As thick as cheesecake and as packed as a fridge-clearing casserole, deep-dish pizza is the antithesis of Neapolitan pie, which is ideally about crust. By contrast, these thick geological slabs, with their inverse bottom-dwelling cheese, are the product of Midwest engineering; they're a combination of big, meaty flavors and hibernation-level calories, as necessary as a parka to survive Chicago's brutal winters.
That might help explain why deep-dish pies don't have the same grip on East Coasters as those thin, lightly sauced Italian rounds, which have almost become Washington's third drug of choice, behind power and money. In this way, a St. Louis-based newcomer, Pi on Wheels, the mobile unit of the forthcoming District of Pi pizzeria in Penn Quarter, is the nonconformist. It's a blubber-jiggling John Candy among the lunchtime power walkers.
Co-owner Chris Sommers brought his deep-dish concept to Washington not because he's an iconoclast - or because he has an ally in the Oval Office - but because of more practical reasons. Sommers's fiancee, Anne Schuermann, has two siblings who live in the area.
Still, I have to tip my hat to President Obama, who practically inhaled Pi's deep-dish offerings in 2008 during a campaign stop in St. Louis. The president liked the pizza so much, he asked Sommers and crew to bake some lunch rounds for the White House in April 2009, an invitation/betrayal that knocked the air right out of the hometown pie-slingers back in the Windy City. Hello, PizzaGate.
But even the most deep-dish-fortified Chicagoan would have to admit that Pi's pizzas are something special - and not just for food-truck fare. Back when he was still working in high-tech in San Francisco, Sommers persuaded the owner of a local pizzeria to sell its deep-dish recipe for a modest sum. On March 14, 2008 - that's "Pi Day," or 3.14 - Pi Pizzeria opened in St. Louis, and the natives were practically ready to surrender all allegiances to Provel, the processed cheese glopped onto the local specialty pizzas.
There are, for now, four rotating selections available at the Pi truck, all deep dish, even though the Penn Quarter outlet will also offer thin-crust options when it opens in June. The Pi truck's nine-inch rounds aren't as doorstop dense as the pizzas you might remember from Chicago's best pie holes, a leaner approach that merely acknowledges that most U.S. workers can't afford a food-coma shutdown in the afternoon. But they look and taste legit: golden, crispy cornmeal-heavy crusts concealing a bottom layer of mozzarella, followed by various strata of meats or veggies and a sweet, tangy chopped-tomato sauce. You almost can't believe this pie is baked on two conveyor ovens inside a small truck, although maybe you can when you have to wait 10-plus minutes for your order.
The pizzas are expensive, but not Red Hook Lobster Pound pricey. The pies are $12 each, which is a steal when you realize that every pizza serves two - or perhaps one very hungry president.
-Tim Carman (Good to Go, Wednesday April 20, 2011)