On my culinary radar for quite sometime, I finally had the chance to try Frank and Helen's Pizza in St. Louis recently. St. Louis has some pretty fine pizza places and Frank and Helen's has been in business for nearly 60 years. It's one of those places where the older locals will tell you that Frank and Helen's was their first pizza. After a day of travel and meetings, I sought out Frank and Helen's before going to my hotel to check in.
Frank and Helen's is really old school when it comes to their pizza. In 1956, Julius "Jule" Seitz opened the door to his little pizza place at the corner of Olive and Midland in the St. Louis enclave of University City. It was called "Jule's Pizza" and was on of the first pizza places in the city. In 1959, Jule's brother, Frank Seitz, took over the operation of the pizza joint, helped by his wife, Betty. A year later, Frank and Jule's sister, Helen Wetzel, joined Frank and Betty in the business. The sign on the front of the building was changed to Frank and Helen's Pizza.
Business was growing for Frank and Helen's and they decided they needed to move to a larger location. Wanting to stay in the U City area, they found a business up the road on Olive that had once been a car wash, but had been converted into a food vending and catering company. Frank and Helen's moved to this new location - their present day location - in 1967 (see map) while maintaining the original restaurant for a short while. In 1968, they sold the original Frank and Helen's to Ennio Cardinale who put in his own pizza place, the now-defunct Pino's Pizza.
Frank and Helen's was a favorite hangout for U City policemen and when the brother and sister were ready to hang up their aprons, they sold the business to former U City police officer Scott DePolito, and his wife, Mary. The DePolito's continued the tradition of Frank and Helen's thin crust pizza and their famous broasted chicken. In 2008, the DePolito's sold out to Patrick Horvath and his wife, Rebecca. Horvath had also been a former University City policeman and he became the manager of Frank and Helen's in 2002.
It was close to 6 p.m. when I got into Frank and Helen's. I was greeted by a young lady who told me that I could sit anywhere. I took one of the booths along the wall. My server for the evening, Ashley, dropped off a menu and asked if I wanted anything to drink. I ordered a Budweiser. When you're in St. Louis and in a 60's-style pizza joint, Budweiser is the beer you gotta have.
It seriously looks like Pat and Helen's hasn't been updated since they moved into the place 46 years ago. But it has a retro charm to the place - large glass-shaded lamps hang from the paneled ceiling. Formica topped tables and curved-backed chairs were interspersed throughout the main area of the dining room. In the booths, ornate fixtures with dimly lit faux candle bulbs hung from the wall.
In addition to Frank and Helen's pizza and broasted chicken, they also feature sandwiches, soups and salads, appetizers - including the requisite toasted ravioli, and a handful of pasta dishes and entrees such as a top sirloin steak, chicken Spedini, and a lightly grilled grouper with your choice of lemon pepper, Cajun or garlic-butter seasonings.
The pizza at Frank and Helen's comes in three sizes - 10", 16" and 18". You can order the crust three ways - extra thin, thin and thick. They have a choice of six different sauces that include a traditional red, a zesty marinara, and a barbecue sauce. St. Louis-style pizzas feature provel cheese, but Frank and Helen's also gives you the choice of having mozzarella, cheddar, parmesan and gargonzola cheese on the pizza. And they have the traditional ingredients to go on the pizza, but they also feature special ingredients such as artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, grilled chicken and meatballs.
When Ashley came back with my beer - served with a frosted mug - I was ready to order. I ordered a small, extra-thin crust, Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza with the traditional red sauce and mozzarella. Ashley asked, "Is that a 10" or the 16" pizza?" I thought that was sort of a weird question to ask. I told her the 10" pizza was the size I wanted. I was curious as to why she would ask that question, but it was soon answered when I got the bill after I finished. The 10" is listed as a "midget" pizza. So, the 16" pizza must be the "small", and the 18" must be the "large".
As I waited for my pizza, the place slowly began to fill up. I also noticed that I was - by far - the youngest person in the place, save for the young grandson of a man who came in not long after I arrived. And the people in the place all seemed to be regulars with the servers greeting customers by their names when they came in the door. Frank and Helen's was truly a neighborhood gathering place.
The pizza showed up about 15 minutes after I ordered it. Ashley got me another beer in the meantime and brought out a new frosted mug to go along with it. The pizza was served on a pizza tin and compared to the round shape of the tin, it was almost oval in shape. It was topped with an abundance of sausage, pepperoni and sliced mushrooms, and cut into party squares.
After letting it cool for a bit, I took the first bite. The chunks of sausage were like little meatballs and had a nice fennel taste. The pepperoni was spicy and salty, and the sliced mushrooms were fresh and flavorful. The traditional red sauce was tangy and had a hint of sweetness to it.
The crust wasn't cracker thin as I expected, which was fine. Sometimes a St. Louis-style thin crust pizza will get too mushy in the crust and become limp. The crust at Frank and Helen's stayed crisp, but was light and flaky. It was very good.
As I was eating my pizza, I heard one of the other servers talking to some regulars seated behind me. She said in passing, "You know, we used to make our own sausage here, but stopped a few years ago. But I think we're going to start making our own sausage in house." I thought the sausage they were using was very good. It had that great fennel flavor with a bit of a spicy bite. I was thinking that it would be tough to make the Italian sausage on their pizza even better than what it was.
I loved everything about Frank and Helen's - the pizza was excellent, as was the service, and the retro charm of the place was wonderful. There are some pretty good pizza places in St. Louis, but something about Frank and Helen's jumped out at me for the old school feel to the place. The place wasn't slick or contemporary, and that's almost a welcome change for me some times. I have three or four favorite pizza places in St. Louis, but Frank and Helen's may have become my most favorite pizza in town.