Photos by Tony Valainis
Back in 2014, Nathan and Leah Huelsebusch chose the sleepy Johnson County town of Bargersville as the site of their first Taxman Brewing Company gastropub. Inspired by the three years they lived in Belgium for business, the couple started serving small-batch dubbels and steak frites in the shadow of the hulking Umbarger & Sons grain elevators across the road, a farm-town metropolis that is equal parts Marvel Universe and Petticoat Junction.
The Huelsebusches’ southside base kept its rural charm while they added taprooms on Fortville’s main drag and in a renovated 1850s livery building downtown, as the Taxman brand grew to include a robust line of Belgian-inspired beers, farmhouse ales, and Midwest saisons sold around the state and beyond. It should have come as no surprise when the owners returned to Bargersville for their latest venture, Pizza & Libations, or that the bartender would tell me, as she prepared Leaning Tower of Piscos and Fig’ Get About Its one Saturday afternoon less than a month after the restaurant’s late-October opening, that they were expecting yet another packed house that night.
“Who in the world is coming all the way to Bargersville for pizza and libations?” I asked.
“Bargersville,” she replied. Duh.
The owners knew what they were doing when they planted their flag beside the Indiana Rail Road tracks 20 miles south of downtown Indianapolis. The acres of new, well-off residential development surrounding their quiet dip in the road supply a steady stream of customers hungry for Neapolitan-style pizza and Prosecco spritzes in their neck of the woods. “We kind of modeled this after our own personal story,” Nathan says. “When we moved from Belgium to Indiana, we ended up living right outside of the Bargersville city limits. Both of us worked at Cummins, and there were a lot of people like us in these communities who have corporate jobs.” The Huelsebusches envisioned that the area would continue to grow, that people like them would keep moving to the south side. “Fortunately, that’s exactly what happened,” Nathan says.
Presumably, the residents of Saddle Club South, Kerrington Proper, and Banta Road Estates will claim all of the spots in the dusty gravel lot that edges P&L’s patio buildout that, come spring, will be able to seat 72 diners beside a sleek linear fireplace. Inside, the dining room designed by DKGR Architects is all muted blacks and natural wood tones, filled with dreamy murals by Liverpool artist Danny O’Connor. Later this year, the pizzeria will connect to a bakery and upper-level speakeasy with a rooftop deck. Customers get a tease of these two upcoming businesses when they enter the Pizza & Libations lobby, a gleaming atrium of shiny white tile and exposed brick. It’s hard to ignore the two particle-board door cutouts, where temporary signage explains that Cellar’s Market bakery and a lounge named Up Cellar are coming soon.
In the meantime, executive chef Daniel Keiner’s menu of blistered-crust pies and housemade pastas should hold people’s attention. As Taxman’s culinary director of operations, Keiner leaned hard on the Campania motif here, delivering classic flavors in his red-sauced Margherita as well as an understated Bianca laid with ricotta, fresh mozzarella, Capriole goat cheese, and sea salt.
The menu also goes way off script. The Light Em Up layers on the heat mercilessly with chili oil, ’nduja, spicy pickle, Calabrian chili, and hot honey. You can order both a BBQ chicken ranch and a buffalo chicken pizza, and even the Hawaiian pizza fortifies its pineapple with fig jam and spiced almonds. Some of those risky flavor combinations work, as in the well-balanced P+LT that calibrates the saltiness of prosciutto, Parmesan, capers, and smoked sea salt with the smoothness of white sauce and mozzarella. Others—like a pizza riff on the Cuban sandwich slicked with Dijon mustard and dotted with pickle slices and unwieldy cubes of city ham—take too many liberties with the fermented-crust canon. If you want to try something a little different, opt for the Hen of the Woods pizza, or the olive-oiled That’s My Jam, which combines the standard mozzarella, Asiago, and capocollo with fig jam and goat cheese.
The 12-inch pies bake in what Nathan describes as a “super-high-temp deck oven” that goes up to 932 degrees (though these cook at 700 in about two minutes). In addition to the pizzas, Italian-style pasta dishes like carbonara and scallop linguine are assembled with housemade noodles. Nicely crusted Faroe Island salmon shares the plate with pesto-coated pappardelle. For the Bolognese, Keiner melds tender pasta rags with Fischer Farms beef and pork. He offers octopus with squid ink sauce along with mushroom risotto and sage-spiked sweet potato gnocchi. And if all of this sounds a little too fancy for the far-south suburbs, you must not be from around here.