The “Braunstein Pizza Project” is searching for a slice of NYC in STL

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Brian and Debbie Braunstein

Ellen Futterman, Editor-In-Chief

When three New York transplants are together one of the topics they are bound to discuss is pizza. That’s just the facts, folks.

Pizza to native New Yorkers is what toasted ravioli is to native St. Louisans. Everyone has an opinion about the best, and why. So when I spoke to B’nai Amoona congregants Debbi and Brian Braunstein last week about their pizza pandemic project, I knew they were going to have strong feelings and wouldn’t be shy about airing them.

Married for 38 years with two adult children, Debbi grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx while Brian hails from Bellmore, N.Y. on Long Island. (For the record, I’m a Long Islander, too, from Westbury, back in the day when Frank’s Pizza set the industry’s gold standard.)

As Debbi explains, it was December 2020, with the pandemic in high gear, when she realized that she and Brian had been bringing in pizza and salad for the last three Sundays in a row. “I said to Brian, ‘Let’s see how long we can keep this up,’” recalled Debbi, a self-described “New York pizza snob” who says she will never believe Provel is real cheese. Their plan was to either bring in from or eat at, a different local pizza restaurant every Sunday night for a year. In the end, they kept it up for 56 weeks instead of just 52.

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“We thought we were done but after reading an article about the highest-rated pizza places in St. Louis, we found four we hadn’t visited that fit our criteria, so we extended it to 56 weeks,” said Debbi, who serves as program supervisor for Sharsheret Supports STL.

Their pizza criteria

• Mozzarella cheese. “I don’t eat Provel at all and Brian will only eat it if it’s cold. So Provel was out of the question.” (Sorry, Imo’s.)
• No fast-food chains.
• Hand tossed, the way New York crust is made, and cut into slices. (They did wind up with a few pizzas cut into squares, but none of those made it into their Top 10.)
• Within a 30-minute drive from their home in Creve Coeur.
• Open on Sunday. “After 40 weeks, we relaxed the rule and started going to places on a Friday or Saturday.”

The couple, who met at the State University of New York-Buffalo and moved here in the mid- 1990s for Brian’s job with Enterprise Holdings, wanted to be careful to compare apples-to-apples, or in this case, pizzas- to-pizzas. “I am a pizza purist,” said Debbi unabashedly. “It has to be cut into slices, you have to be able to fold it, the melted mozzarella has to move toward the middle, and I like a little bit of grease running down. It’s got to have a crisp crust. I don’t want a cracker crust or deep dish. It’s got to be hand-tossed and have a great sauce.

“There were times when some of the places we went had a cheese blend, but we would order a margherita pizza, which was mozzarella.” In some cases, they would order half cheese and half mushroom for Brian. Quickly, they realized a take-out pizza wasn’t going to taste the same as one right out of the oven.

Where they went for pizza

“We tried to stay consistent with the style and the type, but we did take into account some of the ones we brought home knowing they had to travel,” said Debbi. Speaking of travel, Brian said the pizza project took them to neighborhoods they had not been to before, like New Town in St. Charles County.

They also checked out places in Holly Hills, Tower Grove, and the Hill (duh!) as well as South County, Ellisville, and farther west. “One thing that surprised us was some of the free stuff we got once we told our story,” said Brian, who is president of the board at Jewish Family Services. Among the freebies: beer and well, yes, pizza.

“We were at a place in Soulard and the waitress came over and we told her what we were doing,” Debbi said. “She told the owner, who pulled up a chair and said, ‘When you’re done eating, I want you to order one more off the menu and take it home from me.’ It was meatball and something else – not something we would have ordered for this experience, but it was good.” As word of what they were doing spread, friends kept asking them for a list ranking the pizzas in order.

Much to their surprise, everyone seemed intrigued by the project.

When they compared notes at the end, both agreed on their No. 1 and 2 picks (La Pizza and Racanelli’s, respectively) as well as the Top 10. As the couple notes, it came down to a good sauce; a good sauce-to-mozzarella ratio, hand-tossed crust with a bit of crispiness and being able to fold the slice (no square or thin crust).

They listed the remaining 46 places in alphabetical order (see chart), declining to specify ones they didn’t care for. And though the pizza pandemic project is over, Debbi and Brian say they’re up for a new culinary challenge. As we contemplated the possibilities, it quickly became clear what that challenge has to be: Buffalo wings, of course.