St. Louis secrets. I have no idea how many of you live in St. Louis or travel to St. Louis or have ever been here. I’m a St. Louis transplant, being a native of Kansas City. Toasted ravioli was odd. I learned to like it pretty quickly (for the unitiated, it’s ravioli that’s been battered and then deep-fried. In these health-conscious days, sometimes you can get it baked instead.)
St. Louis-style pizza, on the other hand… I tolerated it. But real pizza was from New York or Chicago. To get good pizza in St. Louis, you had to go to one of the places that specialized in one of the foreign styles. When I was in college, to get a decent pizza, my dad and I would go to Shakespeare’s, a little hole in the wall (well, now it’s a big hole in the wall) at 9th and Elm streets in Columbia, just on the edge of the MU campus. I remember once, my sophomore year, sitting there with my dad, and he looked off, whimsically in the distance. “I’m gonna miss this place.”

There wasn’t anything remotely like it in St. Louis. Ironically, their sausage and pepperoni was delivered fresh every day from St. Louis. St. Louis knows how to make this stuff–the Italian population here is huge, and the Italian restaurants in St. Louis are to die for–but Imo’s, the most famous place to get St. Louis-style pizza? Forget it. I’d rather stop at the grocery store and get a frozen pizza. Seriously. If you bake it on a baking stone, you’ll get a crisp crust that’s almost as thin, and bettter in every other way. The other big local chains are comparable.

So if you’re ever in St. Louis, skip Imo’s. Skip Cecil Whittaker’s and Elicia’s too. They’re better, but I have a hard time thinking they’re anything special.

I found out this weekend the place to go. It’s called Fortel’s Pizza Den. There are four or five locations, and they don’t advertise a whole lot. Gatermann and I paid it a visit at about 8:30 Saturday night. There were only a couple of emtpy tables when we got there, and when we left an hour later, people were still coming in about as fast as they were leaving. That tells you something. The toppings were extremely fresh, not to mention plentiful, and there was something special about the sauce. I’m not good enough at identifying spices to know what they did with it, but it’s absolutely a cut above anything the national chains like Domino’s and Papa John’s use. St. Louis knows how to make a red sauce, which you’ll know if you visit any of the Italian restaurants here. You wouldn’t know that from Imo’s or Cecil’s. You’ll know it from Fortel’s though.

So if you’re visiting a friend or relative in St. Louis and they want to show you Imo’s, show them Fortel’s instead.

I figured that to get a decent pizza joint in St. Louis, I’d have to open it myself. I’m glad I won’t have to do that now–the thought of owning a restaurant never really appealed to me. And now I don’t have to drive two hours to Shakespeare’s in Columbia to get a first-class pizza either.

Speaking of Italian restaurants, I recommend Zia’s on The Hill. There are pricier restaurants out there, but I’ve never found one that was better. Get a salad, and get their Italian dressing on it. Trust me, you’ll love it. Another hint: They sell it in grocery stores. You can stop at Schnucks or Dierbergs (the two biggest grocery chains here, both run by families who don’t know how to use apostrophes) and buy a case of it to take back with you. You’ll want to.

The Dierberg family is Lutheran. There are lots of Lutherans in St. Louis.

And if you want a goofy souvenir, stop in at Dirt Cheap Beer. There are dozens of convenient locations all around St. Louis. Pick up a six-pack of their house brand. It’ll set you back about $1.75. I won’t ruin your fun by describing the label on it. No, it’s not any classier than the word BEER in solid black block letters on a white can. But it’s a lot funnier. I’ve never been brave enough to drink any of it. One of my rules is to avoid all beer that costs less than Pepsi.

For frozen custard, there’s Ted Drewes on Chippewa. I think 3/4 of the appeal is the atmosphere and nostalgia. But it’s good. The place is always crowded, so I’m not the only one who likes it. Ted Drewes is Lutheran. He doesn’t know how to use apostrophes either. Maybe the Dierberg family taught him.

For the best deli sandwich in the world, there’s Amighetti’s on The Hill. For the second-best deli sandwich in the world, there’s Mom’s Deli on Chippewa. They’re both amazing. (I’m still mad about the Amighetti’s franchise in Crestwood, near where I work, closing. The sandwiches were to die for, and the girl who always worked the counter was really cute, too.) They know how to use apostrophes both places. Must be because they’re not Lutheran.

There’s another place I haven’t checked out yet, but I’ve been ordered to do so at some point. Up in north St. Louis, there’s a joint called Crown Candy. It’s a candy store (they make their own) with an authentic old-fashioned soda fountain. They serve food too, so you can get acceptable lunch fare on your pilgrimage. The milkshakes are supposed to be out of this world.

But if you want good barbecue in Missouri, you still have to go to Kansas City. And if you want good beer from Missouri, skip Anheuser-Busch’s products, which are as smooth as a gravel road. Get a Boulevard. That’s brewed in Kansas City, of course. (You can take Dave out of Kansas City, but you’ll never take the Kansas City out of Dave.)