Puccini’s still defining Hoosier pizza after 14 years
Despite all the culinary buzz in Indy over the last few years, the number of high-end chains and funky independents that have opened to much huzzah, we’re still hurting for anything approximating a regional identity in food. Take away pork tenderloin, corn and sugar cream pie, and our fair state serves up little that we didn’t import from some other part of the world.
At Puccini's, the crust is thinner than usual for a calzone, making for a pleasingly flaky casing.
We don’t even have our own pizza identity. We have no deep-dish or thin-crust consensus, no seafood or fruit-topped, only-in-Indy pies, no quirky rituals like folding or tearing off the crust first. Among the nearly 250 listings for pizzerias and takeouts in a typical Indianapolis phone book, the references to “Indiana,” “Hoosier” or “Indianapolis” are scarce. Try “Italian,” “New York” or “Chicago,” however, and it’s a different story. You can find all of “those” kinds of pizza here in abundance. In fact, many of the recent additions to the annals of Indianapolis pizza-making arose from a perceived local dearth of the kinds of pizza the owners had “back home.” Thankfully, a small but creative cadre of local pizza joints has, for well over a decade, served up some pretty unique pies with an eye toward nothing but their own ovens. While these pizzerias don’t necessarily advertise their Hoosier identities, they do recognize that there is a dedicated and growing audience in Indianapolis for truly good pizza that doesn’t come from a chain. Pizza with more than pepperoni and mushrooms. Pizza with a crust that isn’t just cardboard or fluff. Certainly one of the cheekier of those places is Puccini’s Smiling Teeth. First opened in 1991, this quirky mini-chain has expanded to six metropolitan locations and satellite spots in Fort Wayne, Bloomington and Lexington, Ky. At first glance, what distinguishes these restaurants most is the name and the coordinating décor. You either love them or hate them — those surreal paintings of colorful creatures, often with pasta hair and giant teeth, riding on bicycles with pizzas for wheels or being chased by a storm of tomatoes. If you know pizza, however, you’ll know that beyond this gentle gimmick lies what most certainly contends for the best pizza west of Naples and south of Chicago. Over the years, the pizzas that immediately won Puccini’s accolades and awards have been supplemented with pastas, chicken dinners and even, alas, some low-carb items, though the ones here come with names like “Pat Boone’s State Fair Moment” ($9.95), baked, the menu says, to “Ann Margaret perfection.” A big dish of sausage, pepperoni and melted cheese, it’s steamier than the movie! But, really, your teeth won’t smile until you’ve had Puccini’s pizza. Two things set it apart. The first, hallelujah, is its crust. While it’s easy to add exotic toppings to a pizzeria’s roster, Puccini’s is one of the select few who recognize that you first need a chewy, yeasty, crisp base for a good balance of ingredients up top. Their crust is one of the best. But don’t expect the sauce and cheese to ooze all over the plate. The pizza bakers at Puccini’s show judicious restraint, and the result is more of a Zen-like, crust-topping nirvana than you’ll experience at most other pizza places in town. The second distinctive characteristic is the innovative topping combinations. Elsewhere, you might want to choose your own. At Puccini’s, though, you’d be wise to follow their lead. Amazingly, after 14 years, none of “their” topping choices seems dated or drab. The “Campfire,” with smoked sausage, onion marmalade and gorgonzola, is still the woodsy sweet gem it’s been for years. The “Twice Baked,” with new potatoes, bacon and buttermilk herb dressing, still manages to surprise — and to be delicious. The “Bill (Formerly Known as Steve),” which my friend Bill (still Bill) recently devoured, is a spicy, deconstructed sausage and pepper sub in circular form. Calzones are great here, too. Their crust is thinner than usual for a calzone, making for a pleasingly flaky casing for everything from meatballs to barbequed chicken (the restaurant’s one nod to the ’80s). Among its other virtues, Puccini’s salads ($3.50-$6.25) are huge, fresh and available with five expert house-made dressings. They’re perfect for splitting. Service is a little chaotic but friendly and accommodating. On a recent visit to the 82nd and Dean location, no one seemed to be watching the front, creating a confused glut inside the door. But an error with a calzone meant we got to take a second one home on the house. A spilled drink was wiped up swiftly. Prices are good here, too. Individual pies, the best bargain here, run from $4.25 to $8.25. Even a liquor-rich tiramisu ($3.75) is worth noting. But you knew about this one-of-a-kind Hoosier pizzeria already, right? No? You’d better go tonight. Puccini’ssmiling teeth 3944 E. 82nd St. 842-4028 (and five additional metro locations) hours Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 4 to 9:30 p.m. Friday: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 4 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday: noon to 10:30 p.m. Sunday: noon to 9 p.m. Food : 4 Stars Atmosphere : 3.5 Stars Service : 3.5 Stars