One of the realities in the sports world these days is that the word “dynasty” is thrown around far too often. It used to be that dynasty was reserved for true feats of long-term success, such as John Wooden’s unthinkable 10 college basketball national titles in 12 years at UCLA in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Nowadays, with free agency and college stars leaving for the pros at the first chance they get, true dynasties don’t happen anymore, which is why so many sports experts are quick to slap a dynasty label on a team who wins three titles in a decade, no small feat but certainly not the kind of dominance associated with the traditional meaning of dynasty.
But in the food world, there’s no such thing as top chefs leaving early for a higher level, so true dynasties can happen in terms of unmatched quality, and in Wooden’s home state of Indiana, Bazbeaux is the owner of a dynasty mark that makes Wooden’s success on the court look puny by comparison.
Since it opened in 1986, Bazbeaux, named after a French court jester who chose to flee the country for Italy rather than serve under teenage king Charles VIII, has been the gold standard for pizza in Indianapolis. Despite the fact that Bazbeaux’s original location was in the former home of the gravedigger for the town cemetery, Hoosiers have loved this place from the beginning. In its first year in business, Indianapolis Monthly named Bazbeaux the best pizza in the Circle City, an honor that Bazbeaux would proceed to win every year until 2007, a streak of 21 consecutive years as Indianapolis’ top pizza. Yes, if you’re scoring at home, that’s a streak that stretched from the Reagan administration to the next-to-last year of George W. Bush’s presidency. That kind of consistent excellence over that long a period is simply remarkable, and Bazbeaux isn’t a place that rests on its laurels either. When Dom DiCarlo’s finally broke the streak in 2007, Bazbeaux stepped up to the challenge to reclaim its title the very next year. Pretty impressive.
Plus, it’s not like we’re talking about a place in the foodie black hole known as Davenport, where Harris Pizza wins acclaim year after year, despite serving a concoction (calling it a pizza is an insult to pizza everywhere) that ranks among mankind’s most awful crimes. Indianapolis actually has a good food scene, so to spend two decades as the top pizza in the Hoosier State’s capital is quite an achievement. With that kind of buildup, plus a ringing endorsement from my cousin Victoria, who lives in Indianapolis with her husband Joel, Amy and I were really excited to make this visit.
How you begin your visit depends on whether or not you enjoy alcohol. If you do, you’ll want to get yourself started with a bottle of banana bread beer. Yes, that’s right, Bazbeaux serves a beer that has the flavor of banana bread. I’d never seen it before this trip, and neither had Amy. With that uniqueness and Victoria making sure to tell Amy it was a must-try for her, it was an easy choice for the love of my life.
From what Amy tells me, it’s absolutely worth the hype. I don’t drink alcohol, so I obviously can’t describe the taste for you, but Amy describes it as exactly what you would expect from a good piece of banana bread. The scent from the bottle was very pleasurable, and were I a drinker, this would probably be a must-try. Although an alcohol list is not on its website, Bazbeaux features a pretty robust selection of interesting beer and wine, which is about what you’d expect from a place named after a jester who was tasked with making whimsical culinary creations to amuse the Italian king.
If you’re not a drinker, the best place to start is with Bazbeaux’s wonderful garlic bread. They say it’s award-winning, and although just about every restaurant claims something of theirs is award-winning and yet I never see an award anywhere except Oklahoma Joe’s (or Joe’s Kansas City, as it’s now known), I believe it in Bazbeaux’s case. This bread is served hot, flavorful and has the perfect texture, with the interior being soft and the exterior crisp. It’s everything you want from proper garlic bread. But to take the garlic bread as it is would be a mistake, because the best part of it is the pesto.
Basically, pesto is to Bazbeaux’s garlic bread what Dirty Sauce is to the sandwiches at Ike’s Place: it’s the thing that takes it to the next level and makes the item legendary. The pesto is baked into the bread so that every bite of bread is infused with the flavor, and the result is fantastic. I absolutely love the taste of pesto, and to have it flavoring a piece of hot, fresh garlic bread is an awesome culinary experience. They’re definitely not kidding on the menu when they say that trying their garlic bread with pesto is a real treat.
But of course, the real reason to come to Bazbeaux is the pizza, and this is definitely a place where you can let your imagination run wild if you choose. Besides its basic cheese pizza, Bazbeaux features an incredible 59 toppings, eight of them being cheeses along with their house blend of mozzarella, provolone and pecorino romano. To put it another way, you could eat here every day for the rest of your life and never get anywhere close to trying every possible combination. With that many toppings, it’s literally impossible to try all of them.
Bazbeaux further breaks up its toppings into traditional, exotic and premium, with different charges for each one. Traditional includes exactly what you would expect to find at a pizza place, with basic toppings like pepperoni, ham, mushrooms, green peppers and olives making up the lowest and cheapest tier. Exotic branches out to include high-brow cheeses such as fontina, goat cheese and blue cheese while adding in toppings like eggplant, avocado, albacore tuna and black bean dip that you wouldn’t expect to find on a pizza. Premium goes even further, as lump crab, Cajun shrimp, smoked turkey, barbecue chicken and other meats join the lineup. Assuming they could actually get all 59 toppings onto one pie, a large pizza with literally everything on it here would set you back $163.25. Having almost as many toppings on your menu as the NCAA tournament has teams will do that.
Of course, with that many options, there’s bound to be a few planned specialties, and they all seem to have an ingredient lineup that works well together. Some of the ones that I think I’d enjoy include the Garden (spinach, artichoke hearts, avocado, green pepper, black olive, red onion, ricotta), the Margherita (fresh tomato, fresh basil, fresh garlic and fontina), the Basilica (sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, feta and pesto sauce), the Genova (eggplant, mushrooms, fresh tomato, fresh basil and goat cheese) and the Neptune (crab, shrimp, snow peas, black olives and green peppers), with all of them coming on Bazbeaux’s three-cheese blend. Take out the onions, and Amy would likely be a big fan of the Luke, Bazbeaux’s buffalo chicken and blue cheese pizza.
But the one that’s gained them the most attention over the years is the misnomer that is the Pizza Alla Quattro Formaggio, which Zagat has called Indiana’s best pizza. It’s a misnomer because Quattro Formaggio traditionally means four cheeses, but this one throws in a fifth cheese for free, as romano, cheddar, provolone and mozzarella combine with ricotta to make the quintet of dairy greatness. Bacon and mushrooms are added to finish off the five-cheese creation that has become a Bazbeaux specialty.
Oh, my god. By itself, this pizza is good enough to win a restaurant some deserved honors. The crust is perfect, not too thin, not too thick, not too crispy, not too doughy, just perfect. We went with the white crust, as Bazbeaux offers white, wheat or gluten-free for its crust, catering to every need. There wasn’t a thing I’d change about this crust, it kept its texture throughout and held its toppings beautifully.
As for the toppings, you had better like bacon, because Bazbeaux definitely does not skimp in that department. Good thing, too, because the bacon is crisp and has the perfect salty flavor to counteract all of the cheese, which is creamy and fantastic. Ricotta isn’t often used as a pizza cheese, but here, it’s really the most underrated ingredient by a wide margin because of how much it adds. The taste is wonderful, and the ricotta melts perfectly to create a creamy texture from first bite to last. I honestly spent my meal searching for those beautiful white spots on the pizza because I knew those were going to be both the creamiest and the best parts of an outstanding pie. Amy loved this as well, and she’s not even a big fan of ricotta. This pizza is that good.
For her pizza, Amy wanted to keep things relatively simple, opting for bacon, mushrooms and shrimp on the basic three-cheese blend. Even when you don’t add cheese to it, Bazbeaux piles it on and it flows beautifully. Amy was pleasantly surprised to see the melting mozzarella blend coming off her pizza as she took her first slice, and wasn’t the least bit disappointed when she actually tasted her creation.
Much as with mine, there’s bacon and a lot of it. It’s crispy and salty, and it works well. The shrimp is perfectly cooked, giving a great texture and a meaty taste. The only complaint with the shrimp is that it’s not strong enough to really stand out on a pizza like this, getting overpowered by the bacon. Perhaps it works better when paired with other flavors that aren’t quite as powerful. Even with that, though, this is a really good pizza, and we both enjoyed every bite.
I’m not sure what inspired the beginning of a pizza restaurant inside an abandoned house 28 years ago, but wherever it’s been in its history, Bazbeaux has been one of the Hoosier State’s gems, mainly because its mindset has been the same from the beginning. According to the legend, Bazbeaux the jester’s journey ended in the New World on a journey with Amerigo Vespucci that he never returned from, and Bazbeaux the restaurant’s goal is to continue his philosophy of whimsy, originality and excellence. When you have those three things working for you, it’s a recipe for success, and after nearly three decades, it’s safe to say that Bazbeaux is living up to the standards of its name.
Time to go: Depends on the time of year. Each of Bazbeaux’s three locations open daily at 11 a.m., with the downtown location staying open until 10 p.m. and locations in the Broad Ripple section of Indianapolis and in Carmel, Ind., open until 9 p.m. In the summer, all locations are open one hour later.
Wait during my visit: None. We got in there near the end of the evening.
Location: Bazbeaux’s downtown location is at 329 Massachusetts Avenue in Indianapolis. Be careful trying to find it, it’s a challenge. Massachusetts Avenue is a diagonal street and there are several one-way streets in the area. Be careful, you could easily end up lost and driving around in circles, which is exactly what happened to me.
Cost: Not bad at all. Most specialty pizzas are $12 for a 10-inch, and creating a pizza starts at $7.25, with traditional toppings costing 80 cents, exotic costing $1.40 and premium $1.80 for a 10-inch. Throw in $3.50 for pesto garlic bread and you’re at about $25-30 for two people without drinks.
Parking: Not great downtown. There are spaces, but Massachusetts Avenue is a popular destination and they fill up fast. However, New York Avenue, which borders the other side of Bazbeaux, has street parking. You might have a better shot at finding a spot there, and it’s free on weekends.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs, or booths and chairs, whichever one will be more comfortable for you.
Specialty items: Quattro Formaggio pizza, pesto garlic bread