Last Updated on March 7, 2023 by Dave Farquhar
Few things in Missouri are more divisive then St Louis style pizza. From how you define it to who invented it to who copied who to even whether it qualifies as pizza at all is divisive. And the history behind it is surprisingly badly understood. So who invented St Louis style pizza, and when? What is the history of St. Louis style pizza?
Amedeo Fiore, proprietor of Melrose Pizzeria, served a prototypical thin-crust St. Louis style pizza starting around 1945, and created the market for pizza in St. Louis, in addition to probably deserving credit for inventing the style. Joe and Lou Parente, proprietors of Parente’s Pizza, were probably the first to use provel on pizza, sometime in the early to mid 1950s.
Who invented St Louis style pizza?
When was St Louis style pizza invented? For a city with such a huge and prominent Italian population, pizza appeared in St Louis surprisingly late. Pizza appeared in New York as early as 1906. And it’s possible that some people may have been making it at home much earlier, but the first documented pizzeria in St Louis was in 1945 or 1946.
The godfather of St. Louis style pizza was named Amedeo Fiore, and he ran a small Italian restaurant with his wife Elizabeth in the basement of an apartment building. He was the son of Italian immigrants, and moved to St Louis from Chicago. Yes, a Chicago transplant had a key role in the invention of St Louis style pizza. Heresy, I know.
Their restaurant was called the Melrose Pizzeria, because it was in the basement of the Melrose apartments at 204 North Sarah Avenue in the Central West End. If that sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because the legendary Rossino’s opened at that same location about a decade later. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
The the pizza that Melrose served does not quite fit the modern definition of St Louis style pizza, but it is recognizable. It featured a thinner than usual crust and was cut into squares, party style. It did not use the controversial provel. Melrose also didn’t use the now-typical mozzarella, opting instead for provolone.
This gives purists something to argue about. One could argue, perhaps, that Fiore did not invent St Louis style pizza. One could also argue that the critical elements were all there, and provel is not a requirement. Not every pizzeria in St Louis uses it today, and they didn’t all use it from the very beginning.
The other change from modern St. Louis style pizza is Melrose used yeast in its dough. Modern St. Louis style crust is frequently without yeast. Yeast makes the dough a bit airier and less cracker-like.
But there’s more to the story. Quite a bit happened between 1945 and 1964. I’ll get to the significance of 1964 in a bit.
Creating a market
According to legend, Melrose became a pizzeria because visitors from out of town staying at the Chase hotel (now the Chase Park Plaza) wanted pizza and thought it was strange that St Louis didn’t have it. The origin story is that Melrose started making the dish by request.
This was where Amedeo Fiore found his calling. Before getting into the restaurant business, he had changed careers at least three times, going from talk radio to selling cars to working at Emerson Electric to finishing basements. With this opportunity, he showed a tremendous gift for entrepreneurship. He recognized he had a product with a great deal of potential. He recognized that it had a potentially much larger market than hotel guests. But he recognized he would need to cultivate that market in order to really capitalize on it. Early articles in the newspapers about pizza spoke of the attitude that Germans eat German food, like the Bavarian Inn. He needed to get that population, which is substantial in St. Louis, to give his non-German dish a try.
That’s what he did. He advertised heavily, talking about this new and different dish that not a lot of people knew about. He explained in his ads how to pronounce it, and even how to pronounce pizzeria. And in 1947, he agreed to be featured in a newspaper article that detailed how to make this dish. Whether he solicited this article or it was someone else’s idea is lost to history. But he appeared in five photographs detailing various processes of making the dish, and clearly not under duress.
He seemed to recognize that to grow the market, he needed to not try to own it. He seemed to recognize that being the only person in St Louis who knew how to make it was a liability, not an advantage.
The exact blend of spices and his exact dough recipe were not in the article. But there was enough that someone could make it at home. There was also enough that someone else could start making it in their own restaurant.
Melrose soon outgrew the confines of the small basement restaurant. They moved about two and a half miles away, to the intersection of Easton (now Dr Martin Luther King Drive) and Kingshighway, to a location more than twice the size of what he had before. They advertised themselves as the original Neapolitan style pizza.
This in itself would be interesting to a modern-day St. Louisian. The Delmar Divide wasn’t the showstopper then that it is now. The biggest, most popular pizzeria started on one side of the divide, and moved onto the other side. But the new location was a straight shot north on Kingshighway from the Chase hotel. They soon opened a second location at 5910 Natural Bridge Road, and within a few years, consolidated operations to the newer location.
What they did after he moved is interesting. They sold the original location to two former employees, the Parente brothers, who turned right around and started competing with them.
But before we talk about them, Melrose eventually had two locations, and when Amadeo Fiore retired in 1970, Amadeo Jr. carried on the business. Melrose, the original pizza in St. Louis, remained until 1977. The elder Fiore died in 1987, just short of his 84th birthday, and Elizabeth died six months later.
The Parente Brothers took over the apartment basement restaurant at the Melrose, operating a pizzeria at the location for a few years before selling it to Rossino’s, the legendary Italian restaurant with a connection to dozens of other St. Louis Italian restaurants, many of them still running.
The Parentes operated various pizzerias throughout St Louis over the course of nearly 40 years, sometimes together, sometimes on their own. Joe preferred to work the kitchen, and Lou preferred to work the front. By some accounts, the two of them didn’t always get along.
But both on their own and working together, they had a good run, with city and suburban locations, selling what was by most accounts a pretty close clone of Amedeo Fiore’s invention. Parente’s became popular with entertainers playing at the Chase, which helped them get the occasional mention from Bob Goddard, the gossip columnist for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Lou Parente opened his final pizzeria in 1983, so he remained part of the St. Louis pizza scene into the 1980s. The Parentes advertised that they used cheese imported from Italy (the exact variety is unclear), and they experimented with some toppings we would find odd today, including turkey. But what they served is recognizable today, with a thin crust, square cut, and mostly traditional toppings.
One of their early employees at the location on North Sarah was their cousin Luigi Meglio. Luigi’s mother wanted better for him, and told him that if his cousins could make a go of running a restaurant, so could he. So she mortgaged her house to get the funding for him to open his own restaurant on Watson road in South St Louis.
The Parentes may have been the first to use provel on pizza. Although some credit Luigi’s with being the first, in Luigi Meglio’s obituary, his brother Tony said the Parente brothers did it first.
Luigi’s: Pivotal in the history of St. Louis style pizza
Luigi’s opened in about 1953, and quickly proved successful. It’s soon employed the entire family, and within a few years, they had four locations, with a different sibling managing each location. Luigi’s may have also been the first to offer frozen St. Louis-style pizza on the St. Louis market.
Accusations of theft run throughout the St. Louis style pizza scene, and that tradition started with Luigi’s and Parente’s. It didn’t start in the 1980s with the rivalry between Cecil Whittaker’s and Imo’s.
Also, the local St Louis Italian restaurant scene is a tangled web. The owners of Rossino’s estimated they employed the future owners of 35 other local restaurants at one time or another. And they were related to most of them. It’s also been observed that the old St. Louis bakeries had startlingly similar recipes.
Even if the pizza itself wasn’t exactly original, Luigi’s innovated in other ways. They switched to square pans instead of round, which other pizzerias sometimes adopted. Square pans were a matter of practicality because they fit better on square tables. Like Parente’s, they offered some strange toppings, but their strange toppings were among those that caught on, like pineapple and ham.
If more people remember Luigi’s than Parente’s today, it’s probably because Luigi’s had more locations and stability. The Parente brothers tended to open a restaurant, then close it after a few years and reopen in another location. Luigi’s had one location in the city and three locations in the suburbs that all stayed open for longer durations than the typical Parente’s venture. It also didn’t hurt that Luigi’s teamed up with another bygone St. Louis institution, Central Hardware, to run a promotion giving a free dinner at Luigi’s with the purchase of a large appliance.
Luigi’s younger brother Frank was shot on January 2nd, 1977 as he was attempting to make the night deposit at a nearby bank. Luigi wound down his operations, because he didn’t want his daughters to get into the business and have something similar happen to them. By 1981, all four locations were closed, and Luigi took on a second career as a real estate developer before he retired. One of his daughters followed him into real estate and became a prominent real estate agent.
Luigi’s disappeared from the scene in 1981, but left an indelible mark on St Louis. The original Luigi’s location at 3123 Watson Road is still an operating restaurant, LoRusso’s Cucina.
Meglio’s Italian Grill and Bar
Luigi’s had a bit of a revival from 2008 to 2015. John Meglio, Luigi’s grandson, operated Meglio’s Italian Grill and Bar, a restaurant in Hazelwood following the Luigi’s formula, including serving the original pizza recipe. The restaurant was featured on the reality TV series Restaurant Impossible in 2011 and 2012.
The format was closer to Luigi’s, offering pizza along with other Italian food, but having the claim to Luigi’s original recipe dating back to the 1950s was the draw.
Other mid-century contenders
There were dozens of imitators that sprung up throughout the metro area in the 1950s, many of whom have come and gone. Some grew into small chains, while others were just neighborhood pizza joints.
A few holdouts had long runs into the current century. I am familiar with two of them just south of the city, in the Lemay area: Cusanelli’s and Monte Bello. Monte Bello dates to 1950, while Cusanelli’s dates to 1954. Both of their pizzas more closely resembled Melrose than modern-day Imo’s, using provolone or a provolone-mozzarella blend.
Even when you write 3,100 words, you’re going to leave someone out. But I would be remiss to not mention Talayna’s. The landmark Talayna’s on Skinker closed in 1998, as have many of the satellite locations that existed over the years. But two locations remain, in St. Charles and Chesterfield. Talayna’s always served more than one type of pizza, but a St. Louis-style pizza was one of them. Mike “Talayna” Faille was the brother of one of the owners of Rossino’s. After learning the trade at Rossino’s, he opened his first pizzeria in 1966.
What makes St. Louis style pizza different?
Several things set St. Louis style pizza apart from say, Detroit, Chicago, or New York. It starts with the crust. St. Louis has a much thinner, almost cracker-like crust. When poorly executed, it can resemble a saltine. The pizza can be round or square, though round is more common. And whether the pizza itself is round or square, St. Louis style pizza is cut into squares. The stiff crust lends itself better to squares than to wedges.
And then there’s the controversial provel. Some people insist provel is a requirement for true St. Louis style pizza, while others say it’s optional. Provel is a processed blend, consisting of some combination of swiss, cheddar, and provolone, and it doesn’t taste like any of them. I think it tastes like plastic. You either love it or hate it. And I know native St. Louisans on both sides of that divide, as well as transplants. My wife and I are both transplants. She likes it and I don’t. We have one son who likes it and one son who doesn’t.
I think whether you require provel is an age thing. Gen Xers and older can probably remember St. Louis style pizza that didn’t use it. But if you were born much after 1983, Imo’s may be all you remember.
Today, the Imo’s name is practically synonymous with St. Louis style pizza, and they claim to be the original. They are not. Popular and long running, yes. But not the original.
Founded by Ed and Margie Imo in a tiny storefront in 1964 and running on inexpensive secondhand equipment, they offered something very close to Luigi’s, but without the sitdown service. When it started, Imo’s was strictly takeout or delivery. Delivering pizza was still a new and strange idea in 1964, but it caught on.
The major changes Imo’s made were an emphasis on takeout and delivery, and specializing in pizza. It was all borne out of necessity. As tiny as that first incarnation of Melrose Pizzeria was, the first Imo’s location made it look cavernous. Arguably, Melrose, Parente’s, and Luigi’s were full-blown Italian restaurants, offering a full menu and bar in addition to pizza. Going there was more like going to Rich and Charlie’s than going out to an Imo’s location with table service. Imo’s has expanded its offerings over the years, and now offers pastas and some locations have beer, but you still can’t get a steak there.
But when it comes to the pizza? Nothing innovative there. It was basically a Luigi’s pizza baked in a round pan, with the most popular toppings: mushroom, onion, green pepper, sausage, bacon, pepperoni and hamburger. With no sit-down service, square pans offered no benefit. Cynics point out that round pizzas are more profitable, since the surface area is smaller.
The square? Imo’s says it must be because Ed Imo had tile on his mind. But their predecessors in St. Louis style pizza history had been cutting their pizzas square for 18 years already.
But by franchising the operation, the Imo family could grow Imo’s into a regional chain, more so than their predecessors. While most of the precedessors peaked at four or five locations, Imo’s now has about 100 locations, many of them outside the St. Louis metro area, giving it more reach than Pantera’s had at its peak.
It’s either your favorite pizza or least favorite, with little middle ground. But it’s a well run business.
Smaller chains: Cecil Whittaker’s, Elicia’s, St. Louis Pizza and Wings
Founded in 1983, Cecil Whittaker’s serves a similar pizza to Imo’s. Thin crust, provel, round shape cut into squares. Like Imo’s, some smaller locations offer only takeout and delivery, while the larger suburban locations have sit-down table service and serve beer. At 25 locations, it is the second largest St. Louis-style chain.
Elicia’s is a small chain, founded in 1981, tweaking Imo’s formula with the thin crust, round shape cut into squares, and provel by mixing it half and half with mozzarella, with emphasis on takeout and delivery. Elicia’s once had six locations, but is now down to three.
St. Louis Pizza and Wings, as the name suggests, specializes in pizza and buffalo wings. Founded in 2003, it has six locations, and, if you haven’t guessed, has a thin crust pizza, provel, and the ubiquitous round shape cut into squares.
And there’s the occasional local shop that follows a similar formula, maybe a nearly identical copy of one of the above. They could be a former franchise that went independent, or someone who cloned a recipe.
For some, provel is a requirement. I’ve heard some people say they won’t eat pizza without provel within 120 miles of St. Louis. I shrug. If people want to miss out, I guess that’s their prerogative. The original St. Louis style pizza predated the invention of provel, and there are plenty of places within 120 miles of St. Louis that make a good traditional pizza. Shakespeare’s in Columbia is a good example.
Fortel’s is an example of a St. Louis style pizza that uses mozzarella. It has the thin crust and square cut, but features mozzarella instead of the controversial provel, as well as fresher ingredients.
Black Thorn pizzeria is an example of a more traditional pizza, with a hand tossed crust that actually has some yeast in it, mozzarella, quality toppings, and a distinctive spicy sauce.
If you encounter some other locally owned place, don’t assume just because I haven’t mentioned it, it’s not any good. It’s more likely to be good than bad. It may or may not use provel, so it’s worth asking. But if they don’t, that shouldn’t be an automatic pass. It could be a throwback to old style St. Louis pizza, before Imo’s crowded out all of the other possible riffs on the Melrose formula. It could be something completely different, and still good.