Focusing so much on Chicago and St. Louis over the last few years, it has been easy bypass the fact that interesting neighborhoods with pizzerias are all over the cities and small towns of the Midwest. We find want to find the all and try them all; we just don’t get many chances to. But when the opportunity arises, we try to as much as we can about other interesting places. Recently–and unexpectedly–Indianapolis came up on our radar.
Almost a year ago to the day, I got in the car around 3 am, and headed west from St. Louis on Interstate 70. It was the dead of night and there was practically no traffic. After the comforting sounds of KDHX faded out–as St. Louis could possibly fade completely–I turned on and embraced the dark, lonely, cold sounds of Jason Molina and Songs: Ohia. Oddly, the mournful Magnolia Electric Co. album set a hopeful scene. Would our new life lie four hours to the east in a town that I never dreamed I’d call home? I was conflicted, but, with a job interview scheduled, I think the answer already leaned toward “yes.”
To find out if it was a move worth making, I did what we love to do most: head out into the corners of the city to find great neighborhood pizzerias. And I managed to do just that, by first visiting Pasquale’s not far from the world famous Speedway, then Mickey & Bill’s in Mars Hill.
The Hounds have never been to Indianapolis, and I certainly haven’t been there much. I’ve zipped through a few times on the way to somewhere on the east coast (and back). My only true visits were very short: a quick trip to see Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band during the Magic Tour in 2007, and an overnight trip to see The National perform around 2011. Both times I sampled the city’s pizza hotspots: first the locally-iconic Bazbeaux Pizza, then the Union Jack Pub. Both are located in Broad Ripple section, a neighborhood in northern Indianapolis. Bazbeaux, in business since 1986, was kind of ahead it’s time as far as fancy pizzas go. Well-made with a seemingly endless number of high quality toppings. I was very excited to be able to get shrimp, clams, and crab on a pizza. Union Jack does cheese-on-top version of deep dish, and it was pretty good.
Indianapolis was very cold that in early December. It was the coldest I felt all year, in the low 20s with a strong wind. I felt a chill hit my skin that I hadn’t felt since my last winter in Chicago! I loved it, but oh my it was biting. Had I lost my edge?
After a long drive, the skyline, with a few very tall buildings broke the generally flat landscape. Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL Colts and site of Super Bowl XLVI, stands slightly apart from downtown, but looks large, impressive, and even menacing. Indianapolis, despite having a larger population, felt newer and more spread out compared to the denser, worn St. Louis I had become accustomed to. After visiting the Indiana Department of Transportation and talking with some nice folks, I spent the day driving around the city trying to get the best possible feel for it I could get in just a couple of hours. I drove around downtown a bit, including Monument Circle, a very impressive urban space. Then I headed northeast on Massachusetts Avenue to grab a coffee at Coat Check Coffee, a high quality shop in a very nice space (a old hotel?) right next the Rathskeller at Michigan Street. It was frigid outside, but there was a lot of life inside. A number of twenty- and thirty-somethings sitting around tables chatting. A few people were having work meetings with their laptops and cell phones. I bought some Tinker Coffee, one of Indy’s most-renowned coffee roasters, to brew at home. And I’m glad I did: the coffee was delicious.
From there, I began my tour earnest. Very close to downtown and just off of Mass Ave, I came across the impressive historic homes in the Chatham-Arch neighborhood. Many of them were painted in beautifully vibrant colors. Those colors stuck with me. St. Louis (generally, though not completely) is a city of beautiful red brick; Chicago’s residential districts are often comprised of a beautiful–but admittedly blander–mix of light colored brick, red brick, stone, and frame structures. Indianapolis, by comparison, looked like a completely different world. Variations often come within those frameworks. Here, I was pleasantly surprised to see homes with siding (!) painted mint, bright blue, purple and hot pink.
I continued on Mass Ave then made a right on 10th Street to the city’s east side.
There were more impressive homes on Woodruff Place, many of which looked like a lot of care had undergone restoration.
The color choices suggested that Indianapolis had a lot of life to discover.
Next, I headed farther out East 16th to the Little Flower neighborhood, named for that area’s Catholic parish. A basic, upper-working class neighborhood. Cute, modest ranch homes for the most part.16th Street was quite busy, with a strong urban feel. Went to the very busy Kroger Store and bought some local products, including some Sun King Brewery craft beer and local-ish goods, such as our
second favorite potato chips in the whole world (goodbye, Peerless of Gary), Grippo’s from Cincinnati.
Headed back west and viewed the Old Northside and the Herron-Morton areas, neighborhoods with large and impressive historic homes, then traveled north on College Avenue, a I had taken on previous trips to Indianapolis. I stopped at Luna Music briefly. The staff was very nice and they offered a great selection, but, man, after working in the “industry” for so long, I’m so over record stores. Back in the car after just a few minutes, I headed to Broad Ripple. My impressions of the area changed with this trip. Previously I had seen a hip neighborhood with good nightlife, but now it seemed quieter almost like the residential streets of Oak Park, Illinois or parts of Columbia, Missouri. Bazbeaux and Union Jack were still there, thankfully.
This section of town was very appealing, and many houses, modest in scale and construction, appeared to be in the process of rehabilitation. The Fountain Square Theatre Building, which was renovated beginning in 1993, is a defining local historic landmark. Apparently, the area has recently witnessed a wave of gentrification, causing houses prices to jump. It’s true: many listings for homes, some quite small, were well out our range. Had Chicago discovered Fountain Square?
Maybe it had. The evidence: the first non-Chicago-area location of the burger institution, Kuma’s Corner, opened on Prospect in Fountain Square in 2015.
The space was nice and large. Unfortunately I missed the opportunity to ask the friendly staff’s thoughts about Indianapolis. This was, after all, an area that seemed like a good fit. Regardless, the burger I took home was just as fantastic as the ones in Chicago.
I took the presence of Kuma’s, a business that has always forged a path on its own terms, very strong endorsement of the Indy as a growing city. Its location, too, just steps from the heart of Fountain Square, where Prospect and Shelby streets converge with Virginia Avenue, no doubt suggested exciting things might happening in the neighborhood.
It was time to check out some of the pizzerias of Indianapolis. Taking a circuitous route around downtown, I headed to the city’s west side.
About eight miles to the northwest of the increasingly fashionable Fountain Square, I found one of the relatively few remnants of the Pasquale’s chain. Indianapolis has a few Pasquale’s left, but they all seem to be somewhat independent. When I called in the order I was the victim of bad cell service and a case of the nerves: “Now you’re confusing me. . .” I put in my order and hoped for the best.
Thankfully, Pasquale’s fantastic vintage sign was intact. The small, nondescript one-story building was slightly elevated, with three steps going up to the front door. An interesting design, especially with its porch-like front. A small parking lot fronted the building and wrapped around the west side along North Somerset Avenue.
Just a counter and a handful of seats inside.
With clowns, musical performances, and fun for neighborhood children, the Pasquale’s on West 16th opened for business on July 10, 1964.
A number of photos on the walls document the celebration at the height of summer.
Taking as many pictures as I did likely seemed a little unusual. It should not have been because the 16th Street Pasquale’s was beautiful classic neighborhood pizzeria. Still, a man with a gray mustache who was waiting for his order looked at me with a bit of wonder.
But the interior had a character that had developed over time that I wanted to capture. And the vintage photographs were priceless. A large trailer was brought in as a stage.
In my short visit, it appeared that carryout was a more popular option than dining in.
Modest ranch homes line the streets surrounding Pasquale’s. There are no expensive rehabbed century-old homes or trendy condos and townhouses like those found in areas closer to downtown. The neighborhood certainly doesn’t have huge historic houses like those found in Woodruff Place or Old Northside. Functionality here is key.
This is a working-class area, for sure.
And a perfect place for a wonderful historic pizzeria like Pasqaule’s to be hiding out in plain sight.
The north side of 16th Street, just across the street is visible the photograph below. The white house in the center, however, has been demolished. The brick two-story on the left and the white house on the right remain, now divided by a paved lot. I wonder where all these people are today.
Grippo’s, among other more common options, for sandwiches next to truly inspirational words. Curious as to how “guarantee” is used in this context.
The building appears to have been modified since the grand opening.
The signage that ran along the top of the building has been removed, and the wood-planked (?) facade has been covered with siding or taking off completely.
I stepped out for a bit (my phone battery died), and when I came back I took some more pictures. This prompted a “Can I help you, sir?” from another a pony-tailed lady in her forties. After I explained that I was from out of town and that I had specifically tracked down Pasquale’s for my short visit, we had a nice chat.
She said that she had worked at this location in some fashion since 1979! That’s incredible. A nearly 40 year run. I wish I could have asked her for more stories of Pasquale’s and the area.
A faded color photograph of the original owner occupies a place on Pasquale’s wall. According to the woman I spoke with, he was responsible for opening several Pasquale’s locations, but came back and focus on running the 16th Street business.
Just then, a customer waiting on her food, an older woman with graying hair chimed in and said she had been coming to Pasquale’s since she was six or seven years old. With smile, she said Pasquale’s was the best pizza around. She then asked the lady behind the counter something to the effect of “He owned the one at 38th and Meridian, right?”
Were these the remnants of an old exterior sign?
The pizzeria itself was worth the trip, but I looked forward to trying the pizza.
Hot and fresh, this was a beautiful one. No party cut, so no guarantees needed, I suppose.
I took a bite, and while I enjoyed the hot pizza, the crust was a little soft for my taste. Definitely reminded me of a chain pizza.
At the friendly recommendation of the veteran employee I had spoken to, I ordered a stromboli. She said the sandwich was very popular, a fact confirmed by its prominence on Pasquale’s menu (and the menu of other pizza places in the area).
“Take some napkins with that. You’re gonna need them.”
I believe it; this was a hefty sandwich.
The stromboli’s popularity was also confirmed by a very talkative lady who came in specifically for one. She said she had been wanting one all week. And she kept telling me about it.
Pasquale’s stromboli is an oblong salisbury steak on a hoagie bun with mushroom gravy or pizza sauce, shredded mozzarella, onions, and pickles. Apparently, the mushroom gravy was a popular choice, so I ordered that. Glad I got it, too. It was a delicious sandwich that, in this form, does not really grace them menu of Chicago or St. Louis pizzerias that I know of.
Visiting Pasquale’s on 16th was a wonderful, time-warp experience. I’m so glad I stopped in. But there was more of Indianapolis to explore, so I headed west toward the world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
There was nothing going on there on this weekday, but it was interesting to see such a world famous landmark. I also briefly drove through the independent community of Speedway located to the west and south of the track.
From there, I drove south to another old west side pizzeria, Rolyno’s Pizza on Washington Street.
Located in an old brick strip mall, Rolyno’s looked like our kind of place: independent, neighborhoody, unassuming. They have a history, too, first opening their doors in 1972. Tavern cut thin crust, much like that found in Chicago, appears to be their specialty. Breadsticks also appear to a popular menu choice.
Unfortunately, they did not open until 4 pm, and I could just not wait around. No Rolyno’s for us on this trip. Maybe if we moved to Indianapolis, though?
So, I headed even farther south, crossing Interstate 70 and driving south on the remarkably rural-feeling Holt Road. Unigov Indianapolis notwithstanding, it was hard to believe I was still in one of the largest cities in America.
Along Kentucky Avenue in the Mars Hill neighborhood, an old industrial suburb.
Mickey & Bill’s Pizza, in business since 1965, was the last stop of the whirlwind trip.
From the outside, I expected Mickey & Bill’s to be a large sit-down restaurant.
The building is surrounded by parking spaces, after all.
But approaching the door, I could tell this was a smaller operation.
Instead, it was mostly counter service.
With a small dining area off to the side.
The small pizzeria in the far southwest corner of the city has gotten some good press over the years.
Mars Hill–rather Indianapolis–seems to be a key part of Mickey & Bill’s identity. The pizzeria’s signature dish is the Mars Hill Monster, a pizza covered in almost every topping imaginable.
Why was Mickey & Bill’s, one of the oldest pizzerias in Indianapolis, so far from the center of the city, I wondered.
In the 1910s, investors in downtown Indianapolis sold lots in the old Mars Hill farming community with reportedly with the intention of creating–as so many tried in so many different places–an industrial powerhouse to rival the rapidly growing Gary. This helps explain its placement in a far lonely corner of the geographically huge city. The Greater Indianapolis Industrial Association, the primary boosters of Mars Hill, claimed the city would soon be home to 35,000 people.
A streetcar line connected Mars Hill and early industries such as the Stenotype Company to downtown Indianapolis in 1914, and two years later newspaper reports claimed the community was “barely thirty minutes from Washington and Illinois streets. . .” (Indianapolis News, October 9, 1916. Though like Gary, many nearby factories have closed in recent decades. Here’s a nice short profile of the community that provides a glimpse of Mars Hill.
Services reportedly were very poor in the area until the 1960s.
Mars Hill never reached the heights that boosters hoped, but by the time Mickey & Bill’s opened in 1965, Mars Hill was a robust working-class community. Not until 1970 did the unincorporated community become part of the city of Indianapolis, when the Unigov consolidation swallowed it–and most of Marion County–up. Thus, many far-flung communities such as Mars Hill attained new identities as neighborhoods of Indy. Today, Mars Hill is home to over 58,000 residents. To me, on my short trip through, it seemed much smaller.
Industries are still a part of the Mars Hill community, and Mickey & Bill’s attracts many people of local small businesses.
Current owner Rick Davis, who purchased the business from the family of Mickey Mitchell, focuses on helping the community, as well.
The interior appeared to have been updated in recent years, and menus and signage had been branded and streamlined. This takes away from the historical character of a pizzeria, but you cannot blame a business for investing in the future. Besides, we have no idea it looked like before.
I’m just glad they’re planning being around for a while. Hopefully for another 50 years.
The branding resulted in a cool history-focused menu and nice box, too.
One option could have been the taco pizza, a Midwestern favorite, topped with, among other things, crumbled nacho chips. Apparently first produced in 1974 at the Davenport, Iowa location of Happy Joe’s by the chain’s founder, Joe Whitty. Taco pizza is found at Casey’s convenience stores in countless small towns scattered across the heartland.
Upon opening the box, I was blown away. I picked up a hot piece, took a bite, then uttered an audible, “Oh, hell yeah.” Fantastic sauce, cheese, and crumbled sausage. Then. . .I noticed the crust. Frozen? Pre-made? This crust, which can be found, disappointingly at Rigazzi’s in St. Louis and Alongi’s in DuQuoin, set the pizza back substantially. Surely this wasn’t the same crust that Mickey and Bill sold when they opened.
Well, it was 1965–right in the height of American manufacturing and emergence of convenient products–so it’s possible. This was a great pizza despite the distracting crust. The mild crumbled sausage, something more common the northwestern portion of the state, was delicious, and the cheese and sauce were top notch.
Either way, Mickey & Bill’s in “Downtown Mars Hill” was well worth heading so far from the center of the city. It was also on the way home.
Turns out there was another Rolyno’s just down the road that was already open. I didn’t realize this at the time, so I decided it was time to hit the road and do some thinking. Would Indianapolis be our new home? I had four hours to think about it. St. Louis would be hard to give up, but at least I had begun my “research” on the local Indy cuisine.
Back home, the Hound was ready to sample some the best pizza found in Indianapolis’s working-class neighborhoods.
Indianapolis overall seemed like a great town with its best days ahead of it. In the end, I the move eastward was not to be. It was nice to visit and explore, and of course research pizza and neighborhoods. Hopefully, I can go back to Indy some day with both Pizza Hounds revisit these wonderful pizzerias and find many more.
Thank you, Indianapolis!
Pasquale’s Pizza is located at 3623 West 16th Street, Indianapolis, IN 46222
Mickey & Bill’s Pizza is located at 3102 Foltz Street, Indianapolis, IN 46241