As someone who grew up in California, pizza has always fascinated me. While “California Style Pizza” is a thing, in a Wolfgang Puck-bastardized way, I never grew up eating the stuff. My dad, who lived in New Jersey for a good portion of his life, was a “New York Pizza” kind of guy which meant yeast-y and fold-able crusts and traditional toppings like Pepperoni and Italian Sausage. I didn’t complain. It could have been Domino’s for all I cared: pizza was pizza, and it was something to get excited for on a Friday or Saturday night.
However, in my migration to the Midwest, I have discovered different kinds of regional pizza varieties that have grown my affinity toward the Italian-American dish. I do enjoy a good “Neapolitan-Style” pie, as Il Lazzarone does it the best in KC, (however, the best in my experience came from Venturi in Goshen, Indiana, which is actually a “certified Neapolitan-style” pizzeria, the equivalent of a Michelin star in “Neapolitan-style” pizza circles). That being said, it has been the various Midwest varieties that have captured my interest over the past 9-10 years in the Midwest, which range from “Detroit-style” (Providence Pizza in Parlor in the Crossroads in KC does it well), to Quad Cities-style (have yet to find a place that does that in KC), to both Chicago-style varieties. Yes, people will know Chicago for the Deep Dish, and I enjoy a good Giordano’s or Lou Malnati’s pie that you should eat with a fork, but I do tend to prefer the Chicago-style “tavern cut”, which is a thin crust pizza cut in squares and often found in bars on the South Side of Chicago, such as “Vito and Nick’s” (hence, the “tavern cut” style).
The “tavern cut” style of pizza epitomizes what Midwest pizza should be: simple, shareable, and paired with cheap, domestic beer in a dank, dive bar that probably could serve as the setting of a season 2 episode of “The Wire.” The square cut not only allows more pieces to be enjoyed, but it serves as the ultimate snack with friends over drafts or cans of “Hamms” and “Old Style” as well as cheap mixed drinks, such as a “7 and 7” or “Beam and Coke” on a Friday happy hour or late weekend evening. I’m not saying the Midwest doesn’t do other pizza varieties well, but to me, in the Midwest, pizza seems to be a dish that fits more as a “bar dish” rather than an “after bars” by-the-slice delicacy, as is more common in East Coast cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
After all, the stereotype of the Midwest denizen is being “neighborly” and “friendly” and what represents that disposition best than pizza cut into small squares that can be enjoyed by multiple constituents at a tall, tavern table.
However, while the Chicago “tavern cut” style may epitomize the Midwest version of pizza, it is not the best “tavern cut” variety. That actually belongs to “St. Louis Style” pizza, which slightly outdoes its Chicago counterpart, a statement that probably would make Windy City natives’, and perhaps even KC ones, blood boil in anger.
“I don’t like anything about St. Louis…except the pizza.”
A friend of mine who is from Kansas City, but went to college in St. Louis at SLU said this to me over drinks at our favorite establishment in KC, Breits. He played hockey at SLU and I found it surprising, mostly because KC does not have a NHL team anymore (RIP Scouts) and I figured since he went to college there, he would have embraced the Blues. However, he shared a strong disdain for the Blues as well as the Cardinals and Budweiser and InBev products in general. In many ways, his attitude toward the Eastern Missouri city did not surprise, as many KC folks I have encountered in my time living in Kansas City share his disdain for everything St. Louis.
And to be honest, I understood where he came from. I like the Blues more than he does, but I share his strong dislike for the Cardinals, though I respect their “baseball-centric” focus as a city, and their contributions to the game of baseball (I mean they did pretty much invent the modern day Minor League farm system, after all). While the downtown area of St. Louis is underrated and great to visit, it doesn’t feel like a happening area outside of the weekends, and the whole metro does feel a bit more segregated than KC, which is saying something since KC still has a long ways to go in this department.
Yet, St. Louis-style pizza is just something I have become enamored, if not obsessed with over the past couple of years.
And nobody does it better in KC than Waldo Pizza, which is located near 75th St. in KCMO.
Now, I know Imo’s is the OG “St. Louis-style” pizzeria in the STL, and there still is a location in Overland Park (there used to be one in Westport, but unfortunately they shut that down because the Midtown KC “Cerner employee” crowd didn’t dig it after their tray nights at Harpo’s). But I don’t live near Overland Park (and hopefully never will) and honestly, Waldo puts a KC-spin on an Eastern Missouri classic.
For those who aren’t familiar, St. Louis-style pizza is pretty much a “frozen pizza” on steroids. Yes, I know that doesn’t sound appetizing, but the synergy of the components of a STL pie put it head and shoulders above a “Red Baron” or “Totino’s” variety. The Provel cheese is a unique cheese blend specific to St. Louis that has a robust “melting” quality that makes it easier to chew through than the typical “mozzarella” blend. The paper thin crust is crisp and cracker-like, amplified when cooked well done in a hot pizza oven. And the toppings are delicately scattered on the pie, all the way to the edges, so that every bite has a morsel of cheese, sauce (which is slightly sweeter than most), and toppings. The sign of a good STL square slice is that you can hold it up, and it will stay erect and not limp when in your hand (and yes, I know all the jokes that will ensue, so have at it). If you want more information about St. Louis specialty, you can watch more about it in the Zagat video below:
Waldo epitomizes that style of pizza and then some. While I have had Waldo’s pies before, their STL style had escaped me mostly because I had never ordered Waldo’s personally, and I am sure their STL bias probably had seeped in when it came to ordering from Waldo. While I didn’t order this time, the girl I was on a date with insisted we order their STL-style, and we enjoyed it together in an isolated park, about the only thing we could do dating wise in this time of COVID (I wonder what Gabriel Garcia Marquez would write about during this time).
She ordered two STL-style dishes: an all-meat STL-style pizza, and their cheese crust, which utilized the thin-style crust of a STL pie (all that was missing was toasted ravioli and Budweiser beer). Both socked the taste buds in immensely positive fashion. The pizza held firm in my hand and was loaded uniformly with toppings in the right fashion: enough to provide succulent bites, but not too much to overwhelm the structural stability of the square slice. The cheese isn’t a pure Provel blend, which actually worked to its advantage and gave Waldo it’s own KC-spin on the STL classic. It had the “melting” quality of Provel, but it wasn’t like “cheese sauce”, which can happen with some STL pizzas, as has been the case in my Imo experience. There was a nice, sharp balance in the cheese that was able to improve upon the typical Provel blend, while still keep the spirit of Provel that makes STL pizza unique as well as delicious.
Thanks to COVID, we were not able to enjoy our STL-style pizzas indoors in a bar over a draft of Bud Light. However, Waldo Pizza has that dive-bar-ish vibe indoor dining area that lends well to that STL-Style, if not Midwest-style overall, pizza ambiance. Waldo’s STL pie would be perfect over domestic beer pitchers, while sitting with a group of friends in a round booth table, watching baseball on a mounted television above the bar. A Cardinals-Royals contest playing on the tube, either at Kauffman or Busch Stadium, would result in the ultimate Waldo Pizza dining experience.
I understand Kansas City’s rivalry with St. Louis, not just on the baseball diamond, but with everything. Multiple pieces have analyzed this Missouri-based disdain in great detail as well as context. However, while I’m not suggesting that the Royals should gravitate toward their National League rivals just yet (or honestly, ever), STL-style pizza is something that should be more embraced and enjoyed on the Western Side of Missouri.
Or even on the Eastern Side of Kansas…though I do know that may be a taller order due to the Kansas-Missouri divide.
If you live in Kansas and are enjoying STL-style pie from Waldo Pizza, just order a pitcher of Miller Lite or Coors Light instead and that will make you feel better about the decision.