There is a very long wait for a pizza at Pizzeria della Piazza. A thin-crust pie takes about a half-hour, a pan pizza's more like 45 minutes, and a deep-dish stuffed pizza means a lag time close to an hour.
Unless you want a pizza during the week. Then the wait can last up to four days.
Husband-and-wife owners John and Ann Piazza opened their namesake pizzeria on the Hill in the spring of 2004, serving lunch, dinner and takeout six days a week. About six months ago, slow weekday business forced them to scale back to a weekends-only operation.
"It was killing us; it was almost nonexistent," says manager John Hugger, the Piazzas' nephew, of the restaurant's work-week intake.
For a district as world-renowned for its bounty of Italian cuisine as the Hill some locals claim that if you take a trip to Rome or Naples, mentioning the Hill will elicit nods of recognition, and God knows the Hill is more bona fide nowadays than that other famous Little Italy near the southern tip of Manhattan, which is about as true as EPCOT Center pizza seldom seems to factor into the nabe's reputation. A couple of other places sling pie, like Guido's and Milo's Bocce Garden, but when was the last time any one of us in the greater St. Louis area thought, "I'm in the mood for pizza. Let's head to the Hill"?
Well, it's time to start doing just that. Because Pizzeria della Piazza makes pizza worth driving a stretch, waiting awhile and forsaking a waistline.
I was told by a waitress during a Friday lunch that the thin crust is "more like New York than St. Louis," but upon witnessing its arrival at our table (placed atop a six-pound can of whole tomatoes, cleverly deployed as a pie-tin pedestal) my companions and I wholly disagreed. It was almost as thin as a cracker, the ring of crust along the circumference practically wasn't there as with typical St. Louis pizzas, the edges sort of faded away into nothingness rather than puffing out into a fluffy, bready border and the thing was cut into squares. My brain reflexively informed my taste buds to gear up for Provel-and-Saltine. But what the tongue sent back was: "This actually tastes pretty good. This tastes like real pizza." Pizzeria della Piazza uses whole-milk mozzarella. Mozza-lujah! The crust is thin but provides a softer, more substantial anchor to the pie than its appearance might suggest.
In fact, so satisfying was this pizza (which we topped with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms and onions) that I swear it made the appetizers we'd ordered taste better, too. Yep, these were some of the most impressive toasted raviolis and mozzarella sticks I've ever had. The innards didn't fall apart in a congealed mess, didn't taste up-from-frozen (even though they were; Hugger says they're trying to come up with a homemade version of the T-ravs that's cost effective). An order of wings not my favorite food item to begin with were meaty and featured a suitable quantity of burnt-orange sauce, clingy but not gloppy, spicy but not sadistic.
When I visited a few days later to pick up a pan and a stuffed to go, I almost threw my back out. Each was fourteen inches in diameter (pies are available in ten-, twelve-, fourteen-, and eighteen-inch sizes) and together they must have weighed close to twenty pounds. So I did a few bicep curls with the stacked boxes on my way to the car to work off a few bites in advance. This on-the-spot exercise regimen also served to distract me from the scrumptious aroma wafting forth from those boxes like those plumes of smoke that reach out and tickle the noses of cartoon characters.
Those pan and stuffed pizzas really are cartoonish, borderline-ridiculous in all dimensions. The pan pizza flaunts its mozz right on top, while the stuffed hides its cheese a blend of mozzarella and sharp cheddar, but you can't really tell beneath a top crust and a layer of tomato sauce. Both of them boast bottom crusts that are stupendously tall. Along the sides of the stuffed pizza, the crust stands upright like a parapet keeping all the goodness inside from escaping.
Which brings me to the Piazzas' tomato sauce. This stuff rocks. It's a thick, bulky, heavy-duty tomato sauce, and I'd tell you what was in it if the Piazzas would tell me, but they won't. They don't even share the specifics with their employees/nephews; instead they supply unmarked packets of herbs and spices. ("The times when I really want to know what's in those packets," says John Hugger, "is when we run out of them and John and Ann aren't around to make more.") My best guesses: oregano, basil and probably some sugar.
At any rate, fresh basil leaves (which John Hugger grows himself in season, along with oregano, in a raised flowerbed out back) are available as an à la carte topping a rare treat in St. Louis. Other worthwhile toppings: sunshine-yellow bell peppers, grape tomatoes that come out of the kitchen's fire-brick oven puckered and tempting, big fat mushroom slices and pungent, briny anchovies.
Natives of Cahokia, the Piazza-Hugger clan opened their first pizzeria in Decatur about fifteen years ago, when the Hugger nephews were still in grade school. It was called Gordo's Pizzeria, and John and Ann ran the business until they started a family and decided to sell it and take day jobs.
Perhaps that's why, on their return to the business, they've created a restaurant that's so kid-friendly. The main dining room features a few video-game consoles and one of those machines where you try to pick up a stuffed animal by maneuvering a metal claw. There's a kids' menu all the usual suspects, chicken strips, fries and the like because, as John Hugger puts it, "Kids can't always wait for their food."
Adults who can't wait would be well advised to call in their orders ahead of time, even if they're planning on a sit-down meal. Not only will this cut down on your wait time; it'll help the Piazzas realize their goal of expanding their operating hours back to what they were before.
"Turnover's a big thing here," says John Hugger. "You can't flip tables here in a half-hour, or even an hour, when the pizzas take that long to make."