Saturday, February 21, 2009

Monte Bello

On Valentine's Day we had dinner at a very nice Persian restaurant. Our young waiter was a St. Louis native so we questioned him about his favorite restaurants. For “St. Louis style” thin crust pizza he recommended Monte Bello Pizzeria. We had already tried thin crust pizza at Imo's, a ubiquitous family-owned franchise, but had not cared for it. He encouraged us to try it again. He assured us this place makes the real thing. It has existed for as long as anyone can remember. His parents first took him there. He told us an old couple operate it in the basement of their house. He couldn't remember the address but described the location. Intrigued, we resolved to try it.

I used Google to locate the address and telephone number. That's all I could find. They have no web site. They do no advertising. They don't deliver. Merry called and spoke to a woman who told her they are not open Monday night, except for take-out. We decided to wait until we could eat there.

On Wednesday we took I-55 south, crossed River de Pere which defines the south boundary of the city and took the next exit. Weber road runs toward the Mississippi through an old working class neighborhood. Modest houses sit close together mixed with old warehouses and factories. We found the address a few blocks down. There is no parking, no sign or anything else to indicate this is a restaurant. The front of the house, perhaps what was once a front porch, is entirely covered with aluminum siding so all you can see is a door with the house number and a neon “OPEN” sign. The door leads immediately down cellar steps. At the bottom of the stairs another door has a cracked window pane mended with scotch tape. A hand lettered sign warns they do not accept credit or debit cards. We check our wallets. $28.00 OK, that's probably enough for pizza.

Inside it's pretty dark. There are about fifteen tables covered with red and white checked tablecloths. There's no one there. One wall is covered by a very old fresco, divided by arches to appear as a view across the Tuscan hills. A concrete floor, once painted grey, is now worn to its original surface. As we hesitate at the door a woman emerges from the kitchen in the back and invites us to sit anywhere. We order a large sausage pizza, a Coke and an ice tea.

She brings our drinks. She's obviously the owner. She sits at the next table. While we wait for the pizza, she talks. The restaurant story comes out. She and her husband and a partner bought the restaurant as a going concern in 1961. Things didn't work out well with the partner so they sold it to him and opened a barbeque place for awhile. Soon he was in trouble for failing to pay sales tax and convinced them to buy it back. They have operated it ever since, forty eight years, six days a week with Monday off, but still making pizza for take-out and prepping food for the week ahead.

She's worried about the economy. Her regular customers come in once a week at the same time every week. They are now feeding the grand children of their original customers. When they call for take out she claims to usually recognize their voice. Recently business is off a bit. Could we believe Oprah told people to stop going out to eat for a month? What if Anheuser Busch laid people off, what would happen to business then? One customer is trying to sell her a new car but her 2001 only has 60,000 miles on it. She doesn't need a new car.

She's a small woman. Every joint of her hands is swollen with rheumatoid arthritis. Her eyes are sunken but bright. One thin eyebrow rims an eye socket the other shoots upward in an arc. She speaks with the soft, half-southern accent I've come to identify as native to this place.

Through the open doorway into the kitchen I can see her husband patiently throwing then stretching the pizza dough, smoothing it onto a baking pan. He shuffles about slowly, getting the ingredients together. He never leaves the kitchen.

I mention how we found her. She wants to know the waiter's name. I mention I found the address on the internet. This leads to a long discussion of her son's distinguished carrier as a forensic computer analyst for a local police department. He's done well. She is pleased to tell us he bought a big old house in Clayton, the upscale suburb where he works, that used to belong to the Imo family – the people who founded the largest pizza chain in the metro area.

The pizza arrives on a battered rectangular cookie sheet. It's of indeterminate shape, cut into three inch squares. The crust is thin and crisp, a freshly baked cracker, really. The sauce is homemade with just the right amount of onions and provolone cheese, a hallmark of St. Louis pizza. The sausage is heavenly and unlike any I'd had before, mild with a nice mixture of spices. I inquire about the sausage. She makes it from scratch each week using a recipe they got from the former owner 48 years ago. The pizza disappears quickly. She gives us a copy of the menu and urges us to come back soon. Another couple comes in as we finish and she moves off to help them.

The bill is about $15. We emerge from the cellar and re-enter the 21st century.

1 comment:

  1. Boy that sounds like a wonderful old style Pizza the way it should be prepared and served.
    Vince F