Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cecil Whittaker’s Pizzeria

Sunday evening of the big three day Memorial Day weekend. We’d had home-grilled chicken the night before, and I made a big breakfast including homemade biscuits that morning. It was hot and humid out, both the temperature and humidity hovering around ninety. Angel was very tired, her second day of tending to the eleven dogs in her care. She said it was like spending the entire weekend at Chuck E. Cheese with as many preschoolers. Constant watching, corralling, trips to the potty, boo-boos, general loudness, wrestling and running around, hunting for lost toys.
I was not quite so busy, resting up from a rather hectic few weeks at work, tending to the occasional dog that needed quiet time or personal walks or attention.
A full heavy meal appealed to neither of us so we opted for a place that we had discussed before.
Pizza means you can have just a little, or a lot, and take the rest home.

Cecil Whittaker’s Pizzeria
Festus, Mo.

The Place:
On the west side of Interstate 55, near the Waffle House, and next door to a place that called itself a ‘Physical Therapy Clinic’ I noticed it was closed and that Cecil’s looked closed as well, no patrons at either.
“So you want some physical therapy while we’re here?” Angel asked.
I answered; “Is that what they call it these days?”
“What did they used to call it?”
“Oriental massage parlor, and yes, I could go for a quick round.”
“It’s not a massage parlor, Oriental or otherwise.”
“Yeah right, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, a folded twenty into mama-san’s sweaty palm, it’s all the same.”
The conversation changed subjects at Angel’s insistence as we approached the pizzeria. “Are they open?” She asked.
“The neon sign says it is.”
So we pushed on the door and it opened to a burst of cooler, quiet air. There was someone else there, a single table load, two adult women, a couple of toddlers and a tiny wrinkled baby that looked about twenty minutes old. Other than that the place was empty.
A staffer behind the counter instructed us to find a seat, which Angel did, a booth directly beside the other family, right next to the three small children. She did this I am sure to punish me for not helping more with the dogs or something, though I never really know exactly what I’m being punished for.
The menus were delivered and the drinks ordered. Tea, tea and Coke.
The pizzeria was rather sparse, a strip mall building with concrete floors, high, exposed ceiling, walls bare except for sporadic sports things in frames, a couple of crossed hockey sticks, and for reasons that are still not clear to me, the chrome grill from an old Dodge. If sports bar was the goal, they came up seriously short. If pizzeria was the goal, they missed completely. There were three suspended TV’s blaring some network expose show, the topic was all old news about the folks involved in the panic a few years ago where it was said that measles shots led to autism in children. Nothing new was actually exposed. I would have ignored it completely had the respective volume controls not all been set to eleven, and had the walls and high ceiling not bounced all that noise around till it sounded like a prison riot in a tunnel.
The Food:
We ordered, I wasn’t all that excited, but for the sake of you, the fans, I split a ‘Cecil’s Combo’ (add shrimp) with Angel. Adam had his own, pepperoni, bacon, olives. Angel and Adam conspired to split an order of something called ‘cheese fries’ I countered their conspiracy of insolence by asking for onion rings.
We knew that this would be ‘St. Louis style’ pizza which I’ve explained before, but just so you don’t have to bother with using your own memory, here goes.
St Louis style has distinct features. 1. Very thin, cracker-crispy crust which is always served cut into small squares as opposed to the triangles of other styles and 2. ‘Provel’ cheese, which is a blend of Cheddar, Colby, Swiss and, Mozzarella cheeses, made in Wisconsin specifically for the St. Louis market. Available toppings are the same as any other style.
The toddlers started making noise, the infant bubbled and squirted, the women caring for them oooh’d and ahhh’d at every move and sound the pipsqueaks made. The young boy, about, I don’t know, he didn’t have facial hair and stood less than a yard tall, so I’d guess he was somewhere between two and six, started jumping up and down in his wobbly chair. His drooling and obviously evil younger sister laughed and cooed. Mom told him to stop jumping up and down in his chair, so he jumped down from the chair and started jumping up and down on the floor, his sister went wild giggling, mom just looked away.
Why is it that people like children?
Adam excused himself to go play one of the arcade games, Angel and I just sat together, romantically, I guess, and discussed the dogs, and other certainly fascinating stuff that I don’t recall now.
The cheesy fries came first, looking not at all appealing. It’s French fries drowning in a puddle of melted cheese sauce, the cheese acting as a sauce on top of the fries and highly adhesive, fast-drying spackle on the bottom. To pull an individual fry out meant tearing it in half. I tried a torn chunk, it tasted like a fry with melted cheese on it.
Mercifully my o-rings arrived shortly and I laid into them. These were pretty good and the portion was generous. Real onions, not that re-constituted onions you find at McDonald’s and in Funyuns.
The other family’s pizzas arrived, two of them arranged one above the other in a wire plate racking system that reminded me of the 3-D chess board form the original Star-Trek. The toddlers went wild, naturally burning themselves on the initial bites… such idiots children can often be.
Ours arrived shortly, looking kind of bland and colorless.
Angel pulled off a square and burned her mouth on it, but did not confess as much. I waited, chomping my o-rings for a few more minutes before I stuck a shingle load of molten cheese into my precious face.
Adam’s arrived, he busied himself for a couple of minutes tearing a few more fries from the rapidly solidifying cheese. The bottom of the cheese fry basket ended up looking like someone had just ripped up some glued-down carpet.
My first bite of the pizza left me unimpressed. Not near as sweet and rich as we’d had at Frankie Gianino’s (which was almost too sweet and rich) the toppings were sparse and thin, the sauce nearly non-existent. The cheese carried the flavor and it was not very pronounced. I had maybe a couple of slices, Angel one or two more since she’d worked harder and had less than a full basket of cheese fries. I was full, though not necessarily satisfied. Adam didn’t seem all that pleased with his pizza either, abandoning it after only three or four small chunks. We boxed up more than half of the total.
The tea had flavor, stronger than most places, but it wasn’t necessarily a great flavor, could have been Lipton, could have just been old.
We were unanimously not very impressed. The ambiance was stark and barren, the pizza only okay, and the service was uninspired. The price however was a standout. Forty three dollars for one medium and one large pizza and two sides. That’s kind of steep for what we had. I’ve had much more enjoyable, tastier and less expensive pizza meals at a Pizza Hut buffet.
If this is the best St. Louis style pizza, and some say it is, I’ll stick with the other classics. Like New York, Chicago and Dominoes. To me it was just barely better than those two dollar frozen pizzas found on sale at the grocery store.
Of course on Monday I grilled up some of the best burgers in the universe and suddenly all was right again in the culinary world.

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