In the century since Gennaro Lombardi opened his pizzeria in New York City, pizza -- or tomato pie, or whatever you want to call it -- has wedged itself into American food culture, slice by slice. It has been a staple of Friday-night dates, quick lunches and, of course, college campuses for generations. All of my early work experiences revolved around two types of jobs: landscaping yards and making pizzas. I first became enamored with pizza in high school, when I got a job making dough and sauce and learning how to slide pies into the oven without the crust sticking to the paddle. As a sophomore at Mizzou at Shakespeare's Pizza, I learned the art of tossing dough high in the air, spinning and pulling it so that it was even throughout.
I also learned that owning a pizzeria is both hard work and the dream of many an entrepreneur. Most fail, laboring under the mistaken belief that they can churn out mediocre fare in return for a quick buck. The devil is in the details -- something owners Paul Bishop and Tony Rivituso have figured out. For ten years they shared a pizzeria dream. It began while the pair worked together at Tino's in north county and followed them through a gig at Bob's Seafood (where Rivituso is still manager). It persisted as Bishop moved on to Racanelli's when the pizzeria opened at the Market in the Loop and even when he had to move home to Oklahoma City during a bout with cancer. Through it all, the two stayed in touch, and when Bishop returned to St. Louis, he immediately sought out his friend and rejoined him at Bob's. "He showed up at my door, and he hasn't left since," Rivituso says. With Bishop back in town, the two finally took steps to make their dream material -- scouting locations, gathering equipment and bringing on the seafood store's owner, Bob Mepham, as an investor. And so it was that this past June, after a decade-long gestation, La Pizza was born.
The small stand-alone building Rivituso and Bishop chose near the corner of Delmar Boulevard and Old Bonhomme Road -- once home to kosher candy store Sweet D'Lite -- holds only a few small tables; they'd like to expand in the future. For the time being, La Pizza does a brisk takeout and delivery business, but it's worth spending some time inside to observe just what makes the pizza, stromboli, calzone, sausage rolls and lasagna stand out in a crowded local field. Watching Bishop throw a whopping 70-inch pie brought back those glory days at Shakespeare's in Columbia. Ask him about the food and he replies in a thick brogue redolent of his native Queens.
"I heard they make a pretty good pizza there," Bishop says of Shakespeare's. Shakespeare's makes a pretty good pizza; La Pizza makes a great one. Unlike most pizzerias, which dot their pies with little raw balls of sausage, La Pizza employs whole links for their sausage pizzas, pre-baking them in the oven and then slicing them thin to arrange on the crust, making for a less greasy finished product. For hamburger pizza, Bishop and Rivituso use homemade meatballs. The cheese is 100 percent whole-milk mozzarella, which won't burn before the crust is done and doesn't yield the oil slick rendered by lesser grades. The sauce is prepared daily.
All of the expected toppings are present and accounted for at La Pizza, but some of the specialty entries stand out: fresh spinach, capocollo (Italian dry-cured ham), jalapeño peppers. Thanks to the Bob's Seafood connection, La Pizza makes several seafood pizzas, as well. (Lobster and crab meat, anyone?) If tuna is available, try it; it's reputed to be the most popular topping in Europe these days. Fresh lobster and crab meat were also included one day as a salad special -- a green salad topped with chunks of seafood, a lemon wedge and a little container of house-made Italian dressing on the side. The dressing was fine, with a nice flavor of red wine vinegar. But Bishop says he's excited about a new red wine vinegar he procured from a local maker, which he plans to put to use in his salads. In addition to the seafood special, the small operation regularly offers two salads: a "garden" and a "chef" version. When it comes to drinks, soda is the only beverage served.
Neapolitan pizza, in all its simplicity, has always been a favorite of mine. Nothing more than tomatoes and cheese with perhaps some oregano, it's more in line with what could be called New York-style pizza. Like many New York vendors, La Pizza sells the stuff by the slice. Bishop, upon request, will make the more glorified version, the margherita, which consists of tomato, cheese and fresh basil -- the colors of the Italian flag. (The pie gets its name from the Italian queen who first sampled it during her visit to Naples in 1889.) Then there's the stuffed pizza, the breadlike deep-dish Sicilian pizza, the stromboli (pepperoni, ham, sausage, green pepper, onion, sauce and cheese rolled into the dough), the calzone (a pocket pizza stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan and Romano) and the sausage roll (like the stromboli, minus the ham and pepperoni and only partially folded over).
La Pizza makes its own dough, of course, but one small detail makes it rise above the others. Bishop, who uses a 70-30 mix of olive and canola oil, doesn't use as much of it as most pizza places do; the result, he says, is a fluffier, crisper crust. He's right: No grease dripping down your arm here. When I asked, after biting into a superb meatball sandwich, whether the bread is made from the same dough as the pizza, Bishop launched into an impromptu lecture about the relationship between water temperature and yeast. He uses hotter water for the sandwich bread and cooler water for the pizza dough, which rises overnight. The same bread is used for the array of hero sandwiches, ranging from a turkey club to a Philly cheese steak to a ham and cheese.
The success of the meatball sandwich got me thinking of the lasagna, a dish I typically refrain from ordering in restaurants, spoiled as I've been by my Italian mother's version. One bite: again success. The flavors are fresh and distinct, from subtle garlic to good basil (grown out in front of the restaurant) to a tasty blend of ground beef and pork, just the right amount of Romano and Parmesan and two layers of smooth ricotta. On top of all that, Bishop makes his own lasagna noodles, cranking them out on the same little tabletop pasta maker that a lot of us have stored somewhere in our kitchens. "It's a lot of prep," Rivituso understates. "It's really, really a lot of work, but that's the difference in quality of the food. You can taste it."
He's right: It's the littlest details that make the biggest difference.