March 6, 2013

Taste Bud: A different king of pizza

If you’ve read these pages in the last couple of years, you may have read about my beloved Pizza King, purveyor of a unique style of thin-crust pizza you have to cross the Ohio River to enjoy. Well, I started feeling a bit guilty after writing about Pizza King in the Aug. 10, 2011, edition of LEO, because there’s actually another pizza joint over there that deserves some recognition as well: Arni’s Restaurant.

Arni’s, on State Street in New Albany, is old-school and tiny like my beloved Pizza King in Jeffersonville, and it serves the same style of thin pizza that Hoosiers all over the state have been craving for years. It’s also similarly delicious, in an I-can’t-believe-this-stuff-is-so-addictive kind of way. (It’s like the White Castle of pizza.)

Truly, though, Arni’s (and Pizza King) pizza is one of those things that, I believe, probably takes a couple of experiences before it kicks in. And then? WHAM. You’re hooked.

That said, I hadn’t had an Arni’s pizza in nearly 20 years when I came up with the idea to write a Taste Bud about the place. And if I’m honest, I should admit that I probably just wanted an excuse to eat one of these interesting pies. So, my girlfriend Cynthia and her son Nikolai got in the car and crossed the bridge — and just as I had expected, it was a thumbs-up experience.

Visually, it would be nearly impossible to tell an Arni’s pizza from a Pizza King pizza. Same chopped toppings, same thin crust, crispy and dark at the edges, thick and gooey in the center. Same type of cut, too — squares, not pie slices. And it even comes on one of those round cardboard trays just like at Pizza King.

The taste is also similar. What I noticed in eating our Arni’s pie was that it seemed the sauce was slightly less sweet than that of Pizza King, and maybe leaning a bit more toward tangy. As such, it didn’t dominate the pie in the same way. I also thought there may be a tad more cheese on the Arni’s pizza we devoured than we usually get at Pizza King.

On the other hand, it seemed that grease pooled on the Arni’s pizza more so than on a Pizza King pie. Those middle pieces became overly soggy and saggy, and as such, very messy. Oh, make no mistake — they were still delicious. It just seemed that the crust, even though it was cooked to a dark crispiness, gave way a bit under the moisture of the toppings.

I’ll say this much: Just like Pizza King, the Arni’s pizza passed the 6-year-old challenge. Nikolai happily scarfed down five or six pieces. Not that he’s necessarily a finicky eater, but he’s observant. I think we could have passed it off as Pizza King without a hitch, and Pizza King is one of his favorites.

By now, you’re probably wondering why there would be two such places serving nearly identical pizza. Glad you asked, because there’s a back story, and it goes something like this:

Seems a guy named Arni Cohen had the chance in the mid-1960s to buy an existing Pizza King restaurant in Lafayette, Ind. Since it was a tried-and-true concept, he simply renamed it Arni’s Restaurant and stuck with the pie as it was, later opening other locations, including New Albany’s.

If you are from Southern Indiana, it should be noted, those who grew up in New Albany generally grew up favoring Arni’s, while those (like me) who grew up in Jeffersonville or Clarksville were Pizza King lovers first and foremost. Blame that one on brand loyalty if you must, because the two products are really close and always have been.

In addition, folks who have been eating Arni’s and Pizza King since childhood also theorize that part of what makes these things so continuously addictive is that they still use the same ovens they’ve been using since the 1960s. The thousands and thousands of pies that have baked in those ovens over the years left something behind that makes the modern pies taste that much better.

Ghosts of pizzas past?

And yes, I’ve heard many of my Hoosier friends and family members remark that the pizza served at the newer, kid-focused Pizza King in New Albany — which has been open only a few years — simply doesn’t taste the same as that from the old-school location in Jeffersonville.

Whatever. Either way, save me a middle piece.