Posted On: 11/01/2014
Once upon a time, there were three guys from Egypt who were passionate about eating. Though they worked at Washington University, their friendship and love of food got them thinking: “If we opened a pizzeria, we could eat all the pizza we ever wanted.”
Don’t quote me on that last part, though. What is for certain: The three-man brain trust opened A Pizza Story, the newest addition to Maplewood’s burgeoning restaurant row. Boldly advertising wood-fired Neapolitan pizza on the front window, it’s also one of the latest in the flourishing field of pizzerias touting the same.
You know how people say “Kleenex” for any tissue? It’s the same when “Neapolitan” is used generically for any thin-crust pizza baked in a wood-fire oven. But those aspiring Neapolitan pizzerias must follow the rules of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the organization founded in Naples whose mission is to cultivate – and codify – the art of making Neapolitan pizza. The official requirements dictate pizzas must be baked in a wood-fired dome oven stoked to 900 degrees. Cooking time should not exceed 90 seconds. The dough can only be made with flour, water, salt and yeast. The flour must be of ultra-fine consistency and the salt has to be sea salt. There are dictates on the type of tomato and olive oil used. Then there’s the proper preparation of the dough and appearance of the final pie. The arbiters of Neapolitan pizza are as serious as my Sicilian great-grandmother, who routinely wore black and a scowl.
If A Pizza Story isn’t quite by-the-book authentic, it’s close. The two critical things about any pizza are not toppings but rather (and in this order) crust and baking temperature. True Neapolitan pizza is slightly larger than the diameter of a Frisbee, with a narrow, charred, slightly puffy, sauceless rim. The crust is elegantly tender and light, floppy in the middle and characterized by a bit of tug and chew. Here, A Pizza Story scored points, especially with its Margherita, the simple, defining pie of any Neapolitan pizzeria. Consisting of tomatoes, tomato sauce, pats of fresh cow’s milk mozzarella and verdant basil leaves, this was the best of the several pies I ate – the edible equivalent of a hardcover page-turner.
Other pies allude to literary genres, like the appropriately named Adventure, topped with toasted pistachios, sun-dried tomatoes, manchego cheese and green olives. Everything worked – the sharp burst of briny tang from the olives and tomatoes, the crunchy nuts, the piquancy of the sheep’s milk cheese. As one dining companion described it, “It’s like Spain on a pizza.” The only drawback was the swollen crust, looking like an over-inflated inner tube and pushing the toppings to the middle. A hotter oven may have prevented this: A Pizza Story’s pies spend an average of 90 seconds in a 750- to 800-degree oven, not the 900 degrees prescribed by the Associazione.
The Legend and Fantasy offerings also were standouts: the former, spicy with slices of hot capocollo tamed by mild, nutty fontina and sweet caramelized onions; the latter, balanced by dabs of burrata and salty prosciutto di Parma, with the peppery bitterness of fresh arugula added right after the pie was plucked from the oven.
All pies arrived with hearth-blistered bottoms and properly charred collars. The crust was fluffy without being doughy, crispy without being crunchy. The tomato sauce was rich and applied with a light hand to avoid eclipsing the toppings.
There was a fine array of salads, soups, appetizers and pasta, which makes A Pizza Story a much more versatile dining spot than its name lets on. Onion ring-sized hoops of fried squid – no rubbery tentacles to wrangle with – were tender and lightly coated with a peppery batter. The accompanying puttanesca dipping sauce was quite good (it would make an ideal pasta sauce, too). There was nothing spectacular about the cheese or charcuterie plates – though neither is made in house, the cheeses were good and the meat was an assortment of chorizo, salami, mortadella and prosciutto. But the accompanying rosemary and sea salt house bread, a slight variation of its pizza dough, was so good it was gone in a flash.
Of the two pastas I tried – fettuccine all’amatriciana and shells ragu – I favored the latter, its savory shredded beef simmered in red wine and tomato sauce. The fettuccine, with its simple Roman-style crushed tomato sauce, was competent but the pieces of marble-sized diced pancetta proved too chewy at that size.
The wine list offers a handful of reds and whites, and the draft beers were mostly local. The bar experimented with a few classic cocktails, like the Baked Apple Manhattan, a deceivingly dry drink, despite its sweet aroma.
Among the trio of dessert offerings, panna cotta achieved a trifecta of sweet-tart-nutty flavor: creamy custard topped with berries reduced in balsamic vinegar and toasted pistachios.
I love that the owners – Muhammad Alhawagri, Sherif Nasser and Nael Saad – used a typewriter font for the APS logo, an homage to the building’s former long-time tenant, Jones Typewriter. Inside, the single-room space is divided by a long communal table fashioned from three Schlafly beer barrels and two large doors. Photographs of St. Louis street scenes, shot by Alhawagri, line the walls. In the back corner sits the double-insulated dome oven made of refractory concrete and covered in stucco, an updated version of what Alhawagri’s and Nesser’s respective grandmothers baked bread in back home in Egypt.
The pizza stories in this town scroll ever onward: from St. Louis thin crust to Sicilian deep dish, Provel to mozzarella, wood-fired to conveyor oven, pick-up to sit-down to delivery. A Pizza Story just happens to be the latest, delicious chapter.
AT A GLANCE
7278 Manchester Road, Maplewood, 314.899.0011, apizzastory.com
Don’t Miss Dishes
Pizza: Margherita and Fantasy; Pasta: Shells ragu
Casual yet stylish, from the typewriter font on the logo to photography on the walls
Pizza: $12 to $16; pasta: $13 to $14
Tue. to Thur. – 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Sun. – 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
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