The city comes back to life this time of the year, when downtown’s sidewalk tables are in full bloom and patio seating spreads like kudzu across the suburbs. Summer’s early adopters have already taken their al fresco positions beneath the pergolas, reminding the rest of us as we drive by—without a margarita in our hand or a French bulldog at our feet—that we have entered a new dining season. The people living their best lives on the deck outside King Dough, a tiny modernist gem of metal panel siding and freestanding white-oak trellises on a slip of property just east of downtown, are celebrating a different kind of change in the climate.
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452 N. Highland Ave., 317-602-7960
Daily 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
Tiered trays of pizza, the less traditional the better, with pasta in the evenings and a full bar.
The meaty Big Boy and the far-out Grape and Gorgonzola, with a chicken Caesar salad and grilled bread.
Starters $8–$13.50; salads $10–$12; pizzas $11–$18
[/sidenote]The 2,675-square-foot pizza joint arrived in Indianapolis at the end of January, roughly three years after King Dough debuted its original location in Bloomington. With some help from real estate developers Tom and Ed Battista (the restaurateurs behind Bluebeard, Amelia’s, and an upcoming project in Windsor Park), the business landed on a little pizza slice of land bound by Michigan Street, Michigan Place, and Highland Avenue in the historic Holy Cross neighborhood. While that picturesque pocket of Indianapolis boasts a nice mix of lovingly rehabbed houses and local businesses, it was short on family-friendly pizzerias that play classic cartoons on the flat screens and pour a nice, complex Cardinal Spirits Bramble vodka cocktail.
King Dough owners Adam and Alicia Sweet found a demographic even more starved for pepperoni and cheese than college students. They discovered a small tribe of urban dwellers with pizza money to burn and a hankering for their own neighborhood hangout. Had they taken up residence on Mass Ave or tucked their darling into a strip mall, it would be an entirely different place. Not the kind of local haunt where regulars show up several times a week. “I liked the idea of planting our flag in our own neighborhood,” says Adam, an Arkansas native who has worked in restaurants and pizzerias since his teens.
From any perch in the dining room furnished with mismatched chairs and live-edge cherry slab tables, you can see Adam flattening discs of dough and ladling sauce in the open kitchen. Pies layered with the kind of nontraditional ingredients that red-sauce truthers want to punch in the face—aged mozzarella, pickled pineapple, goat cheese—are blistered into submission inside a 1,000-degree Marra Forni gas oven with a rotating floor. The igloo-shaped inferno covered in a mosaic of tiny red tiles is affectionately named Thunderdome.
Sure, there’s a banner of crocheted pizza slices draped like pennants near the door, and some of the décor has a straight-up Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme. White carryout boxes are stacked against the counter near a clothesline of branded King Dough T-shirts, and the owners invited graffiti artists to tag the heck out of the restroom’s once-pristine walls. But while much of the restaurant’s aesthetic reflects the 33-year-old owner’s generation of pop culture, its pizza portfolio is a product of our current Top Chef times.
With names like Destroyer and Taco Tuesday, these pies use the tossed-dough platform to deliver complex flavor profiles, like big shingles of soppressata drizzled with Mike’s Hot Honey, arranged on top of cheese and red sauce, or the ramp cream-fontina-Canadian bacon mashup that adorned an early-spring special. One lovely white pie mingles blobs of ricotta and gooey mozzarella with just basil, caramelized onions, and black pepper. The Stinky Pete gets its name from goat cheese and Gorgonzola melted into a magma of (among other ingredients) garlic and pecorino.
Bulbous, chewy edges act as a sponge to absorb the oils and juices that cook out of the toppings and seep into the bottom crust. And maybe this is all you need to know. Maybe this is the moment when things get less civil, because people have strong opinions and mansplanations about the proper physics of pizza. Yes, the slices have a slight limp—something you might call out as a structural flaw if you walk in expecting a classic New York slice and not the denser, chewier Neapolitan-inspired model that King Dough is going for here. I won’t try to change your mind.
Adam uses a blend of unbleached flours to build a naturally leavened, sourdough-tinged dough that tends to take on a lot of char in the heat of the oven—giving it that coveted leopard spotting along the rim. It sets up a nice, rustic base for not only the pepperoni pizza and the Margherita’s classic red sauce, fresh mozzarella, basil, and olive oil but also the Pork & Pine’s Canadian bacon and pickled pineapple and the N Do Ya Punk’s merging of pecorino, nduja, breadcrumbs, red onion, and ranch. If that amalgamation of toppings sounds shocking, consider that King Dough also offers a Grape and Gorgonzola pizza that comes exactly as billed, with prosciutto, parmesan, honey, and an arugula finish playing up the sweetness of the fruit and the funkiness of the cheese. It sounds crazy. It looks crazy. It tastes amazing.
No one is pretending that this is a traditional pizza restaurant, so it comes as no surprise that half of the menu doesn’t even mention pizza but rather focuses on shared starters like grilled slabs of Amelia’s bread offered with either cultured butter for slathering or a bowl of meatballs bobbing in marinara with a dollop of olive-oiled ricotta on top. Chicken wings are soaked in a salt-and-sugar brine for 24 hours and fried crisp before getting tossed in a tingly hot-honey sesame sauce. A chicken Caesar salad that I devoured one evening proved such a perfect specimen of crunchy romaine lubed with salty, creamy dressing and tender chunks of chicken that I returned the next day for a take-home order. And even if you aren’t in the mood for a cheeseburger smashed inside a toasted sesame bun, cross your fingers that someone at your table is, so that you can sneak a handful of extra-crisp crinkle-cut fries tossed in clarified butter and sprinkled with Romano, tarragon, and parsley. Just frozen fries dropped into a fryer, they shouldn’t be this good. But a few thoughtful ingredients turn them into something delicious.
That’s what King Dough does so well. It surprises you. Even if you think you know exactly what a food group, namely pizza, is supposed to look like and taste like—well, it might change your way of thinking.