If At First You Don’t Like Provel. . .

Once, I was scared of Provel and now I’m not. I heard so many people describe how much they disliked Provel and it turned into a monster inside my head.

Provel cheese is a St. Louis food tradition. Having lived in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Iowa, I had never heard of Provel until we moved to St. Louis. Provel is a blend of processed swiss, provolone and cheddar cheeses top the famous St. Louis-style pizza made with a cracker-thin crust and sliced into party squares.

The exact origin of Provel seems to be disputed, but according to this St. Louis Today article “Provelology,” a Washington University anthropology major, “traced the trademark application for Provel to 1947.” One individual who helped contribute to the popularity of Provel in St. Louis is Ed Imo who opened Imo’s Pizza chain in 1964 after performing Provel experiments at his Uncle’s pizzeria Old Helen’s Pizzeria #1. There are Imo’s restaurants all over the city and you can even find their Provel squiggles in grocery stores.

Provel squiggles

When we first announced our move to St. Louis, friends warned us about Provel. Many described its flavor and texture as an acquired taste that many non-locals disliked.

Jake commuted to his new job in St. Louis while we searched for a new home. One evening, he ordered pizza delivery to his hotel room. Coworkers had warned him to double-check whether pizzas had Provel or Mozzerrella, and even though he did his due diligence, it arrived covered with Provel. He gave it a valiant effort, but the Provel won. “I found myself eating around the cheese,” he said.

“But how could this be?” I wondered. Jake loves cheese. Our ratio of cheese to things that aren’t cheese in our grocery cart is alarming; cheddar, provolone, swiss, goat cheese, brie, we love them all. Call me crazy, but I actually prefer American cheese melted on classic cheeseburgers and in homey grilled cheese sandwiches. The fact that Jake met a cheese he didn’t like was hard to comprehend.

I just wanted a taste of Provel so I decided to serve a frozen St. Louis-style pizza to my family when they visited from Minnesota. Mama Lucia’s kind face beckoned from the grocery store freezer and I knew she’d show us the way. Plus, they were on sale for $4.

Mama Lucia

“Welcome to St. Louis!” I exclaimed, as I pulled the pizza from the oven. The cheese crisped to a pleasant golden brown. I hesitantly nibbled an edge piece and found that I liked the Provel pizza. This one wasn’t particularly gooey, but I could still taste that processed cheesiness.

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The crisped end pieces reminded me of the edges of a grilled cheese sandwich. One made American cheese of course! Basically, everyone liked the Provel pizza.

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If at first you don’t like Provel, try, try again. It’s possible that you might like one Provel pizza and hate another.

Other St. Louis food traditions I look forward to trying include a St. Paul Sandwich, frozen custard from a Ted Drewes Stand & slinger.

11 Comments

  1. Beth Ann Chiles

    Hmmm—-I can not imagine what this tastes like. The squiggles kind of freak me out to be honest but I am glad you keep trying to embrace your new culture in STL!

    • Jeni

      I will make you a Provel pizza in North Carolina.

  2. Feisty Eats

    I think it looks & sounds delicious!

  3. Donna Hup

    I have heard of Provel, but honestly had no clue what it was. I’m up for trying it 🙂

  4. Alice Sanvito

    Oh my.

    I wasn’t born here, but my parents moved here when I was 2 years old so I’m practically a native. My family was from New Jersey, though, and pizza was a thing of reverence in our family. We found St. Louis style pizza with provel disgusting and I still do. If one likes American cheese or Velveeta, then they might like provel but I won’t touch it. To get the full St. Louis style pizza experience, you need to eat Imo’s. (I can’t believe I just recommended someone eat Imo’s pizza.) The crust is thin, crispy, and tasteless, kind of like a saltine cracker. The sauce is umimpressive. And the provel cheese sticks to the roof of your mouth like peanut butter.

    Ted Drewes is much, much better. You must go while the weather is still warm. Go on a Friday or Saturday night. Don’t be intimidated by the crowd you will probably encounter. Half of them are standing there eating and the folks behind the counter are incredibly efficient. Ted Drewes is like eating ivory. (Not poached ivory but ivory from an elephant that lived a happy life in the wild and died a peaceful death.) Their hot fudge is the best.

    Toasted ravioli is another St. Louis native delicacy. Very good and it doesn’t exist anywhere else. Gooey butter cake is also native to St. Louis. It’s disgustingly sweet yet hard to resist.

    If you really want to be an insider, go to Crown Candy on St. Louis and 14th Street. It’s an old ice cream parlor that has been in business since 1913 and hasn’t changed much. Unlike Ted Drewes, do *not* get the hot fudge! Get a strawberry malt and make sure you have someone to split it with.

    Make sure to check out City Museum and the botanical garden, too. And Everest Cafe in The Grove. There’s lots of cool ethnic restaurants in The Grove and on South Grand.

    Some time on a Tuesday or Thursday night go check out Kim Massie at Beale on Broadway. She’s exceptional. A mountain of a woman, she sings blues, rock, all sorts of good stuff, and has a great rapport with her audience.

    Welcome to St. Louis. There are lots of hidden treasures here. I hope you enjoy it!

    • Jeni

      We’re finding that St. Louis-style pizzas are different. Jake found Imo’s totally different than the frozen one we bought. Your comparison of Provel sticking to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter is freaking me out:) Thanks for your recommendations. Still need to visit Ted Drewes and Crown. Have only tried one version of toasted ravioli but it was delicious. I can’t wait to check out Kim Massie too. Thank you so much!

      • Alice Sanvito

        Perhaps those living in St. Louis can be divided into two categories: those who like provel and those who like to make fun of provel. 😉

  5. Val - Corn, Beans, Pigs and Kids

    I have never heard of Provel! I am going to have to ask my family in the St. Louis area about it now! Mama Lucia looks like she knows how to make a good pizza – how could you go wrong. 😉

  6. Peter

    Life-long St. Louisan here! You made a great choice with Mama Lucia’s! It has been my go-to frozen pizza for the past 10 years.

    Whereas Imo’s is the most talked-about St. Louis style pizza, it is by no means the best. Whenever I am introducing out of town friends to St. Louis style pizza and provel cheese I will always get them Cecil Whittaker’s. They make it their cheese and sauce in a different way, which seems to be lacking some of the flavors that people find objectionable. I’ve actually never gotten a bad review for it.

    When it comes to toasted ravioli, I found that more often than not restaurants tend to produce a toasted ravioli that is not as crispy as I would prefer. As such I’ll tend to, instead, buy frozen toasted ravioli and make it at home. Of the two main varieties available in St. Louis grocery stores I find that the flavor of Louisa’s is much better than Fazzio’s. In fact, I like the flavor so much that I normally do not use sauce with Louisa’s.

    • Jeni

      I’m sorry we couldn’t stay longer in STL and try more versions of pizza and toasted ravioli. Thanks for sharing your recommendations!

  7. MP

    I’m in Minnesota, the metro area, and I’m obsessed with finding provel cheese. Of course it’s not here, but I’m willing to drive for it because, well, I’m single and really don’t have much going on in life. Any idea of markets that would carry this that are closer without having to travel all the way to St. Louis?

    I love making pizza and I’m pretty good at it and would love to try this cheese with my pizza making skills.

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