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  • St. Louis natives bear a bizarre level of pride for everything especially their pizza.
By Joan Niesen
November 29, 2017

Several years ago, I flew to my hometown of St. Louis to write a profile of Jayson Tatum, then a junior in high school. Tatum was shy and soft-spoken and poised to be one of the top basketball recruits in the class of 2016. He was a lot like most teenage boys; he enjoyed hanging out with his friends and Instagram and his dog and pizza.

I added those details to the piece, with some added explanation to that final passion: Tatum loves Imo’s Pizza.

I didn’t find it noteworthy. I love Imo’s thin-crust masterpieces too. I didn’t know provel cheese was a novelty until I left St. Louis to attend Georgetown, where I also found the pizzas billed as thin crust to be lacking in, well, thinness. It was also at Georgetown, where I made several friends from my hometown, that I learned kids from St. Louis bear a bizarre level of pride for everything about our modest city. To the rest of the country, it’s this unremarkable Midwestern flyover with a bizarre metal arch that’s frankly more claustrophobia-inducing than it is awesome. To us, it’s Mecca. We leave, but eventually we return, because of frozen custard and toasted ravioli and humidity and the Cardinals… and Imo’s. We are indignantly, genuinely, parochially proud.

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And I know the rest of you don’t get it. You shrug and you make friends with the guy from Kansas City who isn’t quite so self-righteous about barbecue as we are about Imo’s. But the dogmatic approach of St. Louisans to St. Louis and its many wonders has had another consequence: It’s created a sense that everything we brag about it overrated.

In the case of Imo’s, that’s a travesty.

When Tatum mentioned St. Louis-style pizza as his favorite food before last year’s NBA draft, where he was picked third, the Internet was in an uproar. Half the critics of his choice had never heard of Imo’s, and the other half maligned the pizza for its cracker-thin crust and liberal helping of provel cheese. To the former: Congratulations on now being enlightened. To the latter: Bite your tongues; their taste buds do not work.

Since being drafted, Tatum has become both an official and unofficial Imo’s ambassador. (To be clear, the pizza chain isn’t the sole purveyor of St. Louis-style crust, but it’s the most iconic. My personal favorite is called Grassi’s.) He now has a commercial for the chain that airs locally, and he’s also been talking about Imo’s and its particular brand of pie to a national audience for the past six months. He is a hero. And he is right. Imo’s is a revelation.

Let’s start with the crust, which does bear a resemblance to a large piece of lavash. It’s flaky and about the depth of two tortillas, and yes, it is supposed to be that crispy. Not only is the crust light, it also allows diners to focus on what really matters: the toppings and the provel.

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Which brings us the part where I tell you all that I DO NOT CARE THAT PROVEL IS SOME SORT OF PROCESSED AMALGAMATION OF CHEESE. I do not care that there is no such thing as farm-to-table provel. It’s a blend of cheddar, Swiss and provolone cheese that tastes mildly smoky. Due to its low melting point, it’s almost gooey at room temperature, with a consistency on top of pizza that’s not far off from softened Brie. Provel was invented at a local grocer in the 1940s in conjunction with a Wisconsin dairy—which I think lends the cheese a level of respect that it frankly does not often get. At St. Louis-area stores, provel is sold in blocks that vaguely resemble brains; it comes in shoestring-width ropes that are smushed together into these blocks. And apart from being a world-class pizza topping, provel is delightful to eat by precisely peeling it, rope-by-rope, from its block—especially if you are a mildly obsessive eight-year-old.

And that’s the gist. Once cooked, Imo’s pizzas are cut into squares, which helps mitigate against the out-of-whack toppings-to-crust ratio. Its deluxe—sausage, mushroom, onion, green pepper, bacon and (of course) provel—is a foolproof choice, but you can’t go wrong with any of the toppings. I tend to order mine extra-crispy, and always with a side of toasted ravioli, a foodstuff that has a case to apply for status as the eighth wonder of the world.

Tatum’s career is off to a great start. He’s the Celtics’ third-leading scorer, and he’s shooting nearly 50% from the field. Tatum is very good at basketball. But he is even better at pizza.

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