The story of Indiana pizza is mostly one of regional influence and corporate greed. Indiana is caught between two equally strong forces, which basically carve the state in two. On the north is the strong pull of Chicago and its thin crust, tavern-style pizza. Pizza comes in squares up there, with a strong preference for sausage. Southern Indiana, on the other hand, seems to show a lot of influence from the hands of Papa John's, which originated in the southern town of Jeffersonville, only to multiply into the third biggest chain in the country. Its style—the breadier crust, which is generously topped with cheese, vegetables, and meat, and then cut into regular slices—often takes precedent in the south.
But it's not quite as simple as that. While chain pizza is most of the story, there is also a small band of pizza obsessives who have fought against the tide. Currently they are making pizza the way they want to, and it's completely changing the way Hoosiers look at dough, cheese, and sauce.
Where to Eat Pizza in Indianapolis
For years, serious pizza discussion in Indianapolis began and ended with Bazbeaux Pizza. The gourmet pizza restaurant opened in the Broad Ripple neighborhood in 1986, and for twenty consecutive years it held the title as the best pizza in the city according to Indianapolis Monthly. It did this by offering a truly astonishing range of unique toppings and combinations. There are over 17 "regular toppings" and 37 "exotic toppings," which could create a nearly limitless combination of pizzas. For those who need help, there are also 23 specialty pizzas that do that work for you. Unfortunately, our own Daniel Zemans was a little less than impressed. What was the problem?
Normally, when I have a pizza with good cheese, good sauce and decent to good toppings, I'm one happy little boy. But the crust at Bazbeaux's was a massive disappointment. Anyone who reads my weekly missives with any regularity knows that I am pretty forgiving with crusts. I've had multiple pizzas that I think are delicious despite having decidedly unremarkable crusts that seem to serve little function beyond being edible plates. The problem with Bazbeaux's crust is not just that it has the texture and flavor of an over-toasted piece of store-bought white bread, it's that it was so thick. Not close to deep dish thick, but still thicker than a standard thin crust.
There is absolutely no doubt that Bazbaeux's helped keep Indianapolis out of the pizza dark ages back in the 80's, but right now it seems to be caught behind some of the more exciting new openings, especially the one that ended its winning streak.
334 Massachusetts Avenue, Indianapolis, IN; 317-636-7662 and 811 East Westfield Boulevard, Indianapolis, IN; 317-255-5711; bazbeaux.com
Pizzology is the new kid in town, and is showing Indianapolis what authentic Neapolitan pizza looks like. Well, actually, it's in the northern suburb of Carmel, but the pizza is good enough to make the trek. The restaurant was created by Neal Brown, who had previously worked at L'Explorateur. Like all great pizza, it almost demands hyperbole. Writing for the weekly NUVO, Jennifer Litz had this to say:
This is the beauty of Pizzology's pies: Like any other piece of art, they take time to fully appreciate. Like a song you must hear repeatedly before it strikes a chord, or a classic book that must be read with patience, you will eventually come to adore this somewhat foreign fare - and be more worldly for it.
Pizzology is so good that it ended Bazbeaux's twenty year reign as the best pizza in Indianapolis Monthly. Critic Terry Kirts is a huge fan:
The popular homemade sausage pizza with aromatic fennel-spiked sausage and roasted sweet peppadew peppers had spent just the right amount of time in the oven, and the bright flavors of the toppings were a perfect foil to a crust that cracked ever so slightly at first bite before delivering a signature chewy finish.
Serious Eats community member colleenanne29 highly recommended this spot, even though it was a little bit of a trek for her.
13190 Hazel Dell Pkwy, Carmel, Indianapolis, IN; 317-844-2554; pizzologyindy.com
What Pizzology helped start, Napolese is perpetuating. It's the latest outlet from Martha Hoover, who has opened a serious of very successful restaurants under the name of Cafe Patachou, and according to Indianapolis Monthly it "joins Carmel's Pizzology in schooling Hoosier palates on a true icon of Italian cuisine." It's all about the crust here, as Terry Kirts goes on to explain:
What is most impressive about Hoover's creations, however, isn't so much topping combinations. It's the crispy chew of the crust, the internal integrity of the glutens from the Caputo flour, that sings in the mouth.
Serious Eats community member dustinleeboyer related that Napolese's pies had "great sauce, dough, and choice toppings."
114 East 49th Street, Indianapolis, IN 46205; 317-925-0765; cafepatachou.com
But Indianapolis also has an unsung pizza history, and one that didn't begin with Bazbeaux's opening in 1986. While it's not on the cusp of any trend, Maria's Pizza in the Fountain Square neighborhood has been dishing out Midwestern tavern-style pizza for over 50 years. Dan Zemans highly recommended it:
The crust at Maria's is flakier and more flavorful than is typical for the style, which I suspect is due at least in part to some butter in the dough. The sauce was heavily seasoned and a little sweet, which is common for this style of pizza. It's the kind of sauce that, eaten on a plain pie, might be a bit much. But when included in a well-executed pizza with a good mix of toppings, the sauce adds just the right amount of sweet tang.
Serious Eats community member weavr agreed: "The tangy sauerkraut, sweet sauce, buttery crust, salty bacon and well-spiced sausage worked amazingly well together. I can't emphasize enough what a great and unique pizza this is."
(Maria's is now permanently closed.)
Union Jack Pub
While Chicago's influence on Indiana pizza tends to skew towards the thin-crust, tavern style, there are also a sprinkling of deep dish places that have crept down across state lines. The most famous is the version at the Union Jack Pub, a sort of English pub in the Broad Ripple neighborhood. Nick Solares visited the location, and while he found the pizza a little undercooked, he was impressed:
But it was nevertheless satisfying in a glutenous, comforting sort of way. The mass of low-moisture mozzarella formed long strings that seemingly stretched forever when pulling a slice form the pan. The sweet sauce was punctuated by the saltiness from the sausage. The crust was firm and crunchy but softened on the inside by the cheese and sauce—a pleasing textural contrast.
Serious Eats community member ndfanwabashman told us that he's been "championing this place since arriving in Indy 5 years ago."
924 Broad Ripple Avenue, Indianapolis, IN 46220; 317-257-4343; unionjackpub-broadripple.com
More Recommended Pies in Indianapolis
Serious Eater mvl1014 highly recommends Eh! Formaggio (5510 Lafayette Road, Indianapolis, IN; 317-328-1122) on the west side.
In nearby Fishers is an outlet of Nancy's (8395 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038-1520; 317-576-9333), which is one of the originators of the stuffed crust.
We've also heard good things about Jockamo Pizza (5646 East Washington Street, Indianapolis, IN 46219-6428; 317-356-6612, jockamopizza.com).
And we can't wait to check out the pies that they are putting out at Brozinni Pizzeria (8810 S Emerson, Indianpolis IN 46237; 317-865-0911; brozinni.net).
Where to Eat Pizza in Michiana Shores
Stop 50 Wood Fired Pizzeria
Near the banks of Lake Michigan in the uppermost part of the state is a pizza sanctuary for those weary of the Midwest's heavy-handed approach. Stop 50's crust is made from a years-old sourdough starter and is sparsely topped with fresh, local ingredients before being slid into a wood burning oven that reaches temperatures between 900 and 1,300 degrees. Stop 50 has gained the approval of Chicago's influential culinary chat site, LTHforum.com, and it is the only Indiana restaurant to be honored with the Great Neighborhood Restaurant Award. LTH member Mike Gebert, who also writes for Sky Full of Bacon, loved the crust:
This was a wonderful crust—crispy outside, fluffy inside, little burnt bits which added flavor almost like a seasoning does, a deliciously scarfable platform for superior toppings.
If that wasn't enough, it also happens to be Ed Levine's favorite pizza in the state. 500 S. El Portal, Michiana Shores, IN 46360; 219-879-8777; stop50woodfiredpizzeria.com
Where to Eat Pizza in Valparaiso
The Rolling Stonebaker
A 1949 Studebaker firetruck might not seem like much of a guarantee for pizza success, but Andrea Georgian and Jim Chaddock have managed to convert it into a wood-fired pizza oven that can hit 900°F (482°C). The Chicago Tribune sent Kevin Pang to review the restaurant for his Cheap Eater column. He reported that the 10-inch "crispy-then-chewy cracker crust" comes out in about a minute, and serves as the base for various toppings, including the "terrific Choke-N-Shroom," which features "mellow roasted garlic, with ricotta, baby bella mushrooms and strips of artichoke hearts atop."
54 Lafayette Street, Valparaiso, IN 46383; (219) 462-0443; therollingstonebaker.com
Where to Eat Pizza in Fort Wayne
Lexy's Pizza, which is arguably Fort Wayne's best pizzeria, begins with standard dough run through a sheeter, and ends after a slow trip through a conveyor oven. So what makes it so good? In the Midwest tradition, Lexy's toppings are the star. Its crumbled sausage is flavorful with just the right amount of fat, and the cheese is rich with only a slight pull. Bennett Spickelmier on Urban Spoon describes it best:
Crust was wafer-thin and crispy without being too flaky, but soft enough to chew and strong enough to support all the toppings (the importance of which I feel is very underrated when it comes to the qualities of a good pizza). The sauce was robust and had a nice kick with just the right seasonings, thin but not too runny. The pepperoni was layered under the cheese, which I love—can't stand crispy pepperoni. A varied blend of cheeses rounded out what was one of the better pizzas I've had, certainly the best I've found in this city so far.
908 Spring Street, Fort Wayne, IN 46808; (260) 424-1640; lexyspizzafw.com
800° Wood Fired Pizza and Pub
Fort Wayne's first foray into wood-fired Neapolitan pizza just opened last year, and according to the The News-Sentinel, the wood-fired oven was imported from Tuscany. On Urbanspoon, fooddick sang its praises: "The place shines a bright light on Fort Wayne pizza. Great selection of salads and fantastic bruschetta. The wood fired pizza actually has cheese that has flavor!"10020 Lima Road Suite F, Fort Wayne, IN 46818; 260-490-0111; 800degreespizzas.com
Yep, Pizza Hut. We are not kidding. No discussion of Ft. Wayne pizza would be complete without at least mentioning this very specific group of Pizza Huts. Although considered a highly inferior chain outside the area, The Fort Wayne Monthly crowned Pizza Hut as the best in the city. What's the difference? Well, this local franchise is owned by Dick Freeland, who seems to hold his restaurants to a higher standard in terms of ingredients and preparation than Pizza Huts outside the area. Plus, he lives in a castle.
Multiple locations throughout Fort Wayne.
If you have a craving for stuffed pizza, Oley's is the place in Fort Wayne to get it. Oley's "Double Crust" pizza is impossibly heavy on sauce and cheese, and if you've been to Giordano's in Chicago, you know what you're getting yourself into when you order one of these heavy suckers. A knife and fork is NOT optional. Bob H. from Insider Pages calls it "the best deep-dish pizza in Fort Wayne."
10910 US Highway 24 West, Fort Wayne IN 46814; 260-432-6996
River Bend Pizza
Run from a converted gas station by a Fort Wayne restaurant family dynasty, River Bend's thin crust, toppings-heavy pizza has had a loyal following since 1956. There are now over 13 other outlets of the chain. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette admits it is "tasty pizza."
7410 St. Joe Road, Ft. Wayne IN 46835; 260-485-3390
Where to Eat Pizza in South Bend
If you want to eat South Bend's best pizza, you go to Rocco's, where you're greeted by current owners Warren and Linda. As the story goes, Warren started at Rocco's as a dish washer. He fell in love with (and eventually married) Linda, Rocco's daughter. When her father died, Linda and Warren took over the family business. The only thing better than the story is Rocco's pizza. Its thin, pliable crust is massaged with a well seasoned tomato sauce. Food and Wine points out that if you'd like to to "lunch like the locals (students)," then you'll need to "go for garlic pizza." Since they're open til 2 a.m., regulars in the know come late during Notre Dame football season.
537 N St. Louis Boulevard, South Bend IN 46617; 574-233-2464
Repeatedly mentioned as South Bend's best pizza, Barnaby's interior looks like a 1960's American imagining of a British pub. Barnaby's cuts its sturdy, cheesy pies after they leave the massive, rotating shelved oven. Stories of long-forgotten run-ins with the Greek mafia only add to the charm of this South Bend institution. Though once a mighty chain around the area, there are only a few remaining locations of the Indiana and Northern Illinois chain. Luckily, Daniel Zemans was able to sample the pizza at Northbrook location:
While homemade sausage and piles of decent quality mozzarella are common at joints like this all of over Chicagoland, what makes Barnaby's one of the best around is the crust. Tavern-cut pies generally offer a crust that serves two functions: add some texture and hold the rest of the pizza; adding taste is not in the job description. The buttery crust at Barnaby's, which features the heaviest dusting of corn meal I've ever seen on a pizza, is outstanding. Particularly delicious is the end crust, which looks and tastes like a fresh baked cheese twist.
713 E Jefferson Boulevard, South Bend IN 46617; 574-288-4981; barnabys-pizza.com
Where to Eat Pizza in Bloomington
Mother Bear's Pizza
Bloomington's pizza heavyweight features pan pizzas that are as stacked as its mascot. Voted one of the best pizza places in the country by USA Today, Mother Bear's serves imaginatively-topped pies with surprisingly caramelized crusts. The "Spinoccoli," topped with Parmesan-garlic white sauce, spinach, broccoli, and both mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, has been the gateway to college vegetarianism since time immortal. That probably explains why it has won best pizza from the Indiana Daily Student for five years in a row.
1428 E Third Street, Bloomington, IN 47401; (812) 332-4495; motherbearspizza.com
Opened in late 1995, Aver's Pizza offers a "gourmet pizza to go" alternative to the rush of low-priced options heaped on the Indiana University crowd. As Sarah W. on Yelp writes, it's all about the topping combinations: "Fresh toppings, creative combination choices, delicious crust. Everyone freaks out about Mother Bear's, and that is really good, but this to me is even better." It's also been one of the Top 100 independent pizza restaurants in country according to Pizza Today Magazine for five consecutive years.
317 East Winslow Road, Bloomington, IN; 812-323-8333 and 1837 North Kinser Pike, Bloomington, IN; 812-339-6555; averspizza.com.
More Recommended Pies in Bloomington
Pizza X is the drunk food of choice for Indiana University students, featuring a doughy but tasty crust. It's a surprisingly solid carry-out-only pie (Multiple locations throughout Bloomington; pizzaxbloomington.com).
Swing-In Pizza's supreme pizza is piled high with toppings and is generously sprinkled with Italian seasoning. (301 W 17th Street, Bloomington, IN 47404; 812-330-0000)
Where to Eat Pizza in West Lafayette
Known for their Bruno Dough (translation: garlic knots) more than anything else, Bruno's serves a solid tavern pizza to hungry Purdue students. The thin crust pizzas are cut in half and then into strips with a large pair of shears, making it a serious contender against Triple XXX for West Lafayette's most memorable restaurant. They scored a glowing review from ESPN:
Through the years the menu has really expanded. But one signature item has remained. Bruno's famous pizza dough is cut into pieces, deep fried, brushed with garlic butter, and then sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. And then served with either cheese or marinara sauce for dipping.
212 Brown Street, West Lafayette, IN 47906; 765-743-1668; brunodough.com
Where to Eat Pizza in Munster
Though it's not the original John's (that one unfortunately closed in 2006), this outlet in Munster is still kicking out thin-crust, tavern pizza. As Daniel Zemans noted, the crust is "thicker and softer than typical thin crust," and a "very generous sprinkling of cornmeal adorns the bottom, adding some nice flavor and texture." It's mostly serviceable pizza, except for one key ingredient:
What separates John from the sea of pizzerias is the extraordinary sausage. Made in-house on a daily basis, the crumbled fennel sausage is absolutely packed with flavor. And presumably because the folks at John's know how good it is, the bits of delicious pork cover virtually every centimeter of the crust (the heavy concentration in the top of the picture is the sausage that stuck to the cheese when I pulled it back). Without the sausage, John's is a good, but uneventful pizzeria. With the sausage, it's the kind of pizza worth going well out of your way to try.
247 Ridge Road, Munster, IN 46321; 219-836-8536; theoriginaljohns.com
Where to Eat Pizza in Muncie
Featuring locations throughout middle and southern Indiana, Greek's famously employed John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John's, as a delivery truck driver two years before he opened his first restaurant. Rumor has it that the first mixer Schnatter bought was the same brand as the one Greek's used. In fact, Greek's looks like a more nuanced and less standardized Papa John's pizza. Coincidence? You decide. It certainly has a lot of cheese, as the Star Press notes: "Greek's pizza is not for a sauce lover—the cheese has more than its fair share of room on the crust."
1600 W University Avenue 47303; (765) 284-4900; mygreekspizzeria.com
Where to Eat Pizza in Evansville
Often considered the best pizza in Evansville, Turoni's was selected as the third best in the world in David Boesch's Pins on a Map: A Family's Yearlong Journey Around the World. Linda Negro from the Evansville Courier & Press praised the pizza for its "crisp, thin crust, light hand with the tomato sauce and cheese and abundant toppings." The sausage is also made in house.
408 North Main Street, Evansville, IN; (812) 424-9873 and 4 North Weinbach Avenue, Evansville, IN; 812-477-7500; turonis.com
Roca Bar Pizza
Opened by John Rogers and Earl Carter as the Roca Bar Tavern in 1943, the owners added pizza to the menu ten years later. They claim it's the oldest pizzeria in the city. Roca's pie features a very thin, crispy crust which is "heavily endowed" with toppings, according to the Indiana Economic Digest. The Evansville Courier & Press notes that the Around the World pizza (which features beef, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, tomatoes), is "by far the most popular" item on the menu.
1618 South Kentucky Avenue, Evansville, IN 47714-3481; 812-422-7782; rocabarpizza.com
Indiana's Strange Chain Pizza History
As Ed Levine pointed out in Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, many of the most successful pizza chains were not started by cooks but by business people: "You'll find heartwarming stories of young people who overcame their modest circumstances to achieve great wealth and build big, successful businesses. You won't find the stories of passionate pizza makers determined to bring their fabulous pizza to every corner of the world."
Which brings us to the Indiana chain pizza story, and actually, there are three of them. All sad, tragic, triumphant, and ultimately not as delicious as they should be. Indiana had a surprisingly large part to play in the chain pizza business, and it also helped shape the style of pizzas across the state. But let's start with the most famous one:
In 1983 John Schnatter decided to sell his "prized" 1971 Z28 Camaro and start cooking pizza at his father's lounge in Jeffersonville. He renovated an old broom closet, installed a pizza oven, and started cranking out pizza for the patrons of the bar. Within a year Schnatter had made enough money to expand into the space next door, which would become the first Papa John's. The chain now has over 3,000 locations around the country.
With the catch phrase, "Better Ingredients, Better Pizza," Papa John's is, like most things in the Midwest, generously loaded. Toppings are plentiful and the cheese is thick. The crust is hand-tossed, relatively thin, with a raised, doughy edge. If those ends look more like a bread stick than an artfully blistered cornicione, then that's because each pizza box comes with container of garlic butter meant for dunking. (They also come with peperoncini peppers.) Locations nationwide
Pizza King and Arni's
When one drives around Indiana, the one pizza name that seems to pop up over and over again—besides the big name chains—is Pizza King. Started in Lafayette in the '50's by two brothers, the original chain is, according to the Indiana Foodways Alliance, the third oldest pizza chain in the United States! So how did Papa John's take over the country, and this chain stay a local curiosity?
First was the infighting. The brothers got into a "business dispute," split up, and one moved east to Muncie, and started an outlet there. Then came the copy cats. Restaurants that had nothing to do with the original Pizza King started using the name. While the brothers looked into securing the name rights and stopping the spread of the impostors, that was an expensive proposition. And that's not the end of it. The original Lafayette location closed, was bought by a new family, and renamed Arni's. This restaurant now has 18 different locations around state.
The pizza itself is thin crust tavern style, fairly standard, and not often considered among the best in the state. But it's really hard to judge, since the locations differ so wildly from each other, and it's almost impossible to figure out which are real and which are imitators. We'd love to see someone actually visit all of them and find out for sure.
In 1972 Stephen Huse and Gary Knackstedt bought a struggling pizzeria in Bloomington, Indiana and started the first Noble Roman's. Featuring a strange mix of ancient Roman kitsch and Midwestern tavern decorating sensibility, it specializes in a type of pan pizza with a caramelized crust. Last time we sampled it, it had a hazy resemblance to Pequod's in Chicago, which we love. But most people tend to talk about the bread sticks, which is never a good sign. At its peak, there were outlets in 44 different states, but the company's expansion has been erratic and unfocused, and between frozen take home pizzas and their taco pizza, we're not that interested in giving it another shot.