I was never a cheerleader (although I tried out at least 3 times… took me that long to figure out that a tall, lanky, muscle-less, introverted, near-sighted nerd a cheerleader does not make) — and somehow that’s apparent even when I try to type a cheer. But that’s what the headline is supposed to be: me, cheering, for the Midwest.
I was in my car sometime last weekend (?) and was listening to Marketplace on NPR. They were doing a blurb on food, in Cleveland: the city that prides itself in giving us The Latest Iron Chef, and is apparently a little hotbed of good eats. They were interviewing the chef of a new, hip local-fare restaurant there (can’t remember the chef or the restaurant, but you could probably podcast it to find out), and he had a bold prediction: that the new wave of American culinary artistry was going to happen right here in the Flyover States. That, with all the surging interest in local and sustainable foods, it will be the cities of the Midwest — the ones that are surrounded by pastures and farmland to supply a small restaurant’s every high-quality locally-grown need — that will start to shine.
Oh, please please please please please let him be right. Pretty please, with local raw honey on top. We have farmland, we have pastures, we have a city that desperately needs to be a part of a New Food Order.
I’m not nominating Indianapolis for Trendy Culinary Epicenter, not just yet. But — while I’m still wearing a metaphorical black veil in response to being a full 607 miles from The South’s Culinary Epicenter — we’ve had a couple of dinners out, of late, that have brought hope to our hungry hearts. The first was at a place called Pizzology, a pizzeria and pub in Carmel, a sprawling suburb on the north side of the city.
I heard musings about it a few months ago before it opened — it was started by a couple whose 2-year old is in my son’s preschool co-op. This isn’t the first restaurant venture by the Brown family — they owned an upscale restaurant in Broad Ripple called L’Explorateur, which we heard praised but unfortunately closed before we moved to town. After talking about the premise of Pizzology with Lindy, the co-owner and sommelier, I immediately held onto hope that it would be a void-filler. The story was: Neal Brown, Lindy’s husband and the executive chef, spent time in San Francisco last spring, and had dinner several times at the Neopolitan pizzeria, A16. He fell in love with the craft, began perfecting it himself after returning home to Indy, and set forth on plans for Pizzology. They had the 800º oven, they were going to make all their own cheeses, they were going to source local ingredients. How could this go wrong?
We finally made it there, to see for ourselves, a couple weeks ago, and were in no way disappointed by the food. We were a group of 3 adults and 1 pizza-eating child, so we shared two pizzas (following strict Neopolitan parameters, the pizzas are 13″ in diameter): the Homemade Pepperoni and the “Old Kentucky Rome,” with Kentucky-cured prosciutto, roasted figs, and taleggio. Both pizzas were fantastic — the classic thin, crisp crust with a softness to the middle underside; house-made pepperoni and cheeses; sweet, dark figs that perfectly complemented the salty prosciutto and creamy-but-present taleggio (a cheese I don’t think I’ve had before). The pepperoni pizza was spicy — quite so, to the point that we didn’t think our 6-year old could eat it. But she surprised us, and consumed three pieces without stopping for air (bringing to a grinding halt the oft-used claim that she “can’t eat her dinner because it’s too spicy”). There is a good selection of beer, and based on Lindy’s reputation as sommelier a good wine list (though I’m not experienced enough to know — I’m currently an expert on Trader Joe’s under-five-dollar selection). Since we make our own pizzas almost every weekend in the winter, we never purchase them at restaurants (or order out). But this pizza — this Italian street food that can only be made in a hellishly-hot oven — I can’t make this. This is pizza that I’ll pay for, and I’ll do so because it is better than mine.
Now, for the drawbacks (because there must be one or two, right?). First, since I live within the city of Indianapolis proper, I don’t really like driving 25 or 30 minutes to get to Carmel (where Pizzology is located). We are just too lazy; we want our pizza, and to eat it close-to-home, too. And really, that’s the main negative. Another question mark of criticism was the atmosphere; while there is a warm and low-key feel to the place, with it’s chalkboard-look wall writings, it overall feels a bit too clean and pub-ish. And yes — it’s a “pizzeria & pub,” — but the atmosphere didn’t quite mesh with the uber-Italian, altogether unique (for Indy) eating experience. The classic rock playing on the restaurant speaker system just underscored the atmospheric mismatch. I don’t think they have to be piping in the Three Tenors — I don’t know what the solution would be — but there was something amiss, between what we were eating and where we were sitting. Lastly, the place is just too small. Since there is a bar, almost half the seating is reserved (by law) for 21-and-older only. That only leaves about 35 seats for patrons who have anyone under 21 (including an infant) at their table. We got there at 5:45, and waited 15 minutes for a table. By the time we left, at around 7:15, people were being told the wait was 1 1/2 hours. Since they don’t take reservations, that means you need to be willing to eat dinner at either 5:30 or 9:00. It’s a good problem for them to have — a full restaurant — but I hope they can find ways to accommodate more hungry souls if they’re gonna keep making pizzas that good.
So, the final word? Score one for Indianapolis. The second point came last weekend, at a restaurant downtown called R Bistro — but that night is the subject of another post. From what we’ve gathered since August via anecdotal evidence, it’s not that the city has a void of talented chefs; it’s that the city’s population, as a whole, just doesn’t buy their food when they make it. We’ve heard multiple accounts of really good restaurants (such as the Brown’s L’Explorateur, and Greg Hardesty’s Elements) just not making it. The real disappointment, though, lies in a drive around town, where you can find a sample of just about every national chain restaurant known to the Western world. Indianapolis is a city of chain-food eaters. And this is the uphill battle we are fighting.
But I’m not yet throwing in the towel — I’m holding on tightly to the pom-pom, and my hands are in the air. There is too much interest in the farmer’s markets, too much demand for raw milk, too many customers supporting places like Goose the Market for me to think it’s a losing battle. It might take a decade for us to reach a place similar to where Cleveland is right now, but we’ve got time on our hands, and a budget that could stand a few years to save up for all that good eating to come.