The future of St. Louis pizza
While the pandemic brought fundamental changes and limitations to the way we dine, it also gifted us with fresh new paths to explore. The past year saw some restaurateurs pivoting to follow their pizza dreams, while others moved ahead with long-gestating concepts. As we move further into 2021, a few key players have all but guaranteed an exciting new pizza landscape for St. Louis going forward.
When Pizzeria Da Gloria opened in November 2020 on the Hill, its food was immediately in high demand, and this spring has seen the restaurant picking up even more steam. Owner and head pizzaiolo Joe Kurowski points out that in the past six months his team has doubled in size, from five to 10, and with patio season in full swing and the dining room open for the first time, the space has finally started to become the neighborhood hub Kurowski envisioned when he opened it. “When it’s nice out and [the patio] fills up, it brings a whole new energy to this place,” he said. “It’s beautiful.” It also doesn’t hurt that people can finally eat his pizza straight out of the oven without it being boxed for carryout, which, when done wrong, can destroy even the most expertly made pies. “It’s so much more fun this way,” Kurowski said.
For Kurowski, a philosophy of gradual growth is really starting to pay off. Pizzeria Da Gloria now has a more fleshed-out bar program and is on the hunt for skilled bartenders, while the restaurant’s small-but-mighty natural wine program now offers wine by the glass; an expanded dining menu features starters like brisket meatballs with ricotta as well as house and Caesar salads. After half a year of experimentation using Da Gloria’s wood-fired oven, Kurowski has had time to further dial in his sourdough recipe and has started offering seasonal pizzas like a spring onion pesto, a white clam and one with wild ramps; current menu staples include the stracciatella (tomato sauce, house stracciatella, olive oil, pepper), a broccoli rabe and house sausage, the Bonci (roasted eggplant, garlic-chile oil, parsley) and the pepperoni, which sports Ezzo pepperoni and pickled jalapenos. Kurowski is also working on new branding and merch and is excited to finally have real menus for his restaurant. “It’s weird trying to figure all this out as we grow. I’m always redefining my position,” he said with a laugh.
Across town, in Maplewood, Elmwood has been on a different kind of journey. “We loved what Elmwood was starting to become,” said Elmwood co-owner and general manager Chris Kelling. “Our goal with Elmwood was to be a neighborhood restaurant.” But when the fine dining spot’s doors shut last March due to the pandemic, Kelling and his team recalibrated. According to him, starting a pizza joint was always in the Elmwood team’s future, and tabling their dynamic regular menu presented the perfect opportunity to dive headfirst into that dream.
Starting with a Detroit-style pizza pop-up last summer and then doubling down on a more traditional carryout concept that would eventually be branded as Pizza Champ, Kelling and Elmwood executive chef and co-owner Adam Altnether have become fully immersed in ’za. Recently, they bought a Marsal commercial oven to level up their game. “Adam’s unrelenting with his commitment to his standards,” Kelling explained. “With everything we do, it’s always, ‘Is Adam proud of it?’ It’s inspiring.” So far, some of their winning pies include a grilled kale and ricotta, the A Fun Guy (mushroom conserva, fontina, tomato), a powerfully flavored taco pizza and the double pepperoni, which is far and away their bestseller. “It’s not even close,” Kelling said. “I think pepperoni is the king of pizza.” Other offerings have included Buffalo chicken wings, a grilled broccoli Caesar, a spicy chicken sandwich and dessert cannoli.
Later this year, Pizza Champ plans to go live with its own brick-and-mortar. Though Kelling is still keeping most details under wraps, he did share a little. “It’s a pizza joint. Classic salad, sandwiches, soft serve, cookies. The soft serve is a must.”
When the pandemic hit, Matt Chapin had recently left his job as sales manager at Rockwell Beer Co. and was looking for something to do. Instead of immediately finding a new gig in beer, he turned to one of his other passions: making grandma-style pies and sharing them with his friends. “It started with me on my own personal Instagram saying, ‘I’m going to make two pepperoni pizzas tonight – get at me if you want them,’” Chapin explained. “It seemed to work.” Soon after, he’d set up an official page for Corners, an Instagram-only “pizzeria” where customers could direct message to reserve time slots for pickup, pay via Venmo or CashApp, and swoop their ’za in a contactless pickup at Chapin’s house in South City.
At Corners, celebrated mains include a pepperoni pie and one with house-made garlic and fennel sausage and Calabrian chile; less popular is the excellent Philly tomato pie, which Chapin hopes will catch on soon. “It’s great for a snack, it’s great for a crowd. I wish more people ordered it and tried to take the time to get it,” he sighed. In addition to five pizzas, sides of ranch and Calabrian chile round out Corners’ small menu.
Despite his success as a weekend pizzaiolo, Chapin is not looking to open a real restaurant. “I’ve never really looked at food as a career, but I say that only having worked in and around the food industry,” he said, laughing. For now, he’s content slinging pies to those hip to the way he wants to do it. “It creates this cool kids club, more or less – you only get it if you know or if you’re paying attention,” he explained. “I think so many people now are paying more attention to their phones than ever, so it was a way to grow naturally and keep it easy to manage.”
Nick Williams – known to many on Instagram as Nicky Slices – has used the past year to develop a strong online brand and an innovative take-and-bake program. Having cooked in New York City for almost a decade, eventually running the kitchen at popular Brooklyn seafood joint Littleneck, Williams was about to open his own spot when the pandemic hit, which messed up his plan, so he moved home to regroup. With pizza in his DNA – his father owned now-closed South Grand pizzeria Natty’s – Williams decided it was time to return to his roots. He started Nicky Slices, a Detroit-style pizzeria operating out of a commissary, selling exclusively via Instagram, delivering to customers on Thursdays and Fridays. “I love take-and-bake. It’s going into your house. I’m part of your dinner now,” Williams said with a sentimental tone. “I love that people send me pics of their kids smashing the pizza.”
Nicky Slices has gained a large following quickly and is mostly known for its outrageous weekly specials, from the Wild Thing (smoked chicken, barbecue sauce, Red Hot Riplet ranch, beer-braised onions, pickles) and the Chupacabraj (beef birria, consommé, queso Oaxaca, cilantro, onions) to one of Williams’ personal favorites, the Tropic Thunder (Vietnamese sticky garlic chicken, pickled daikon and carrot, cilantro, peanut ranch); popular regular pies include the Mom’s Spaghetti (four cheeses, roasted tomato, marinara, parsley pesto) and The Roner (pepperoni, basil, garlic-chile hot honey). For Williams, the bombastic pizzas take him back to his Littleneck days, where he would run new items daily, with two to three on the weekends. “I was doing at least four new dishes a week, expressing myself through those specials,” he said.
While his weekly pizza allotment always sells out quickly, Williams isn’t looking to expand too fast, recalling horror stories of other institutions that blew up and burned out. He definitely wants his own spot someday, but not anytime soon, despite investors starting to knock on his door. For now, he’s just focused on organic growth. “We’re just gonna keep pumping out fire specials,” he said.
And why not? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
While some chefs take on a “restaurants for life” mentality early in their careers, others have sought to find new ways to reach diners, especially during the pandemic. In the case of businesses like Nicky Slices and Corners, young restaurateurs are taking a path of digital resistance, opting to market themselves via social media apps (like Instagram), take orders through their inboxes, accept payment on Venmo, CashApp or Square, and deliver you the coveted pies you desire. Slots are limited and selling out is expected. So how can you break into the game if you haven’t already? Log onto Instagram, follow your favorite brands, wait for a preorder announcement, and pray that you’ll slide into their DMs before anybody else. You may not score a ’za each time, but there’s always next week.
Pizzeria da Gloria, 2024 Marconi Ave., St. Louis, 314.833.3734, pizzeriadagloria.com
Elmwood, 2704 Sutton Blvd., Maplewood, 314.261.4708, elmwoodstl.com
Corners Instagram: @cornersstl
Nicky Slices Instagram: @nickyslicespizza
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