There’s just never been the same pride in neighborhood pizza here that you’ll find in, say, Hammond or Chicago. Even the few old-school Italian restaurants in the city turn out pretty miserable pizzas — with one major exception: Iaria’s continues to offer the same terrific pizza they’ve made for four generations.
Pete and Antonia Iaria immigrated to the U.S. from Calabria, Italy, in 1909, settling two years later in Indianapolis. On the spot where Iaria’s parking lot is now located, they opened an instantly popular grocery store and deli. When Antonia’s homemade spaghetti eventually began outselling the canned goods, the operation was moved across the street, where food became the focal point of Iaria’s Tavern. That was in 1932 or ’33 and the business has been in the Iaria family ever since.
Like most of the traditional dishes on Iaria’s menu, the pizza is made today from the original recipe Antonia brought with her from the old country. Dominic Iaria, Pete and Antonia’s grandson, was taught by his Aunt Santina how to make the pizza when he started working at the restaurant in the 1970s. “There’s a recipe written down somewhere but I never look at it,” he says. “I never even have to measure anything out anymore.”
It’s still listed on the menu as “pizza pie” and it still comes in only one size. Most importantly, it’s still unique, a pizza that tastes not quite like any I’ve had anywhere else. Order it with provolone (or better yet, extra provolone) and it may be one of the best pizzas in Indy. The provolone adds a richness that their traditional mozzarella pie can’t quite match. But according to Dominic, the true secret to Iaria’s pizza is in its sauce and crust. He will get no argument from me.
The sauce is perfectly balanced, not too sweet and never too much of it. It complements every other ingredient, without ever overwhelming the pizza. And the hand-tossed crust is a small revelation: ultra-thin but not brittle, flaky, almost pastry-like. It is a crust of real character that adds a flavor of its own to the mix.
Everything, crust and sauce included, is made from scratch, using only the freshest ingredients. Even the sausage (their single most popular topping) is made in-house three times a week. The most exotic topping Iaria’s offers is pepperoncini, an Italian pickled pepper. More tart than hot, it packs a flavor punch, though occasionally can dominate the other ingredients. When the restaurant recently printed up new menus, pepperoncini was accidentally left off the roster of pizza toppings, but regulars still know to order it.
Although Iaria’s frequently gets good press, it’s inevitably for its old-school red-sauce pasta dishes. Their pizza rarely gets a mention, though I would rate it the kitchen’s masterpiece. Dominic (at 47, the oldest family member currently involved in the restaurant’s day-to-day operation) remembers when most of his customers agreed: “In the ’70s our top-selling items were pizza, spaghetti, tenderloins and Italian sausage. But our menu has expanded so much over the years that pizza sales have slipped some.”
It still has plenty of fans, however. Carla Russell, a fourth-generation Iaria, says customers frequently marvel that the pizza tastes exactly as they remember it from 40 years ago. Russell is quick to caution that no one should come to Iaria’s expecting gourmet toppings. “We’re not Bazbeaux. They do nothing but pizza and are like a pizza smorgasbord. But when it comes to using fresh, top-notch ingredients, I’d put our pizza up against anybody’s.” Gourmet or no, to these taste buds, Iaria’s pizza has a depth of flavor, a soulfulness.
The same might be said for the restaurant’s familiar dining room and bar, unchanged in decades and comfortable as a neighbor’s living room. And, now that Barringer’s Tavern has retired its landmark old sign, Iaria’s can at last lay sole claim to having the best neon in Indianapolis as well.
Pizzas come in just one size and start at $11.99 (extra toppings $1 each). Iaria’s has a full bar with various imported and domestic beers and a short wine list.