is a pizza from Sicily that is "new to the U.S." That's exactly what I needed to hear. I was bored with pizza. Not tired of it. Just bored. In a rut. I knew what I loved (Dewey's Pizza) and what I hated (Provel) and who could get a pizza to my door in 30 minutes or less when my idea of culinary adventure was to curl up on the couch with my cats and watch Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations (Papa John's).
That meant I was ignoring a lot of great local pizzerias. And the only thing worse than eating not-great pizza is imagining all the great pizza you're not eating. So I left my cats with instructions to record Anthony Bourdain (they failed to comply) and started my journey where my time in St. Louis began: Chesterfield Commons.
Caito's is located in one of the smaller strip malls surrounding the main stretch of shops. The interior is supposed to resemble the courtyard of an Italian villa, I suppose, but the cantaloupe-colored walls, merlot-colored seats and fake windows with curtains drawn to hide the bare walls behind suggest Olive Garden by way of Pier 1. At any rate, it was a nice night, so I sat on the modest patio. The view isn't much the rest of Chesterfield Commons and Interstate 40 but the vista of sky is immense, and it was pleasant to eat while watching night saunter in from east to west.
Spinjuine, it turns out, is a variation of the traditional Sicilian pizza known as sfincione. There seem to be as many recipes for sfincione as there are Sicilians, but essentially it's a thick dough topped with tomato sauce, anchovies and caciocavallo (a mild, hard cow's-milk cheese); onions are sometimes baked into the dough, sometimes mixed into the sauce.
Spinjuine splits the difference between sfincione and Americanized pizza. It features a soft, dense dough topped by a tomato sauce of ground beef, sausage and onions; on top of the sauce is a modest layer of cheese, a mixture of mozzarella and provolone, and fresh basil. The menu describes the sauce as spicy, but I didn't detect much heat. This is only a minor quibble, though. The sauce is fantastic: savory, slightly sweet and very, very thick. It's almost an authentic ragu, just slightly less complex.
I won't wait another three years to return to Chesterfield Commons. Not only is Caito's pizza good (if the spinjuine is too heavy for you, try the "Velozzi Margherita," a fine thin-crust pizza with the bright flavors of fresh tomato and basil), the prices are reasonable, ranging from $7.25 for a small St. Louis-style cheese pizza to $14.99 for the spinjuine a bargain, considering I got three meals out of the spinjuine by itself.
No doubt Chesterfield Commons is more attractive and more efficient for shoppers than the stretch of dowdy old strip malls lining Manchester Avenue in Rock Hill. But the restaurants, like A'mis, in these dowdy old strip malls have always had a special place in my heart: The suburb of Baltimore where I grew up had more than a few of these places, and I remember the excitement of my family arriving at the strip mall where we did our grocery shopping and instead going to the Crock Pot, an "upscale" seafood restaurant where, surrounded by a fake ship's compass and ceramic seagulls, I was introduced to the awesome concept of serving one kind of meat (crab) inside of another (trout).
A'mis is a neighborhood joint, through and through. Portrait photos of the owners' family and neon beer signs that have outlasted probably two dozen different Budweiser ad campaigns line the creamy green walls. The menu includes a number of sandwiches, pastas, chicken and veal parmigiana and even steaks, but I came for the pizza.
You can get St. Louis-style pizza here, but you can also get some of the best New York-style pizza in St. Louis. I had a New York-style with pepperoni and black olives, and while it was thicker than what native East Coasters consider New York-style, it was, to put it simply, a great pizza, with sweet, oregano-heavy sauce, a thick layer of mozzarella that had just the right proportion of crisp brown pockets to melting-hot strands and pepperoni that actually had some bite.
I should have read the menu more closely, though. A'mis does offer true New York-style pizza. In fact, A'mis makes a brilliant distinction between New York-style pizza and New York-style pizza from Manhattan. I stopped by at lunch for a slice of the Manhattan New York-style and was impressed. For $3.10, you get a huge slice (really, two large slices) of thin-crusted, orange-grease-soaked, goopy delight.
The only drawback to A'mis is trying to figure out how much your pizza will cost: A plain thin-crust pizza runs $7.60 (small), $9.70 (medium) or $10.75 (large). The price for toppings is on a sliding scale based on the size and style of your pizza and there are additional surcharges for New York- and Chicago-style pizzas. I got out my abacus, and for my two-topping, medium New York, I paid about $13.
You won't need the abacus at Pizza-a-Go-Go. You don't have many choices to make: small or large, regular crust or thick, one or more of nine toppings. (Anchovies, yes; pine nuts, artichoke hearts or whatever the flavor-of-the-month is, no.) Prices range from $7 for a small cheese to $17 for a large, five-topping "Special." I chose a large with sausage and mushrooms on my first visit, a small with pepperoni and black olives on my second. Both were fabulous.
This is pizza as Platonic ideal. The crust is exactly what a thin crust should be: thin, yes, but with just enough chewy resistance that the pizza doesn't collapse into a soggy mess; crisp, but not overbaked so that each bite fractures into shards of crust. The sauce is pitched to the right level of sweet and spicy, and the mozzarella actually does what cheese is supposed to do on a pizza, holding everything together atop the crust.
Really, it's all about the crust at Pizza-a-Go-Go. Even before I had my first bite, I could tell it would be perfect. I watched Paul LaFata slide my pizza out of the oven to check the underside not once, not twice, but three times in the final minutes before it was done.
Frank LaFata, Paul's father, opened Pizza-a-Go-Go in Gaslight Square in 1964. It moved to South Grand in 1967, and then crossed to the other side of the Boulevard in 1980. The current location, at the intersection of Scanlan and Ivanhoe (near Jamieson and Arsenal), has been open for ten years now. It's a residential area, which seems appropriate: Pizza-a-Go-Go feels more like a home than a restaurant.
There are tables, of course, with the requisite shakers of grated Parmesan and red pepper flakes, but there's also a fridge in one corner for customers to store six-packs (Pizza-a-Go-Go doesn't have a liquor license), in another corner a piano. The décor celebrates the many loves of Frank LaFata's life: his family, his countries (America and Italy) and his restaurant; the Cardinals, cycling and Marilyn Monroe.
I would add pizza to that list. It seems silly. Who doesn't love pizza? But it's become such a staple of American cuisine that it's easy to forget the virtues of its simple pleasures.
Easy to forget but easy to rediscover. You just have to get off the couch and out of the house.