Is this the first public view of the closed tavern above St. Louis’s oldest pizzeria in over 40 years? It very likely is. This past weekend, I was beyond honored to get a quick tour of this long-hidden world from Dennis Buechel, who, along with his wife, Tonya, owns Monte Bello Pizzeria in Lemay. He’s been working extra hours to restore the space, bar and all, as a waiting area for the beloved basement institution. Dennis plans some impressive changes but promises these murals—products of the same artist who painted those that grace the walls of the restaurant—will remain untouched and fully intact. Finally, these beautiful, forgotten treasures are ready to be enjoyed again after all these years.
At Faraci’s, our stop a few weeks ago, rectangular, square-cut, Provel-topped pizzas are the specialty. There are a few strong competitors for this North County style (Pirrone’s, Angelo’s, the Faraci’s in Ellisville, Fratelli’s, Hobo’s), but this might be our favorite version.
BJ’s in Florissant is a classic. Last weekend, we headed northward from South City to this North County bar with a small takeout counter because we wanted a real St. Louis pizza. Perfect, crispy homemade crust, lots of mozzarella (no Provel), and huge chunks of sausage. The deluxe with shrimp is massive. The wait can be long, but for what you get, it’s incredibly cheap. One of our favorites.
If there is an intact example of early 20th Century suburban ideal in St. Louis, Bel-Nor, home to Breakaway Cafe, may be it. Like the nearby by Pasadena Hills, the heart of the community is a gorgeous 1930s subdivision with curving streets, mature trees, and large brick homes. Bordered largely by the Normandie Golf Club and UMSL, has always been middle class, but today, unlike during its first few decades of existence, the community of 1,500 people is remarkably racially diverse. Other St. Louis County municipalities bordering Bel-Nor include the tiny Bellerive just across Natural Bridge, the larger Normandy to the east, and, situated to the west of the busy Hanley Road, working-class Bel-Ridge, almost a world away.
Breakaway Cafe, our destination for a lunch in March 2019, occupies a small mansarded structure at the end a few commercial storefronts in the 8400 block of Natural Bridge Road. Spiro’s held down the eastern end of the block for four decades before closing in late 2015. Aside from a salon to the east and a rug store just to the west, economic activity in the immediate area is sparse, giving the area a very quiet feeling, as if something once there is now missing. Highlighting the randomness and multitude of North County municipalities, the Bel-Nor city hall and police department is located in a small building directly behind Breakaway, where the spacious 1930s brick homes of Bel-Nor are visible just beyond parked squad cars. On top of that, during our visit we saw signs for the re-election campaign of Matt’s brother for mayor not of Bel-Nor but for Pasadena Hills, a small community just a couple of miles away.
Just down the street from the University of Missouri - St. Louis campus in north suburban Bel-Nor, Breakaway Cafe has been a destination for students, staff, and local residents for over three decades. The small building on Natural Bridge Road housed a pizzeria in the 1970s, then was the home of Riddle’s Restaurant (precursor to Riddle’s Penultimate in the Loop) from 1980 to 1985. Going through several owners and even a brief closure in late 2018 (Matt Quinlisk, general manager of the Olivette Sugarfire and lifelong Normandy resident, reopened the restaurant to joy of its fans just a month before our March 2019 visit), Breakaway has outlasted the beloved Spiro’s to become perhaps the only sit down restaurant in the immediate area. To highlight this fact, a month after our visit Quinlisk would even hire kitchen and wait staff from the Goody Goody Diner—the iconic North City institution located nearly eight miles away on Natural Bridge—after that restaurant suffered a devastating fire. Breakway’s menu focuses mainly on cafe fare such as sandwiches, pasta, and fried food, but the pizza is a pretty good standard thin crust topped with Provel.
Finally writing about our quick trip to Springfield a few weeks ago warrants a dip deep into the Pizza Hounds archives to shine light on our long-forgotten visit to yet another landmark pizzeria in that city. Ernie and I pulled up into the Gabatoni's parking lot late on a Friday night in February 2015 when we were in the first stages of our official move from Chicago to St. Louis. We by then realized that it was time to look the rest of the Midwest for great pizzerias, so Gabatoni's, one of the oldest pizza shops in Central Illinois, was a perfect stop. Johnny and Rosemary Lynn opened Gabatoni's at 300 Washington in 1951, and they moved the pizzeria about a mile and a half south to the current location on Laurel Street in 1959. Just as it was back then, our pizza was thin, crispy, and cut in squares, making it a perfect connection between the traditions of our old city and our new home. The pictures aren't great, but they're all we have to document that night.
At Pirrone's, you get a perfect example of a North County-style pizza. The origins of this pizza are a little unclear to us, and some more oral history research needs to be done, but we have the rough outline. Luigi's in South City may have been the first to sell a rectangular Provel-covered, square-cut pizza in metal tray, but Rose Ponticello, via now-closed institutions Ponticello's and (Ponticello's) Halls Ferry Inn, did much to develop the style today associated mostly with north St. Louis County. From Ponticello's, the style spread to other pizzerias--and direct familial forebearers to Pirrone's--such as Saullo's (famously occupying a storefront in a tiny Spanish Lake strip mall for decades, but originally located in North City building previously home to the original Ponticello's) and Angelo's (run by Tony Pirrone's parents) in Black Jack. A similar, though subtly different, style is produced by beloved northwest St. Louis County mainstays Nick & Elena's and Serra's. Through it all, North County-style pizza has outlasted the onslaught mounted by the Florissant-born and one-time behemoth Pantera's, the spread of the South Side-born Imo's, and the typical national chains. Most notably, it has also survived the white flight that North County has experienced over the last few decades, all the while curiously reflecting it. Ponticello's and Halls Ferry in closed just a few years ago, but the big three--Angelo's, Faraci's, and especially Pirrone's--appear to be holding on and at times seem to be thriving. The Faraci family opened a pizzeria on the traffic-clogged Manchester Road in West County in the '90s. Fratelli's (originally in Dellwood) and Stefanina's took the style out to St. Charles County. Hobo's in St. Peters sells a great version (one directly connected to Halls Ferry Inn), and there's even a Pirrone's out there now, too. We'll always much prefer making the drive to get this pizza in the North County homeland, though.
As usual, we're incredibly behind with posting our adventures (weeks, months, and in some cases years). There are so many pizza places to talk about, but it's not a bad idea to keep up with the most recent stops. A couple of weeks ago--for the first time in nearly a year--we visited Pirrone's Pizzeria, a Florissant institution that has been creating some of the best thin crust, Provel-covered pizzas in the world for over four decades.
The Cozy Dog Drive In's first-in-the-world claim to the corn dog is convincingly disputed by some, but that doesn't matter to us one bit. This place is pure Americana. The layers of time and the stories of the thousands of visitors over the decades are what really matter here. Devoted longtime customers are honored on the walls, as are near-forgotten music groups who passed through at one time, arguably never reaching and sustaining the fame that the Cozy promised to offer. Route 66, portrayed beautifully in the artwork of Bob Waldmire, son of Ed and Virginia Waldmire, plays a big role here, too. You'll never forget your proximity to the Mother Road. And just like throughout much of Springfield, Abraham Lincoln's ghost proudly looms. But the kitsch, as it does in many roadside stops, never once overwhelms the heartwarming fun. We couldn't help but smile the whole time we waited for our Cozy Dogs and fries.
When visiting Springfield, Illinois in March 2109, it was impossible for us to skip the birthplace of the hot dog on a stick (or the corndog, as the world knows it), the Cozy Dog Drive In. After a developmental period, Air Force veteran Ed Waldmire, using a batter recipe developed by buddy Bob Strand, started this Route 66 landmark in the late 1940s. "Crusty curs," as they were originally called, had been huge hits at Lake Springfield Beach House and the state fair, leading to a dedicated stand (at one time sharing a space with a Dairy Queen) selling the rechristened "cozy dogs." Today, the business is still in the family, run by Ed's grandson, using the original recipe Ed used in the early days. Here, at a new location, they make cozy dogs with the same frying racks they used in the 1960s.
Mel-O-Cream, the Springfield doughnut classic for nearly a century, was the bonus stop that wasn't during our quick trip to the city in March 2019. There are four independently-owned locations in the city and one in Lincoln, Illinois. This location, just a couple of blocks west of Sam's Italian Pizza, closed around noon, so we were just a little late. Mel-O-Cream is also a major baker and distributor of doughnuts to other stores in the region, with a large facility also located in Springfield that was founded by Kelly Grant, Sr. Grant bought a local franchise of the doughnut shop in 1932 and quickly moved into the wholesale business. His son, Kelly Grant, Jr., ran Mel-O-Cream International until the 2010s. We cannot wait to try it the next time we are in town for pizza.
The thin, but not too thin pie-cut pizza at Sam's comes from the same family recipe that founder Sam Pensabene used when he opened the business over four decades ago, but we've definitely had pizza like this before. We're not exactly sure who owns the business now (even though we spoke to a nice worker), but online evidence suggests it is Gianni Vitale. There's a Gianni Vitale who owns Gianni's Pizza in Pittsfield and who is related to Benadetto Vitale of Benny's Pizza in Beardstown, so it's likely the same person owns (or at least used to own) Sam's. The decades-old Benny's inspired Roma's in Bethalto, which in turn helped create Cavataio's in Staunton, Illinois and Salvatore's in St. Charles, Missouri. Those pizzas are remarkably similar to the pizza at Sam's. The recipes may have been born separately, but it is undeniable that they share most traits. The prevalence of this type of pizza might suggest the needed recognition of a style unique to downstate Illinois.