December 11, 2007

No Hoosier joke: Pie are square

It happens anywhere that a state line crosses through a metro area: Folks on one side of the border tell rude jokes about the other, and vice-versa.So there’s no use pretending that Kentuckians don’t tell Hoosier jokes. We laugh at their rumored penchant for turning left from the right lane and we’re still kicking around Coach Bobby Knight after all these years. And we can’t resist keeping alive the memory of the embarrassing moment in the Indiana State Legislature in 1897, when a few wacky Hoosiers tried to redefine the mathematical constant pi as a simpler number.But here’s a Hoosier culinary constant that is no joke: Over there, pie are square.Pizza pie, that is. While pizza in Louisville is customarily cut in pie-shaped wedges, in the style of New York City and Bella Italia, Southern Indiana family pizzerias almost invariably serve their round, thin-crust pies in neat, 3-inch squares. I watched with admiration as a young woman at Arni’s Pizza on State Street, a New Albany tradition since 1956, attacked a large pie with something that looked a lot like a machete. Whack, whack, whack and she banged out four long strips; a 90-degree turn and four-more quick whacks, and the square-cutting job was done. Into the box it went!It’s the same at the equally durable Pizza King, where Steve Schutz, owner of the Charlestown Road branch, said, “We’ve done it that way ever since we started. The reason we do it? We put ingredients on our pizza. If we cut it in wedges, all the toppings would fall off the end. Our crust isn’t cardboard like Pizza Hut or Papa John’s. We need to cut it in squares so the toppings stay on.”Sounds fair enough to me, although Shawn Vest, proprietor of the estimable Charlestown Pizza Co. (reviewed in LEO, Oct. 10, 2007), had a simpler explanation. They did it to be different: “We cut ours in squares because everyone else [Domino’s, Papa John’s, Pizza Hut) cuts in slices,” Vest said.From a food-history standpoint, there may be a simpler answer: Across the Midwest, from St. Louis to Chicago, square-cut thin “party style” pizza is commonplace. It may be that the Hoosier version is actually the regional standard, while Louisville got its idiosyncratic wedge from immigrant Italian-American pizza families like Lentini, Impellizzeri and Bearno. We ventured out recently to try the pies at three Sunny Side landmarks.Pizza King is said to be almost as much a rite of passage — and a guilty pleasure — for Hoosiers as White Castle is for Louisville youngsters. There are actually two Indiana Pizza King chains, both descended from a family-owned company. One Pizza King is based in Muncie; the other, parent company of the Southern Indiana Kings, is based in Lafayette. Local shops are independently owned, but share logos and branding and buy ingredients from Pizza King.We dropped in on the New Albany Pizza King on Charlestown Road, which moved from Clarksville a few years back to take up attractive modern quarters out front of the Kohl’s department store. There’s also a Jeffersonville branch on Kehoe Lane east of town.I really wanted to sit in the popular room with cozy booths built around a giant railroad locomotive, with its cool model train that circles the rooms and, upon your order, trucks your drinks to your table. Alas, it was full, so we had to make do with the attractive but more generic “grown-up” dining room on the other side. It’s the same pizza either way, though, crust as thin as cardboard but much more delectable, topped with my standard test-pizza mix of sausage, green peppers and onions.The crust is rolled out about as paper-thin as it’s possible for pizza to be, and the toppings are carefully placed all the way out to the edge, leaving no puffy edge at all for bread lovers to enjoy or for bread haters to break off and leave on their plate. The ingredients are fresh and good quality, although this is indisputably a Midwestern pizza without much Italian accent. Don’t look for spicy sauce or any exotic flavor of fennel in the mild, tender sausage. The sauce is simple and fresh and not glopped on; the cheese is laid down with a gentle hand (some cheese lovers recommend requesting “extra cheese” as an optional topping); and the green peppers and onions are neatly diced and cooked crisp-tender in the pizza oven.Pizzas range in price from $3.30 for a 7-inch model with cheese only to $17.95 for some 16-inch specialty pies. A 14-inch pizza with three toppings, plus a Coke and iced tea, totaled $18.18, with a $4 tip for full table service.New Albany Pizza King  3825 Charlestown RoadNew Albany, Ind.(812) 945-4405www.pizzakinginc.comArni’s Pizza in New Albany dates to 1956, another long-lived veteran of the pizza wars. It’s also a link in an Indiana family-owned chain based in Lafayette. The facilities are small and strictly business, with a look that takes you back to the ’50s. Most pizza goes out over the takeout counter, but there’s a small room with wood paneling and a half-dozen orange booths and tables for dining in.The pizza is square-cut, of course, and competently made. It’s $3.70 for a small “personal” cheese pie to $12.40 for a large deluxe model. Hoosiers argue endlessly about the merits of Arni’s and Pizza King, but I find it tough to call a winner between these two similar pizzas for flavor and down-home Midwestern style. There was plenty of sausage on my Arni’s pie, the green peppers were crisp-tender and fresh, and I liked the way they cut the onion into good-size, toothsome chunks. Flip a coin or enjoy whichever shop happens to be nearby.With a couple of diet colas, a large three-topping pie was $15.05; we left a couple of bucks on the table for the busser.(Note: There’s another Arni’s, just a short drive up the Knobs at 3700 Paoli Pike; 812-923-9805).Arni’s Pizza1208 State StNew Albany, Ind.(812) 945-1149www.meetyouatarnis.comJeffersonville’s historic redbrick Quadrangle, once a military distribution center with a history that goes back to Civil War days, has been beautifully renovated as Quartermaster Station. Its sprawling square now hosts commercial properties, including Jeffersonville’s City Hall and a tasty smorgasbord of eateries, including Uncle Tubby’s Pizza.Uncle Tubby’s is large, bright and white, with bold black and red trim and a real pizzeria feel; there’s a heavy emphasis on the Indy 500 and NASCAR with a more genteel bow to Indiana University sports. Checkered flags and racecars adorn the walls; even the plates boast a more discreet checkered-flag design around the rim.Pizzas range in price from $3.09 for a 7-incher with cheese to $19.95 for a 16-inch specialty pie.Ours looked as appetizing as it tasted, and it was indeed “party-cut” in squares, with toppings all the way to the edge. The crust was crackery paper-thin, topped with an ample blanket of cheese draped over bright-red, tangy tomato sauce, baked until puffy and attractively dotted with brown freckles; diced fresh green peppers and onions were cooked just through, crisp and tender. The sausage is thoughtfully protected under the cheese so it wouldn’t scorch. It’s mild, too, but every now and then we did get a little licorice-scented bite of fennel, the hallmark of real Italian sausage. It was an exceptionally good pizza, a bit more hefty than Pizza King or Arni’s, with all the flavors in proper proportion.A 14-inch pizza with three toppings came to $13.70, a particularly good deal because our Cokes were included. Friendly and professional service earned a $3.70 tip.Uncle Tubby’s Pizza103 Quartermaster CourtJeffersonville, Ind.(812) 288-8850www.uncletubbyspizza.comContact the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com