You can count on one hand -- and perhaps three fingers of another -- the number of places in St. Louis to get a really good pizza. Nothing starts an argument faster than who has the best pizza in town -- not even the Cardinals' pitching lineup or the Rams quarterback controversy. But a truly superb pizza -- meaning one not meant just to fill the gullet when nothing else is available -- must fulfill basic requirements: The dough and sauce should be freshly prepared, the cheese should be real and the pie should be baked in a brick or stone oven. Those criteria, of course, exclude most big chains, those purveyors of cracker-thin crusts and goopy, napalmlike artificial cheese.
On the A-list of St. Louis pizzerias that hit the mark is the newly reopened Vito's, one of the few dining choices near Grand and Lindell, an area often packed with students, office workers and theatergoers.
The old Vito's -- a quaint, cramped downstairs restaurant popular for quick meals and takeout -- fell victim to St. Louis University's continuing expansion in Midtown when the building that housed it was demolished. Fortunately, Vito's owners were able to strike a deal with SLU guaranteeing their new location for the next twenty years.
Vito LaFata III and brothers Gio and Marco, along with their mother, Caterina Maltese, designed a place that capitalizes on the old restaurant's popularity. The funky, cozy charm of the old Vito's is gone, but the expanded bar and dining room accommodate more patrons, ensuring that table waits are much shorter. The arched ceiling, with its painted blue sky and white clouds, adds a touch of whimsy.
The Vito's menu remains essentially the same -- a wide selection of pastas, sandwiches and five dinner entrées -- making it a good choice for a quick lunch or a relaxed, casual dinner. Mama Maltese is Sicilian, and it shows, not only in her thick accent but in her sauces. The farfalle al salmone featured nice chunks of grilled salmon in a sun-dried-tomato cream sauce served over farfalle (bowtie) pasta. It was a big serving with all the sunniness of Southern Italy. She makes her own red sauce, a beautiful melange of flavors reminiscent of what the Sicilian side of my family served each Sunday. The classic spiedini di carne was freshly made and flawless: thin-sliced top sirloin stuffed and rolled with flavorful bread crumbs, Fontinella cheese, salami and tomatoes. Spinach and carrots rounded out the plate. Word has it that the chicken Parmigiana is a high-ranked fave.
The appetizer list is large and varied, from the ubiquitous ho-hum toasted ravioli and spinach/artichoke dip to adventuresome dishes such as carpaccio, steamed mussels and Sicilian antipasto. There are seven salads, including a fresh-tasting caprese with red onion, fresh basil leaves, buffalo mozzarella, tomato and lettuce, served on a big plate. It was served too cold, though, right from the fridge; buffalo mozzarella should be served warmer to get the full, mild flavor. Come summer, when the outdoor café opens, this dish will burst with the flavor of ripe tomatoes and softened cheese. The carpaccio fared better for this time of year. The big platter of thin-sliced beef, marinated in olive oil, pepper and lemon could be combined with another salad or appetizer to form a meal. With some homemade bread (from the same dough used for the pizzas), the appetizer was a simple, flavorful delight, like most food of the home country.
It's those types of dishes and entrées that elevate Vito's a notch or two above your standard St. Louis pizza-and-pasta joint.
But it's the pizza that made Vito's a contender. Every pizzeria has a story behind its pizza, usually part truth, part revisionism. The Vito's pizza recipe traces its origins to New York City (where the first American pizza was served in 1905). Vito LaFata's father and mother ran a pizza joint in Gaslight Square in the 1960s called Pino's Pizza (a great photo of it hangs in the bar). The couple divorced in 1993, and Caterina opened another pizza place. She now runs Vito's with her sons and uses the same pizza recipe from the Pino's days (a brother-in-law uses a similar recipe for his reopened Pizza A-Go-Go restaurant).
All you care about, however, is that this pizza is worth the trip. It's neither brittle-thin like St. Louis-style nor seat-cushion thick like Chicago style; it's medium thick, with a crisper crust than those of most New York pizzas, meaning you can't roll up a big messy slice and let the grease run down your arm (do that at Racanelli's).
The mark of a superb pizza is the occasional crispy, burnt bubble on the crust. Those bubbles mean that the dough has been hand-formed and baked at a high temperature. And the sauce must be homemade, not some canned "pizza sauce," which is usually oversweetened and gummy, devoid of a straightforward tomato taste. Vito's also achieves that perfect sauce-to-cheese ratio; too many pizzas are overloaded with cheese, with only a dollop of sauce.
You can build your own pie or choose the Sicilian or house pie, which use the same sauce and crust as the base. Sicilian pies feature traditional topping combinations such as anchovy, capers, Fontinella cheese and bread crumbs; zucchini, red and yellow peppers, eggplant and goat cheese; or eggplant, ricotta and basil. One of the best and simplest is tomato and fresh basil. House pies include standard selections such as "meat-lover," the "'shroom pizza" and a veggie pizza. There are also fancy-shmancy nouveau pizzas such as chicken pesto, chicken and spinach and barbecue chicken.
A good sampler for our table was the Sicilian capricciosa (prosciutto, basil, tomato, portabella mushroom and mozzarella) and the House Vito's Super (Italian sausage, pepperoni, ham, black olives, red onion, mushrooms, green peppers and tomato). For a massively filling excursion into gluttony, the bread-thick Sicilian pie should do the trick: olive oil, a big helping of mozzarella and a special Sicilian sauce, served on a superthick crust. Eat that, Chicago!
Vito's could function quite well as a stand-alone bar, with six beers on tap (New Castle, Sierra Nevada, two Paulaners, Guinness and Michelob Light) and a decent wine list of eleven whites and eleven reds. Terrale is the house brand of red and white wines, both good values at just $16 a bottle. Four desserts round out the menu. Mama Maltese makes a wonderful cassata (sponge cake with fruit preserves), but during one visit she told us she had just gotten back from Florida and didn't have time to make it. A homemade cannoli -- fully packed with lightly sweetened riccota cheese and crushed pistachio nuts and drizzled with chocolate sauce -- was a good substitute.
Vito's is confident and doesn't strive to be something fancier than it is. The LaFatas know their clientele and focus on turning out a consistent, reasonably priced product, producing just about the best pizza in town.
You can count on that.