Serious Eats contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. Daniel also blogs about Chicagoland pizza with his friends on the Chicago Pizza Club blog. —The Mgmt.
Stop 50 Wood Fired Pizzeria
500 S. El Portal, Michiana Shores IN 46360 (map); 219-879-8777; stop50woodfiredpizzeria.com
Getting There: Car required
Pizza Style: Artisanal
Oven Type: Wood
The Skinny: Outstanding pizzas with fresh, high quality ingredients; it would be selling it short to declare it the best small-town pizzeria in the country
Price: All pizzas are 11 inches and range from $12 to $17
For more than a century, Chicagoans with the means to do so have sought out second homes on the other side of Lake Michigan, specifically in northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan. In some cases, such as Grand Beach, MI, resort communities have been built. But those areas are few and far between. Far more common has been a scenario in which Chicagoans have bought up as much lakefront property as they can in every small town as far north in Michigan as they are willing to drive. For the most part, the towns have maintained their laid-back Midwestern character even when their populations multiply with each summer’s FIP invasion.
Among the towns targeted by seasonal visitors is Michiana Shores, Indiana, which, according to the last census, has a permanent population of 330 people. Chris Bardol was raised in Michiana Shores and left after college for a career in the food industry, though not as a cook. A couple of years ago, he returned to Michiana Shores and opened Stop 50 Wood Fired Pizzeria, where he has been putting out outstanding artisanal pies since July 2006.
With the temperature in the 30s and snow in the next day's forecast as I set out, it was no surprise to see Stop 50 pretty empty when I arrived for lunch on Saturday as summer felt years away. Summer is prime time for Stop 50, so much so that it is closed from December through February. In March they are only open on Friday evenings and all day Saturday and Sunday (as opposed to the peak season hours of 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Sunday). The restaurant has one large room that seats about 50 people, and in the summer they add tables outside for 40 more people or so. The oven, which come from Washington State, can hold about six pizzas and holds a temperature at about 800 at the bottom and between 1,100 and 1,200 at the top. Bardol made all of the pizzas the day I was there, but when things get crazy in the summer, two well-trained and closely supervised employees join him at the oven.
I got to try three pizzas on this, my first experience at Stop 50. Up first was the seasonal pizza, which has sausage, potato, red onion, gorgonzola, and mozzarella along with a little fresh rosemary. The pizza was outstanding. When Bardol gets his sausage, he flattens it out, rolls it up and then cuts it in very thin pieces, which allow for a nice crisp edge to form in the oven. Also thin-cut are the potatoes, which, while also precooked, benefited from the crispness that came from the high heat provided by a combination of oak, cherry, and apple woods. The rosemary and gorgonzola each brought some strong flavors to the combination, but both were softened nicely by the potato, mozzarella, and crust, leaving a very balanced pizza chock full of flavor.
Speaking of the crust, it is excellent. Bardol first came into making his own pizzas 13 years ago, when he went to a friend’s house for dinner where the friend’s Italian-born mother prepared for the family's weekly pizza night. Bardol came out of the dinner with a new appreciation for pizza and some starter that he continues to use at Stop 50 today—and that he credits for the depth of flavor in the crust.
The crust is thin, but has great hole structure and enough body to support the good amount of cheese and toppings. While it is cooked in a wood-burning oven at high heat for 90 seconds, this is not traditional Neapolitan pizza. It’s thicker in the center and does not have the soupy center that Neapolitan pies have. The crust has less blistering than some people crave, but it still had a very good combination of crisp and chew. I appreciated that the cornicione was not too big as I prefer as much of my pizza as possible to have cheese and toppings on it.
The wild mushroom pizza was covered with fresh, full-bodied mushrooms, and also had some olive oil and garlic along with the fresh mozzarella. When possible, Stop 50 uses locally grown ingredients, and they always seek out high quality produce and even grow some of the herbs themselves. Speaking of the herbs, check out the fresh oregano pictured in both pizzas above—I had never had that on pizza before and, while it made for some really strong oregano taste in some of the bites, I was a big fan. We ordered the mushroom pizza on the wheat crust, which is new this year at Stop 50. It costs a dollar extra and does change the taste a little bit.
The sausage pizza, which comes with the same well-seasoned sausage that the seasonal pizza had, also has mozzarella and oregano along with some sauce. While there was not a lot of sauce on there, there was enough that I could taste it in pretty much every bite, which was a good thing as Stop 50 uses tomatoes with a rich flavor and a very little acidic bite.
The crust was consistent on all three pizzas. As was the case with the cornicione, the bottom of the pies had a little less charring than some people like. But again, the taste was excellent and the texture was great.
It’s always a good day when trying out a great pizzeria for the first time, and it was particularly pleasant to find such outstanding pies in a place that exudes warmth. Chris and his wife Kristy were incredibly friendly and were happy to talk to anyone who approached, even going so far as to recommend another restaurant in the area. That their four cute young kids were quietly hanging out at one of the tables eating pizza only added to the Rockwellian feel.
Later this spring, Kristy is going to have her hands full running the family's new restaurant, SodaDog (Chris will continue to focus on Stop 50). Totally irrelevant to food quality, but nice to hear is that SodaDog will focus on being green, recycling its cooking oil into biodiesel to help power the place, and eventually adding a wind generator. The Bardols have been renovating a carhop and hope to be serving Michigan-made all beef hot dogs in natural casings by the end of April.
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