From the Pizza Issue
There are rumors in the River City. Those local to Evansville, Indiana, are told generationally, that when the 101stAirborne, fortified by France’s 2ndArmored Division, seized the Eagle’s Nest, a vast trove of relics was uncovered—including something personal, and perhaps even more macabre. In Hitler’s small study within the Kehlsteinhaus, satellite images purportedly existed of the beloved River City.
Evansville played a formidable role in our triumphs of World War II. Perched on the north bank of the Ohio River, Evansville possessed all the right qualities to feed the insatiable machine of war: labor, natural resources, and a can-do Hoosier attitude.
As American involvement in the war effort grew, so did the town’s population. Folks from all over the tristate area ventured from the rolling hills and fertile farmland to the humming city streets—the abundance of assembly-line work was hoisting families out of the Great Depression. The old Plymouth factory was quickly converted to provide “bullets by the billions,” alongside factories equipped to build Landing Ship-Tanks (LSTs) and the ole “Jug,” aka P-47D Thunderbolts. In fact, Evansville was responsible for a total of 6,242 P-47s, with nearly half of those made during the war. So feasibly it is true that Hitler was keeping close tabs on Evansville, perhaps with the aim of destroying it altogether.
After digesting this local history, and bellied by a few house beers, I digress, at this point to ponder whether or not Evansville fit within the Führer’s master plan. Doubts aside, I will claim that the locals are onto something with the latter. In the same breath, said folks will try to be even more persuasive—and upbeat. Locals insist that the best slice in all the world can be found not in Italy or Brooklyn, but within the confines of the Crescent Valley. You just have to follow the pizza brick road down to Turoni’s.
Started in 1963 by Mr. Jerry Turner, Turoni’s now boasts three locations across town. A family business, it is remembered by his mother that Jerry was always in the kitchen, working and revising his recipe amongst clouds of flour and hot ovens until he perfected his masterpiece.
But legends are not created overnight, but in the long evening hours. Jerry supported his nightly carry-out business on Columbia Street for nearly a decade while “sunlighting” first in pest control, and finally as a box salesman for the Ohio Valley Container company. Finally, in 1971, Jerry and his wife Judy dove completely in, opening their first full-fledged restaurant at 621 North Main Street.
Although now situated a few blocks down from the original, a walk into Turoni’s is like taking a step back in time. The wooden hued beadboard walls are adorned with vintage Sterling beer signs and a hodgepodge of photos, advertisements and sporting fish—relics put up out of necessity. “Mom and dad had no money to decorate the restaurant, so they put up whatever they could find, or whatever people gave to them,” says Lydia Mueller—Jerry’s daughter.
Turoni’s will make you miss your adolescence. It is the quintessential small town American pizza parlor of yore. It’s the kind of place that still smells of yeast and age; arcade games flicker in the background as youth soccer teams flood the backroom. Moms and dads spin tales, along with classic rock from the jukebox. Pitchers—the kind that are supplied to the restaurant free of charge, either by Pepsi or Coca-Cola depending on your region—are ordered by the dozen. Sodas and beers make their way from these vessels into the branded plastic tall-boy cups. This spot is the kind where everyone is welcome.
This is middle America. A friendly place, with strong Germanic ancestry, Evansville is experiencing a bit of a facelift with a new medical school and revitalization of its historic streets.
Which reminds me—I’m starting to get hungry.
Lydia tells me to go with the House Special, a supreme sort of pizza that’s made better with house-made Italian sausage and topped with pepperoncini peppers. But this version of pizza varies greatly, if not entirely, from those of Naples or the “hipsterfied” joints that now serve as modern-day pizzerias. Unassumingly, the House Special arrives, along with a Honey Blonde beer brewed in-house and poured by Matt, a bartender who has worked these floors for well over a decade.
Matt tells me that some folks come twice a week, once a month, or once a year, but they always come. “The other day, some guy came in who used to live here twenty years ago,” he says. “He told me Turoni’s was the first place he wanted to come back to. He said it felt like he was finally back home.”
I dig in. With the first crispity-crack of the saltine cracker-like crust—airy, thin, yet still with some chew—I know I’m in for eating more than my doctor would advise. It takes me six to seven pieces to catch my breath (they are small squares, okay), yet I press on like a marathoner. This is not just good pizza y’all; this is wunderbar.
In 1996, Jerry decided the only thing—besides some local folklore—to go better with his pizza was a pint or two of cold beer. He opened a brewery within the establishment, keeping a half dozen or so on draft at all times. The Honey Blonde remains the most popular, and a few sips in, I can see why. The brew is crisp, slightly bitter, with a mellow sweetness the local honey that brings it all into perfect harmony. A touch effervescent, the beer proudly compliments the rich flavors of the savory menu.
From the décor to the pizzas and the beers, Turoni’s is eclectic—and I haven’t even gotten to their mascot, Uncle Vinny. The brainchild of Jerry and local artist of fame Jon Siau, Vinny’s Italian-American personality and Siau’s artwork are living and breathing throughout the restaurant. It’s an earnest theme, not the work of some major chain or ad agency. Siau asks me if I’ve been told how they came up with the name for the restaurant. Jon relays “they combined Jerry’s last name—Turner—with pepperoni, and Turoni’s was born.”
I’ve decided I want more pizza. I take Lydia’s advice and focus on simplicity: crust, sauce, cheese, and the house-made Italian sausage. The sausage is spiked with plenty of aromatics ground into hefty bites and generously spotted all over the pizza. The simple combo makes me appreciate the crust even more. It’s not until I leave the restaurant that I notice a sign outside reading “In crust we trust – Turoni’s is a must,” solidifying my affirmation.
In my post-consumption glow, I realize nothing gold can stay. Turoni’s is iconic, and it is certainly poised to carry on for decades to come, but its founder, Mr. Jerry Turner, passed on to somewhere even greater in 2018. “We miss him,” says Lydia. “But this place is always Jerry’s world.”
And it is a grand world indeed. A place where good food and good drink provide a backdrop for all of us to unite, engage, and perhaps spend some time on the best pastime—sharing a meal.