Gourmet pizza is a throwback to what is considered the very old tradition of a flatbread topped with ‘scant’ but taste-worthy, nutritious foods. With roots at the Cradle of Civilization, flatbread and beer are ancient soulmates. Egyptians ate a flatbread along with drinking their version of beer. The Greeks ‘anointed’ their large, round flat breads with oil, herbs, spices and dates, according to passed-down sources. The Roman poet Virgil penned an oft-quoted observation —“we devour the plates on which we fed,” alluding to eating the “cakes of flour” upon which a ‘scanty meal’ is placed.
The forebear of modern gourmet is generally agreed to come from the then 18th Century Italian Kingdom ruled by Umberto 1. His consort, Queen Margherita, reportedly savored the flat breads eaten by the peasants. As the story goes, round about the 1890s, as a tribute to their beloved Queen, chef Raffaele Esposito created a special pizza topped with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil, representative of the Italian flag — and named his creation ‘Margherita.’
Simple, with but three ingredients atop a combination of flour, oil, salt and yeast baked in a special brick oven, individually made at the time of being served.
Gourmet pizza arrived in Bloomington in 1989 as the center point of Lennie’s on 10th Street
. The concept of gourmet is based on using the highest quality ingredients (best if locally sourced) with less being quite enough for toppings.
Locally made pizza that highlights each ingredient, yet creates a sensational wow when chewed together, was what lured Jeff Mease to gourmet pizza over mass-produced, pre-prepared and loaded.
But Mease was thwarted when he wanted to add the second part of the gourmet equation: craft beer. When he finally did get a permit, Lennie’s was serving beers available from fledgling U.S. craft breweries and established imports.
“We would promote an import or a microbrew a month at a time, and as I started learning about the whole craft beer industry, I just got enamored by it,” Mease told me when he first related the ‘history’ sometime around 2005.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the local, the things that become very popular at a local level but don’t necessarily get big. They stay unique to their place, like ‘terroir.’ I came to see this as part and parcel of community.
“It was this love and fascination of local brands that attracted me to craft beer. What I appreciate is the magic of the local brand, and that’s why Bloomington Brewing Company
came into being.”
And that’s how, from 1994 onward Lennie’s-BBC has gained credence as a gourmet pizza and craft beer destination that hasn’t abated over 22 years. Witness a Thrillist.com
“Lennie's is a trailblazer, to say the least. First, it introduced quality gourmet pizza to the freewheeling college town of Bloomington, Indiana back in 1989, then followed it up five years with another instant hit: Bloomington Brewing Co. Monroe County's very first commercial brewery also holds the claim as the first brewpub in all of Southern Indiana, answering the prayers of hungry students and townies alike with its distinctly Midwestern pies (twice-baked, crispy, medium-thick crust, lots of gooey mozz and provolone), four different sauce options, a giant list of locally sourced toppings and extra-creative signature combos, and rotating tap list of original and guest beers (the mellow, malty Ruby Bloom amber is a local fave). And if you're looking for the perfect brew to accompany your pizza, just ask a server – beer and food pairings are the heart and soul of Lennie's ethos.”
evolved as a brewpub from the get-go in 1998, they created their own niche.
“Pizzas occupy a small but important niche in our pubs’ menus: they enable us to showcase local, hi-end ingredients, and always to do something interesting for our vegetarian customers. In that sense, they’re like the beer recipes: inspired by tradition, but with a unique twist,” said owner Doug Dayhoff in a recent email. “We make it easy to pair with pizza by packaging our beer in kegs, bottles and cans – three different ways to deliver great beer to the pizza table or for carryout.”
When I asked what is his best pairing choice, Dayhoff said, “My own preference is for bigger, more hoppy beers alongside spicier and cheesier pizzas; and lighter and tarter beers alongside pestos and lighter pizzas.”
“Bloomington, as home of Indiana University
, certainly has plenty of choices for pizza and beer!” enthuses Greg Kitzmiller, who adds craft beer writer and blogger to his day job as a faculty member at the I.U. Kelley School of Business. Here’s his survey:
“With five tap rooms in town it’s easy to pair great beer with pizza. Bloomington Brewing Company was founded inside Lennie’s, home of gourmet pizza. When I’m there enjoying the Virginia Slim pizza with broccoli, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and spinach I love pairing that with a Ruby Bloom Amber, one of their early offerings that provides a nice malt balance to allow the pizza to be showcased.
is Bloomington’s newest brewery, where Nefarious Nectar Belgian-style golden ale with honey offers some spice alongside a 6-Cheese pizza that is a delight.
“Of course Nick’s English Hut
is known by I.U. Alumni and most visitors as a Bloomington tradition above all others and is where I frequently have great local beer. Most recently I loved the Upland Wheat as a reasonably light but flavorful wit-style beer with a Nick’s pizza featuring meats and mushrooms.
Sometimes I just have to add big, bold flavor with a Quaff On
Busted Knuckle robust porter wherever I grab a good, equally hearty pizza whether at a Big Woods/Quaff On restaurant locally or Bucceto’s Smiling Teeth Pizza.”
Places to nom and drink in Bloomington
Don’t expect pizza at Function Brewery
. Instead go prepared to enjoy another aspect of gourmet with mouth-watering, delicious soups, salads, sandwiches and starters and if you find room, desserts.
For Big Woods, pizza is the forte at their specialty location in Nashville, though you’ll find a choice at Big Woods Bloomington.
For the record, October is National Pizza Month, originated in 1984 by Gerry Durnell, publisher of Pizza Today Magazine. October happens to be my birthday month, and of course name wise Margherita is my favorite — but it would be in any case because of all the possibilities, it’s what most attracts me ingredient-wise and it lends itself to a range of beer styles, depending upon what I most want to experience as a combination. Saisons balance with the Italian tomatoes, Mozzarella cheese, basil. If I want the essence of a thin, delicate crust to shine, I choose a wheat beer.
If I’m oregano-centric at that moment I’ll want a Pilsner with its effervescence and garden-grassiness. Sparking a Margherita with Italian spices changes the effect enough to reconsider my go-to styles.
Admittedly, I’m not into hoppy beers but I’ll relent and choose an American Pale Ale if the pizza creator opts for tomato sauce over gently roasted fresh tomato. The hops here will cleanse the sauce and cheese and highlight the herbs for me.
The smooth mouthfeel of an ESB has a totally different effect. It’s like adding a top crust to the overall taste treat.
If I’m at a spot where the chef’s forte is a bold crust, more on the well done side — even scorched— I’ll go with a smoky Rauch-bier to bring that specialty into play and the cheese, tomato and herb will dance along in solo turns. Otherwise I’ll opt for a Dark Beer to partner with the crust and that will still allow me to get the distinctive flavors of the trio of toppings as a melded force.
If I really want to render tomatoes secondary or even not much existent and I want the sweet cheese and aromatic basil to fill my mouth and head, I’m ordering a Kolsch.
But, back to a simple flavor liquid for a simple flavor slice. There’s another unexpected option: newly emerging willingness to brew with corn malt. Mind you, not a beer with corn flakes or adjunct corn, but a true malted corn. The airy, light expectation beckons.
Whatever Bloomington pizza you choose, try being adventuresome with multiple pairings of beer choices.