One of my favorite, absolute favorite things to do is to throw an insult at somebody's food. One time a chef looked at a garnish I made and said, "This isn't the fucking Holiday Inn, dude." Burn. I was the new guy at another restaurant and a few days in a coworker remarked, "Where did this guy learn how to cook, prison?" A+. Probably my favorite was when I watched a chef comment on one of his cook's knife skills, "What the fuck is this? I didn't say crazy dice." For some reason, "crazy dice" always struck me as the funniest thing ever. Like it's an actual knife technique. "Crazy dice that celery." Yes, chef. My friend Aaron Brooks is also good at razzing food. One day I made marinara for a bunch of us and he kept insisting that it was SpaghettiOs. "Hey Danny, I think I saw an 'M' floating around in there." Aaron grew up near St. Louis. I wanted to make something from St. Louis.
I ate a St. Louis Slinger once. The first time I had it, I was working at the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh. The Executive Chef, Matt Eaton, was from St. Louis. When I worked at the casino, I did a very hack thing and adopted the bad boy chef attitude even though I was a glorified prep cook. I was on a lot of pills. I was drinking at work. I smoked a ton of cigarettes and didn't stop drinking caffeine until my shift ended. I might as well have been praying to a headshot of Anthony Bourdain every morning. I remember one day Matt looked at the ID badge on my chef coat, which was a photo taken from when I first got hired, then looked at current day me and said, "Jesus Palumbo, what happened to you?" Matt made me a Slinger one morning because I openly confessed to still being drunk. The Slinger is a dish open to interpretation. Matt's consisted of eggs, potatoes, bacon, a hamburger patty, chili, cheese, and onions. I took a really long break until I finished eating all of it, which was hard, then I went back to work. It was gross, but I didn't feel drunk anymore and it got rid of the pill sweats.
Aaron insisted that we do not make Slingers. "This is a train we shouldn't board," he said. Instead, Aaron suggested that we make an IMO's style pizza. I don't really know what to say about IMO's other than that it technically qualifies as pizza. Brooks took me to IMO's when we were in St. Louis doing gigs, and he thought I was going to love it. I could see the excitement in his eyes. Instead I said, "Is this where you went when your parents got divorced?" IMO's is thin crust. Sweet sauce. Cut square. To me that's cafeteria pizza. Lunch table, hairnet style, plastic tray go sit with the other nerds pizza.
Brooksy pulled this recipe for IMO's pizza. First of all, I don't think sugar belongs anywhere near a tomato sauce. Combine sugar and tomatoes and to me you're on your way to making ketchup. Do you want ketchup on your pizza? You do? Are you OK? Oh God, I'm sorry I didn't know. IMO's pizza also uses provel cheese. What's provel cheese? I don't know. I just know that people in St. Louis go parade bonkers for provel. The recipe says to combine swiss, cheddar, provolone, then add liquid smoke to make it. I told some other St. Louis friends about how we mashed three different cheeses together to make provel and they said, "You can't just fucking do that." A lot of recipes out there are bullshit, guys.
So when you roll out the dough or whatever you add this sauce that has sugar and shit in it, and then you top it with what I'm told is not at all provel cheese. Great. So, to recap, we made this really half-assed recipe for a dish that I don't think you can actually recreate anyways. IMO's pizza only exists inside of IMO's. If you try to make it at home everything in your life will cease to make sense. Just keep going to work, paying taxes, and getting your IMO's pizza out of the house.
By all means this was a complete failure. Normally taking the time to cook something feels good. This felt awful. Let's say we cooked something close to an IMO's pizza. I would still think it was bad, but we would have recreated a comfort food that Aaron loves. We didn't do that. We should have made Slingers, damnit. The whole experience files under, "Yeah, sometimes cooking is a waste of time so why do it?" IMO's isn't for me, but for the sake of fairness, hear out cake boss Aaron Brooks about his favorite pizza back home.
"Imo’s will always be, to me, unassuming and charming. The floor was a tacky red and white vinyl tile checkerboard. The walls were lit with beer neons. Those were the spots for the junior high kids to go to get a laugh. The nerdy kids, desperate for attention, standing in front of a Busch beer mountain, wobbly and slurring, his prepubescent pals chuckling into their fountain Cokes. The pizza? It’s polarizing. You love it or you’re wrong. It’s cracker thin, born on a razor’s edge. The crispy, golden crust supports the expanse of a sweet red sauce. It catches you off guard like a seventy degree day in a St. Louis July. The cheese is provel. What’s that? Provel. It’s blend of swiss, cheddar, and provolone. It’s a bit smoky and bit buttery, and makes me feel 13 when I taste it. It’s delightful.
Imo’s is my early teens. Imo’s was where the cool kids worked. The kids who smoked in the alley behind the bar every morning before school. The kids who wore their hair parted down the middle. The kids who were the subjects of the first stories of peer-on-peer sexual deviance I ever heard. The kids who weren’t kids anymore, first. If you would’ve shown up for the interview in your older brother’s truck reeking of mystery and Marlboros, you could have worked at Imo’s. We all wanted to work at Imo’s. I worked at Hardee’s. We had a uniform. Imo’s had a lifestyle. Hardee’s made us buy special shoes. Imo’s didn’t make you wear them if you didn’t want to, dude. It’s gone now, the Hardee’s. Burned down a few years back. I think my step-brother was working there when it went up, but I can’t be too sure. We don’t talk much. I digress. Imo’s was where marriages worked. It was some sort of sanctum where the past didn’t matter. It was the place where the bills were paid, where she really was just a friend, where they’d look at each other, promise to work on it, and mean it. I’m an Imo’s lifer, and nothing will change that. I pray at the altar of the toasted ravioli. Hallowed be thy taste."