Food often makes me swoon, but restaurateurs seldom do. Dewey's Pizza proprietor David Justice (no, not Halle Berry's ex) had me at hello -- or, more accurately, at "back into the city" -- when describing the game plan for his Cincinnati-based company's procession of pizzerias through the St. Louis metro area, starting with the outpost that opened in downtown Kirkwood in October. "We'll do probably two or three more here in St. Louis. Our goal is not to open fifteen or twenty in every city we go into. The Kirkwood location is only number six in seven years. That's pretty slow growth if you consider us a chain -- which we don't."
Though Kirkwood marks the St. Louis-area debut of Dewey's Pizza (and the first time Dewey's has embarked beyond greater Cincinnati), its opening here is a homecoming of sorts: Dewey's was founded by Andrew DeWitt, whose father, Bill DeWitt, is an owner of the Cardinals. The younger DeWitt (who was raised in Cincy) caught the pizza-biz bug after college, when he followed his girlfriend (now his wife) to Seattle and landed a job at Pagliacci Pizza, a carryout and delivery chain, flipping dough for $6.50 an hour. About a year later, he returned to Cincinnati and opened the first Dewey's in a Maplewood-like suburb there.
In fact, Justice and DeWitt cite a number of similarities between St. Louis and Cincinnati -- particularly the fact that both cities' pizza scenes mostly suck. Both are dominated by the national chains and one local player of arguable quality: Larossa's in Cincy and our own Imo's, whose cracker crusts smeared with oily Provel cheese have become the hallmarks of "St. Louis-style pizza" -- which, depending on your side of the fence, are either treasure or trash. A handful of indie establishments turn out great product and attract devoted followings chiefly by refusing to capitulate to the St. Louis-style: Black Thorn's towering Chicago-style pies, La Pizza's whole-milk mozzarella and gorgeously fresh toppings, Pizza-a-Go-Go's New York approach and awesome crust.
The uphill-battle scenario was not lost on DeWitt, who (rightly, if you ask me) describes Imo's pizza as "brutal" and "weird." "Honestly, that was one of my concerns coming to St. Louis," he says. "People love this [Imo's] pizza; this guy's got 60 stores. Maybe they won't like what we're doing."
It's hard to imagine anybody, in St. Louis or anywhere, disliking what DeWitt and Co. are doing. Dewey's makes one crowd-pleasing pie. It's gorgeous, for one thing, topped with fresh, radiant, colorful ingredients and a chromelike gleam (yet with nary a drop of extra grease to be found). It's camera-ready pizza.
Taking its cues from pizza styles on both coasts, Dewey's pizzas (sold in eleven-, thirteen- and seventeen-inch pies) boast a thin crust and a plentiful 34 à la carte toppings that run the gamut from workmanlike (pepperoni, anchovies, mushrooms) to hippy-dippy (Amish chicken, pine nuts). The pie's ruler-thin bottom actually looks like a St. Louis-style crust, but blessedly it embodies New York-style's perfect crispness. No cardboard here. The crust along the pie's circumference, meanwhile, is an airy, pillowy delight. I found myself dunking crusts into my glass of red wine as if they were slices of homemade semolina bread.
That's another great thing about this pizza. While it's hardly frou-frou, it merits better company than, say, a six-pack of Schlitz. It goes smashingly with wines or high-end beers -- which Dewey's just so happens to offer. The six whites and seven reds available by the glass or bottle aren't gripping but they are agreeable, and smartly priced between $16 and $26 a bottle: Wishing Tree shiraz, Pellegrini chardonnay, Alamos pinot noir, etc. The eight beers on tap include Sierra Nevada, Fat Tire, Schlafly and the little-known, figgy-tasting Rogue Dead Guy Ale from Oregon.
Half of Dewey's twelve cheekily named specialty pizzas are topped with marinara (referred to on the menu as "red sauce" -- the only element of Dewey's that makes me cringe) and mozzarella. The other six are white pies, most of them covered in a blend of olive oil, minced garlic and mozzarella and fontina cheeses. Again, there's something for everyone. The Dewey's Original, straight-up marinara and mozzarella, showcases the house gravy's unique zinginess. It's not a sweet tomato sauce but a piquant one, spiced with crushed red pepper, oregano, garlic and black pepper and derived from whole, not concentrated, tomatoes. Socrates' Revenge (a white pie with spinach, black and green olives, feta, red onions and tomatoes) is the first pizza I've ever eaten that I'd describe as refreshing -- abundant with fresh yet subtle flavor. The Green Lantern (red sauce, mozzarella, garlic, mushrooms, goat cheese, artichokes and pesto) is near-decadent thanks to those last three luscious toppings, while the Bronx Bomber (red sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, onions, green peppers and black olives) really does recall salty, street-food pizza from the Boogie-Down. For a real case of the meat sweats, though, Dewey's offers this winter's "seasonal pizza," the Don Corleone: Stacked high with full deli slices of capicola, salami and pepperoni, the Don is an embarrassment to every one of those chain "meat lover's" pizzas. Compared to the Don Corleone, those pizzas look like they're sprinkled with dog kibble. (By the way, Dewey's gets its sausage and prosciutto from Hill institutions DiGregorio's and Volpi, respectively.) There's even a pizza that tastes more like a burrito: the Southwest BBQ Chicken, unique for its smoked Cheddar and mozzarella blend and its black-bean-and-corn-salsa topping.
Besides pizza, Dewey's makes only salads and calzones. (A trio of cakes for dessert -- usually carrot, chocolate and cheese -- comes from Cravings in Webster Groves and/or Hank's Cheesecake in Richmond Heights.) It's crazy how much lip service is paid -- both by staff and customers -- to Dewey's five oversize signature salads, but it's also right-on. Each begins on beds of top-quality field greens and/or romaine, which then are studded with offbeat ingredients like pine nuts, dried cranberries, whole garlic cloves and candied walnuts, dressed up with a bit of cheese (goat, Parmesan, feta or Gorgonzola) and coated with a house-made dressing. The wholly nontraditional Greek salad was my favorite, treated with a roasted red-pepper glaze that boasted pitch-perfect spiciness and a quartet of fat and delicious cucumber slices arrayed along the plate's edge. I was less taken by the peppercorn ranch salad: pleasant but boring, as might be expected when a salad is named after its dressing.
With so much hoopla surrounding the pizzas and salads, the calzone gets short shrift. Usually a calzone is a cheesy-goopy gluttonous good time, but Dewey's calzones are much more refined than that. That's mostly because there's much more mozzarella than ricotta stuffed inside (I'd actually like to see a bit more ricotta in there), and also because each can be filled with up to three pizza-topping ingredients. When I asked for tomatoes, I was offered a choice of sliced or diced. When I asked for mushrooms, I was offered a choice of button mushrooms or an oyster-shiitake-portobello blend. Talk about sophisticated.
Speaking of sophisticated, forget the old stereotype of teenage kids slinging pies as a part-time job. Dewey's must raid the staff at local bookstores to find its help. These are the smartest, most mature, most self-assured, most bookish-cute waiters and waitresses I've ever seen at a pizza joint. Servers aren't assigned sections or tables at Dewey's; customers are considered communal, so three or four people may take care of your table during the course of a meal, which results in some mighty attentive service.
When DeWitt opened his first Dewey's, he anticipated a heavy delivery business. But customers were so taken by the restaurant's cozy, one-room atmosphere that it quickly became known as a sit-down pizzeria. The company has never let that image lapse. All of its operations top out at under two dozen tables, always in one room. There's a cubby-size bar near the entrance in Kirkwood where grown-ups wait for a table on weekends (beware: they don't take reservations, and on Friday and Saturday nights waits can reach an hour). Children can happily pass the time watching the pizza guys through the kitchen's windows.
Dewey's had an opportunity to open up down the street from where they are, in the brand-new condo and retail development Station Plaza. But, says Justice, "We never would have signed on to go into that spot. We want to be in the older, established neighborhoods. We want the place to look good, and to have that certain energy when you walk in."
The clientele has responded, already treating Dewey's like a neighborhood place that's been around forever.