An influx of readers from the St. Louis area have given me a handful of suggestions of places to try when I'm in St. Louis on business. One place that a couple people had suggested to me and I really wanted to try at some point is Pi - an upscale pizza restaurant with now three locations in the St. Louis area. I have a good friend, Tom Kakert, the editor of the popular Iowa Hawkeyes internet site - Hawkeye Report - who ate at Pi recently with his wife (a St. Louis native) and her family. He said the pizza was "excellent". While I was in St. Louis recently, I decided to try out Pi.
Chris Sommers is the man behind the Pi concept and sort of the "face of the company" (picture right courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch). He grew up living on St. Louis-thin crust style pizza, but fell in love with Chicago and San Francisco deep-dish style pizza as he got older. With a degree in finance, Sommers teamed with partners Frank Uible and Ryan Mangiarlardo to open a unique pizza restaurant in the St. Louis that focused not only on fresh ingredients and a unique crust for their pizza, but would also focus on a more "green" concept by heavy linen napkins, china plates and serving beer on tap. They made a concerted effort to reduce their environmental footprint in the restaurant. And even before the city voted to ban smoking in restaurants starting in 2011, Pi was smoke-free from the first day it opened.
The team found a location on Delmar near the Loop in University City in December of 2007 and set about to open their restaurant. The working title of the project was called "pi", sort of an inside joke since pizza is round and pi is a mathematical constant. Plus the rounded off numerical value of pi is 3.14 - the same area code of St. Louis.
Sommers, Mangiarlardo and Uible opened the door of their first Pi restaurant on Delmar (see map) on - you guessed it - 3.14.08. The place became an immediate hit with pizza lovers and critics alike. What helped make the pizza so flavorful was not only the fresh toppings and chunky tomato sauce, but the crust. Sommers fell in love the corn meal crust at Little Star Pizza in San Francisco. Sommers, Mangiarlardo and Uible bought the rights to bring the pizza crust to St. Louis.
Pi also made the national news during the presidential campaign in 2008. Barack Obama was in St. Louis and during a speech he raved about the virtues of a Pi pizza. Sommers had met Obama at a fund-raiser about a year earlier, then arranged for Obama to get some of their pizza before he made his campaign speech. Obama liked the pizza so much that he continued to rave about how good the pizza was even after he was elected President of the United States. He asked Sommers to come to Washington last spring to make pizza for Obama and his staff. Sommers, Mangiarlardo and pastry-maker Anne Schuermann flew to Washington and made 10 deep-dish and 10 thin crust pizzas in the White House kitchen for Obama and approximately 50 staff members.
This caused a fire storm in Obama's hometown of Chicago - the home of the deep dish pizza. Newspaper columnists and pizza owners in Chicago were outraged that Obama had a St. Louis deep-dish pizza restaurant come to Washington to make what is an icon in Chicago culinary circles. Sommers became embroiled in a little hot water himself as he had to fend off some criticisms of spending tax payer dollars to fly he and his small staff to Washington to make pizza. It turned out that Sommers and his crew flew to Washington on their own dime and didn't accept a penny for the pizzas. The storm blew over quickly, although I understand there's a simmering rivalry between some pizza afficiandos in St. Louis and Chicago as to who now has the best deep dish pizza.
With the notoriety of his Obama connection, along with the fact that it was a unique restaurant to St. Louis that served very good food, Pi opened a second location in Kirkwood on Manchester near Lindbergh (see map), and a new location in the trendy Central West End section of St. Louis. The Central West End location also features a coffee house that opens at 6 a.m. daily to serve gourmet coffees and upscale pastries.
I was staying near Forest Park one evening recently and I decided to go to the Central West End Pi for a small deep-dish pizza. The restaurant is located on the northeast corner of Euclid and McPherson (see map) and there's really only street parking near the place. There is a pay lot just up the street on Euclid that charges $4.00 for unlimited parking.
Pi was hopping with a number of Gen X to Gen Y people congregating around the spacious bar just inside the front door. I've heard that the wait to get into Pi was as much as 45 to 60 minutes some evenings. But tables were available around 8:30 p.m. on this visit. I was tempted to sit at the bar, but the host told me, "It's pretty loud around the bar. You may want to sit in the dining room." He took me to the dimly lit part of the restaurant and I picked out a small table near a light where I could read my St. Louis Post Dispatch. Quite honestly, it wasn't much quieter in the dining area.
The building Pi occupies most recently housed the Sapphire Pan Asian restaurant. They gutted the restaurant and gave it an old-time feel to the place with large wood beams, large windows that open to the street, and an upper floor area that works as an overflow cocktail area. No wonder it was so loud.
As I quickly perused the menu on the table, my waiter for the evening - Bob or Jim, I couldn't remember his name - came over to ask for my order. He looked at me and said, "Man, I envy you. You're gonna sit here and read the sports section and drink a beer. That's what I want to do."
I ordered a Budweiser - hey, when you're in St. Louis. But he informed me that they only served Schlafly or Bell's products on tap. I perked up and said, "Oh, well great! I'll have a Bell's pale ale!" I also ordered my pizza when he was there. I got a small (9") deep-dish sausage (they use natural Berkshire pork sausage, no fennel Italian sausage - a minor strike in my book), pepperoni and mushroom. He didn't write down the order, but I trusted him to remember.
That was a mistake.
Deep-dish pizzas take a while to bake, so about 25 minutes and a couple beers after I placed my order, a young lady brought my pizza to the table. She asked, "Bacon, pepperoni and mushroom, sir?"
I said, "Nnnnoooo, I had a sausage, pepperoni and mushroom."
She sort of looked at the pizza and said, "Let me take this back and check for sure."
My waiter came back about two minutes later and he apologized. "Sorry for the screw up. We're gonna make you another pizza as soon as possible." I didn't mind, actually. I wasn't in any large hurry, although I was kind of tired. But I figured for their screw up I was going to - at least - get a couple beers for free.
He then asked me if I wanted to try some of the mis-made pizza, "just to see if you like it." I declined. Now, bacon does taste good on a lot of things, but two things I cannot handle very well is bacon on pizza and on salads. I don't get heartburn very often, but I do get it when I have bacon on pizza and salads. Don't know why, but it just happens.
About 10 minutes later, another waiter brought out another pizza. He asked, "Pepperoni and mushroom?" Nooo... I had sausage, pepperoni and mushroom. He retreated back to the kitchen.
My original waiter came back out and said, "I'm so sorry, man. We're tryin' here." He got me another beer while I waited.
Finally about 10 minutes later a sausage, pepperoni and mushroom deep-dish pizza finally showed up on my table. I thought, "That was sort of quick for a deep dish pizza." But, I was ready to eat.
I'm not a huge fan of corn meal crust, but the pizza toppings trumped the taste of the corn meal. The sauce was chunky and the mozzarella was stringy, but there was something sort of weird about the pizza. It wasn't piping hot like you'd expect a pizza to be once it came out of the oven. In fact, the sauce was sort of - well, room temperature. But the chunks of sausage were large and plentiful, the fresh chopped mushrooms were small and there didn't seem to be a lot of pepperoni on the pizza. It was good, but there was still something weird about the pizza.
I ordered a fourth beer from my original waiter and started on my third piece. After I bit into that slice, I finally figured out what was so weird about the taste. There were still bacon chunks on my pizza. Then I figured why it got to my table so quickly and wasn't piping hot. All they did was take the original pizza, tried to scrape off the bacon bits and then put sausage and new sauce on top. That explained the near room temperature sauce on the pizza. But the bacon chunks they couldn't get off the pizza were embedded into the crust.
I quit eating the pizza right after that piece. I was hoping to take a couple three slices back to my room with me to have for breakfast the next day. But I can't handle bacon on pizza. I wasn't going to make a big deal about it, but they were going to end up making things right.
I finally realized as I kept sitting there that the waiter had completely forgotten to bring my beer. That was fine, I was ready to go. 10 minutes after I ordered my beer, another waiter brought my glass over to me and I said, "You know what? I ordered that about 10 minutes ago and you're just getting it to me now. I really don't want it." (Yes, I know that has to shock some of you - I turned down a beer.) But, quite honestly, I was tired and my first experience at Pi was going from unpleasant to bad in a hurry.
He asked me if I wanted the remaining pieces of pizza boxed up and I said, "No, you guys screwed up my pizza from the get-go and there's bacon chunks still on this pizza. I don't want it." He apologized and took away the beer and the pizza.
Suddenly, I was the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The staff knew I wasn't happy and there was a long pregnant pause of about five minutes before my original waiter came over and handed me the check. He said, "Sir, we're not going to charge you for the pizza. I'm so sorry for the inconvenience."
I said, "Well, I appreciate that. But it appears that you guys took my original pizza, tried to get the bacon off of it, then put sausage and new sauce on top."
He said, "Oh, sir, we'd never do that."
I picked up the bacon bits I'd picked out of my mouth and out of the crust of the pizza that I had put on my plate. I said, "OK, then, explain why these bacon bits were on the pizza and the sauce seemed to be more room temperature than piping hot out of the oven?" I really wasn't trying to be difficult, because he was a good guy and it wasn't his fault. But I thought it was sort of a shoddy way for whoever in the kitchen to try to make a wrong a right.
He had no answer for me when he grabbed my credit card so I could pay for the three beers. I didn't care - free pizza or free beers, at least they took care of me.
He came back with my card and printed receipts and apologized profusely to me. He said, "One of the managers would like to speak with you before you leave."
Shortly after that, a young lady named Kristy came up and introduced herself as one of the managers. She said, "Sir, I understand that we fouled up your order tonight. I'm so sorry for our mistake." She asked me if I wanted a free dessert to help compensate for my problems, but I declined. And I understand that Pi's desserts are pretty good.
She said she hoped my experience that evening wouldn't cause me to not come back in the future. No, I don't think it will. I'll give Pi a shot again. They really did bend over backward to appease me, even though I did figure out they tried to hide a second mistake from me.
I mean, other than the bacon and the room-temp sauce, the pizza was pretty good. It definitely rivaled some of the finer places in Chicago - most notably Gino's East, which also features a corn meal crust. I liked Pi better than Gino's East, but not as much as Lou Malnati's, Burt's or Pequod's Pizza - three of my favorite deep dish places in Chicago (but not necessarily in that order). In any event, people in St. Louis don't have to drive nearly 300 miles north to experience good deep dish pizza any longer.
(Update - Chris Sommers literally bent over backward to get me to come back and enjoy a pizza at Pi. Read about that experience here.)