St. Louis is the birthplace of many unique foods. Some, like the toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake have successfully spread around the country. Others, like pork steak and Provel cheese haven’t been as popular outside our region.
The origins of some St. Louis foods aren’t very clear, but Abe Pezzani of Roma Grocery on The Hill says he knows exactly where Provel came from. He told a Post-Dispatch report in 2007 that “Provel was the baby of Tony Costa.”
Tony Costa had a grocery store at Seventh and Cole. According to Pezzani, Costa worked with a food scientist at Hoffman Cheese in Wisconsin to develop a pizza cheese that melted uniformly.
Naturally, another long time St. Louis family disputes Pezzani’s story. Mary Sigillito also told a Post-Dispatch reporter that her family store was actually the first to carry Provel. Her husband John Sigillito owned International Food Products, and according to her, introduced the pizza cheese to St. Louis in the 1940’s.
“The pizzerias liked (Provel) because they could use less, and it wouldn’t get stringy and leave a mess on their clothes. The people who ate it liked the flavor and the convenience of not having the string. My husband introduced it to the pizzerias,” she said.
Either way, we can all agree that it was Ed Imo who made the cheese into the St. Louis classic that it is, when he made it the signature cheese of an Imo’s pizza.
Provel is technically a process cheese “food” like Velveeta and American cheese. It’s made of real cheese, to be sure: Swiss, provolone and cheddar. It has a creaminess and low melting point that makes it perfect for pizza, but it lacks the extreme stretchiness of traditional mozzarella.
St. Louis restaurants use Provel on sandwiches, burgers, salads, cheese sauces and soups.
Today the trademark for Provel cheese is held by Kraft, Inc.
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