Notes from the pizza trail 

Persistence pays off in pursuit of new venues

Rumor had it there were some tasty local pizzas a certain restaurant critic hadn’t tried. Oh, he’d eaten the most celebrated ones, even sampled a few off the beaten path. But he hadn’t been to the Southeast side with his eye on pepperoni and sausage for a long time. He was missing out on some of the city’s best, if most unsung, pies. “Pixie dust” in the sauce, he’d heard whispered. “Something magic about that crust.” How could he not try?

Since that critic happened to be me, I figured it was time to give another part of town its due. For years now, I’ve been searching for the real pizza culture of Indianapolis, some coherent notion of pizza preparation that would make ours in Indy distinct from those, say, in Cincinnati or Detroit. So far, I’m still grasping at breadsticks (and dipping them in garlic butter).

If I hadn’t ventured over to Indiana from my home state of Illinois, I would still be content with the St. Louis-style pizzas popular downstate from Chicago. Practically a point of pride that says, “Hey, pizza’s not just deep dish,” these pizzas are cracker thin, square cut, and often topped with an especially gooey cheese called provel. We got them at Monical’s, a regional chain, and, lo and behold, there’s one in the area now, albeit a bit of a drive to Avon. It’s worth it if you’re someone who appreciates a perfectly crisp, chewy crust that isn’t obliterated by cheese.

But these weren’t the pizzas people were making all the noise about. So I embarked on a little pizza odyssey to see if these recommendations held any water. First stop was Antonio & Maria’s Old World Pizzeria on Shelby Street, formerly just Maria’s, a Garfield Park area joint I’d heard about for years. The place got a makeover and a name change late last year, as well as a return to the recipes that Maria, grandmother of co-owner Maria Carson, used over a decade ago.

The curious new menu features pies with family recipes from both Carson and husband Antonio. Customers can decide whether Maria’s thin crust pizzas or Antonio’s deep-dish specialties are the best. Where else can you get a pizza topped with black angus filet? Somehow, the deep dish seemed a little too familiar, so we went for a Maria’s thin Supremo ($12.30) with just about every meat and veggie you can imagine—though not filet. This was no wimpy pie. The crust on this piping hot pizza was to the crunchier side, almost short like a pastry crust, and, to my taste, a little overbaked and tough. Sauce was the over thick, long-simmered kind, but toppings were generally quite good, especially the sausage. Definitely a decent first try, but it just whet my appetite for more.

It was Thursday karaoke night, and a pair of regulars was halfway into a heartfelt rendition of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” when we stopped at the Dugout on Virginia Avenue for what people had billed as quintessential bar pizza—available late at night. After we polished off an appetizer sampler ($7.95) of onion rings, fried mushrooms, chicken strips, and, surprisingly, barbecued ribs, out came our huge pizza with even more toppings that we had imagined, everything from bacon to jalapeños. Definitely something to fill you up late at night. With a crust that was more crunchy than chewy but substantial enough to sustain all of the heft above, this was a pie we knew we’d be back for.

Not until we stopped in for lunch at Gusto!, the new Italian eatery in the Murphy Building, did things start to come together. I was skeptical, to be sure, after a dinner at Vicoli’s, Gusto!’s predecessor, had me running back to my old standbys. But Gusto! is not merely a pizzeria, and owner Tim Lutes, formerly of St. Elmo Steakhouse, has put a lot of thought into the décor, the menu, and his plans for this place, which he hopes will be a neighborhood draw for steak, chicken, or seafood features, as well as his signature “pizza kabobs,” which aren’t yet on the menu.

If what he’s doing so far is any indication, he’s onto something good. While prosciutto was recently cut from the menu, salads ($2.99) are generous and clearly made from fresh ingredients. Our eight-inch pizzas were light and airy, perfectly chewy with just the right crispness, and a great topping-to-crust ratio. The cheese ($4.99) was delicious enough on its own, but one with sun-dried tomatoes, bacon, and artichokes ($7.99) rivaled any of the more well-known gourmet chains. It was a nice surprise at the end of a very tasty journey.

Antonio & Maria’s Old Word Pizzeria
2930 Shelby Street

621 Virginia Avenue

1043 Virginia Avenue, Suite 6

9271 East U.S. Highway 36, Avon

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