Chicago-based travel guide author and journalist Kate Silver has named Iechyd Da Brewing Company in Elkhart, Indiana winner of the Critic’s Choice Award in the 2015 Northern Indiana Pizza Wars. She also gave a nod to The Café at The Bowling Alley in Warsaw, Indiana, awarding it Honorable Mention. The Critic’s Choice Award is a separate category from the popular vote, which compiled online votes and recognized The Wooden Peel as the winner.
The bracket-style Pizza Wars competition was created by the Northern Indiana Tourism Development Commission, as a way of driving tourism to each of the seven counties it represents. Using the results of the competition the NITDC will create a Pizza Trail map that guides visitors to each of the county winners.
This is the second year NITDC has led a “food war” competition. Last year’s Burger Wars received such a favorable response, the organization decided to make the challenge an annual tradition. Since the Pizza Wars began, pizzeria owners have reported a dramatic uptick in business, and more than 100,000 votes were cast online.
“Just one day after the county pizza winners were announced, we had pizzeria owners nearly running out of supplies, their restaurants were so slammed with business,” says Robby Bearss, marketing manager with NITDC. “It’s incredibly gratifying to see these mom-and-pop businesses flourish across Northern Indiana.”
Bearss says that NITDC decided to bring in a Chicago critic because the organization felt an outsider palate—and professional journalist—would add even more credibility to the competition.
“It’s great to have fans of each restaurant voting for the winner and to see the rallying support around these eight pizzerias,” says Bears. “But we also wanted to add a more critical element. We approached Kate Silver because she writes professionally about food and travel and she knows her pizza. We also wanted to flaunt the fact that great pizza can and does exist outside of Chicago. Mission accomplished.”
Silver visited eight pizzerias representing seven counties in Northern Indiana. Each owner was asked to serve the pizza that best represented the restaurant. That resulted in a wide array of crusts and toppings, from thick to thin, meat to veggie and everything in between. Silver scored each pizza on the following categories: crust, sauce, cheese, toppings, history/ambiance and execution.
The competition was steep, said Silver, and the decision wasn’t easy.
“Every pizzeria truly put its best slice forward, and I would happily drive from Chicago to visit any one of these pizzerias again,” said Silver.
Silver said that Iechyd Da Brewing’s pizza stood out for its crust, which, she declared “so light it defies gravity,” along with its daring combinations of high quality ingredients (such as chorizo and tomatillo), with a focus on local vegetables and meats.
“At Iechyd Da I tried The Kidwelly, a pizza inspired by an appetizer owner Summer Lewis had when traveling in Wales with her husband and the brewery’s co-owner, Chip. Topped with rosemary oil, ham, smoked Gouda, mozzarella, arugula and balsamic, the sultry smell of smoke and tart vinegar teased my nose as I lift the first piece to my mouth. The local peppery greens punctuated the salty meat and light sprinkling of cheese brought it all home,” says Silver.
Silver says the pizza was so light and the flavors so complementary, she couldn’t help but indulge in a second piece—even though it was the fifth tasting of the day.
“There’s a thoughtfulness that comes through in every bite of Iechyd Da’s pizza—the aroma, the flavors, the textures. But the pizza doesn’t just taste incredible. It tells a story about the owners, their travels and the town of Elkhart. It starts a conversation.”
Silver says that the biggest surprise of the pizza judging came from The Café at The Bowling Alley in Warsaw. “I did a double take on this one. A bowling alley makes the best pizza in the county?” she says.
But she calls her first bite of Bryan Bibler’s Bib’s Smoked BBQ Chicken Pizza “a revelation.”
“It turns out Bryan has run a barbecue catering business for the last 25 years, and he’s a serious contender on the pizza scene,” says Silver. “Served on a thick, focaccia-like crust, slathered in his secret BBQ sauce, piled high with cheese and tender smoked diced chicken and then topped with onion tanglers, it should come as no surprise that this 16-inch pie looks a total gut buster. But somewhere, somehow, the flavors—onion tanglers and all—come across as more of a symphony.”
“If this place were closer to home,” adds Silver, “I’d be in trouble.”
Silver says her favorite part of judging the Pizza Wars was traveling across Northern Indiana and meeting with eight different pizzeria owners. “Every one of them had a colorful story about their passion for pizza, from Italian family recipes passed down through generations, as I saw at Iannarelli’s, Rulli’s and Albano’s Villa, to stories about creating their own pizza recipe because they wanted to share their love of pizza with their respective community, as I saw at The Café at The Bowling Alley, Giannetto’s, Duneland and Iechyd Da,” says Silver.
Silver added that she was impressed by the local pride and enthusiasm she saw in each county. “I loved seeing the excitement in each community, whether it’s neighbors cheering for their favorite pizzeria on Twitter, casting their daily vote online, or visiting the pizzeria to try it out, firsthand,” says Silver.
“A number of the places I visited reported that since the Pizza Wars began, they’ve been seeing a huge increase in business. It’s heartening to see great things happen in these small, family-owned restaurants. With that, the whole region comes out a winner.”
Silver wrote an in-depth travel essay about her journey through Indiana, which you can read here.
Silver, who is based in Chicago, is the author of the 2015 Frommer’s EasyGuide to Chicago. A freelance journalist, her food, travel and lifestyle pieces appear regularly in Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Midwest Living and other publications. As a self-described “professional eater with a writing habit,” Silver has explored the thick and thin of the Chicago and international pizza scene, and plans on returning to Indiana soon for another slice of the pie.