Thursday, January 5, 2012 / 10:36 AM
There is no more incendiary culinary term in St. Louis than "Provel cheese." What's your opinion of the stuff and how would you attempt to convince a non-believer? JRW, Wilmington, NC
Provel cheese was allegedly developed here in the 1940's by a group of Italian men who were looking for a pizza cheese with some "bite," and one that "broke cleanly," unlike stringy, stretchy mozzarella. Somewhere in the experimentation process Ed Imo got involved and it was he who asked to be the sole distributor for Provel in St. Louis. The Hoffman Co. (manufacturers of the cheese at the time), gave him permission to do so. When Ed and Marge Imo opened their first store in 1964, it was Provel cheese (along with a signature thin crust) that made their pizza unique. We hear there are even some devotees who contend that pizzas made with Provel require less cheese…and therefore such a pizza is healthier for you (which they no doubt use as an excuse to down an extra-large Deluxe).
All that aside, I like the stuff--in limited uses and quantities, mind you--and have defended Provel even in the pages of St. Louis Magazine, going mano a mano with dining critic Dave Lowry in a point/counterpoint. (Not sure who won that battle but Lowry's description is worth noting: "Provel is the bastard child of Amoco, the god of oil, and Velvettus, the goddess of potluck suppers.")
Opinions aside, to convince the naysayers I offer 5 dishes that may help sway an opinion. Serve Provel on...
A Thin Crust Pizza (below)- but not in the all-or-nothing way you think. Most pizza joints serving Provel usually have a Provel blend as well-- even Imo's will make a pizza with a 50/50 Provel/mozz blend (the same cheese they use on their pasta). But you have to request "with the blended cheese, please." Such a pizza has a milder Provel flavor along with the firmness and elasticity of mozzarella. .
A Mac & Cheese – When Cheese-ology first opened, a group of us tasted 5 varieties at one sitting and the favorite was the version owner Bill Courtney calls "The Hill" (above), made with Provel, marinara, and Hill-sourced Italian sausage. It had a creaminess and taste that surprised every one of us. (Side note: In 2010, the RFT dubbed The Hill with "Best Use of the Worst Cheese.")
A Salad - But not just any salad: the Deluxe at Guido's on The Hil (below): iceberg and spring lettuce mix topped with Provel and parmesan cheese, ham, salami, pepperoni, tomatoes, black olives, red onions, and a pepperoncini. In my opinion, with Provel less is often more, so order that salad with "a little less Provel and a little more parm."
A Burger - Specifically the "St. Louis Burger" at Smashburger (above): with Provel cheese, garlic grilled mushrooms, grilled onions, and sweet bell peppers on a pretzel bun. This burger is juicy, gooey, and delicious. And I doubt if you'll hear anyone blurt out "ohhh, but it would be sooo much better with aged Gruyère."
A Scampi Dish - This one I created in my own kitchen on one of those nights when only discordant ingredients were available: I cooked up shrimp, scampi-style--with plenty of garlic, shallots, white wine, butter and chives--and served them on top of garlic cheese bread, cobbled together using, once again, a blend of cheeses, the majority player being Provel. I've served this item both appetizer- and entree-style, and no one--Provel haters included--has failed to rave about it. That'll show 'em...
How do you use Provel? Let us know in the comments.
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