Power of pizza

River Bend builds the tradition

River Bend Pizza's Smoked Gouda & Tomato (top) and Alex the Great, photography by Neal Bruns

River Bend Pizza's Smoked Gouda & Tomato (top) and Alex the Great, photography by Neal Bruns

It’s a good bet that a lot of people first walked into River Bend Pizza for the classic reason that it’s so convenient to grab a pizza on the way home, but now they’re regulars whose voices are recognized when they call in their orders (the place doesn’t have caller ID) and whose orders are remembered by the Demetroff family members who are the staff.

It’s that kind of place. And a lot more. Buying a pizza, a sausage roll or a grinder brings you into the circle of Alex Demetroff and his family – wife Denise and daughters Marisa Sickle and Lexie Demetroff, who is now the store’s manager.

“It’s almost like we’re bartenders,” Lexie said. “People tell us all sorts of interesting facts about their lives.”

It’s a charmed circle in some wonderful ways.

You know how artisan pizzas are all the rage now? River Bend has been doing artisan pizzas forever with its own homemade, hand-formed dough and house-made sauce cradling toppings the family has tested, searched for and sourced from all over.

The Demetroffs care about their pizzas in ways both kind and quirky.

“I like feeding people. That’s what it amounts to,” Alex said. He admits he’d be willing to give the food away if that wouldn’t be such a bad business practice.

On the other hand, there are some things he just won’t do.

“I won’t sell bacon on a pizza because I can’t stand it,” he said. “Same way with breadsticks.”

“You always talk about breadsticks,” Marisa said.

“So we sell variations on garlic bread that satisfy our customers,” Denise explained.

“The girls are very accommodating,” Alex said, adding River Bend has made progress in this area as a family business. His father wouldn’t sell a pizza without anchovies when he started in the business in 1956 because that’s how he believed pizza should be made.

“You had to pick them off,” Denise recalled.

Except for those anchovies, that family heritage has been a blessing.

River Bend’s foundation recipes date to Alex’s father Lexy, who is – at a bare minimum – one of the patron saints of pizza in Fort Wayne.

We might as well enter that part of the circle now.

Lexy Demetroff opened Fort Wayne’s second pizzeria in 1956 and its first carryout pizza place in 1959. He had pizza businesses in several places around town and sold some of them to other people – some, like the one still at Spring Street and Sherman Boulevard, with his name on them. The Demetroff family can and does hold the claim on the original Lexy’s pizza, and the current River Bend pizzeria descends from Alex’s first work experience in the family pizza business at A’Roma Pizza on East State Boulevard and at Pizza Station at a different East State Boulevard location (obliterated by a road improvement project) where he was first a manager. That led to the opening of River Bend in 1987.

The rest, as they say, is history, much of which can be seen on the walls at River Bend Pizza, which are covered with a fascinating combination of family mementoes and kitschy gifts from customers and friends all demonstrating the family’s signature sense of humor.

The logic of the decor (yes, there is a logic to it) is the same logic that defines the food. It’s what the Demetroffs like. Especially Alex, who is smart enough to trust his wife’s marketing and culinary judgment. Both parents have come to trust their daughters, to whom they have largely entrusted the running of the business now.

The sign out front is promoting Artizzas these days, featuring new recipes developed by Denise and vetted by the family. Two are classic River Bend artisan recipes: the Creamy Seafood & Lobster and the Gyros.

The rest are new. Alex the Great (Yeah. Cue the sense of humor) puts spinach, thinly sliced tomato, sliced red onion, Kalamata olives, a sprinkle of mint, salt and pepper and minced garlic on top of a nine-inch “Nicolena” hand-pulled crust and tops it with feta cheese and a spritz of extra-virgin olive oil. It’s a deft nod to the Demetroff family’s Macedonian heritage and works beautifully as a pizza.

The second takes a cheese Denise admits she does not like to eat just as a slice of cheese and lets it star in a superb pizza, Smoked Gouda & Tomato. Onto the Nicolena crust goes a gouda cheese base, fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced tomato and minced garlic, which are sprinkled with cracked black pepper and extra-virgin olive oil and topped with more creamy gouda blend cheese.

This recipe was developed after Alex and Denise found a great price on the gouda and she started experimenting, surprising herself with how well it worked and keeping at it until the recipe was perfected.

The Artizzas are small, so if you are feeding a crowd, feel free to also order the Piccante Italiano (mozzarella, spicy Italian sausage, pepperoni baked crispy and topped with hot giardiniera) plus the Antipasto box, which features olive salad, pepperoncini, roasted red peppers, Kalamata olives, assorted Italian meat and cheese rolls.

The Artizzas were popular as soon as the menu was announced, and they probably were a big temptation to the holiday returnee customers that River Bend always enjoys, too.

Along with several other iconic, small, hometown purveyors of food in town, River Bend is a place people feel compelled to return to when they come back home after growing up and moving away or just moving away, Lexie said.

It’s a habit that, once started in a family, is carried on by new generations.

“I’ve got some fourth generation customers that I remember,” Alex said. “And a lot of third generation.”

They’re all in the charmed circle together, enjoying pizza.

River Bend Pizza
7410 St. Joe Road • (260) 485-3390
Find it on Facebook
Hours: Open at 4 p.m. Tues.-Sun.
Specialties: Homemade dough and sauce, sausage rolls and grinders, plus wings, gyros and garlic breads and homemade baked goods

River Bend Pizza’s Italian Oven Meatball
Makes 1 large sandwich

1 pound ground beef
(80 percent lean)
½ cup Italian bread crumbs
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon minced garlic (2 cloves)
½ small onion, minced
2 tablespoons of your favorite marinara sauce
2 teaspoons Italian spice blend
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 large egg, lightly beaten

For sandwich:
Marinara sauce
Italian bun
Sliced mozzarella cheese

1. Set oven at 375 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment.

2. Combine all meatball ingredients. Mix well, but do not overmix.

3. For a sandwich, use 3 ounces of mixture to form meatballs. For pasta, use two tablespoons per meatball. Roll meat into a nice, semi-firm ball. Place on the parchment. Wet your hands to roll the meatballs or wear food-handling gloves.

4. Bake meatballs 20-25 minutes to internal temperature of 160 degrees F.

5. To make a sandwich, use your favorite 6- to 8-inch Italian roll (a firmer bun bakes nice and crusty). Place the open bun on foil or a baking pan, and spread marinara sauce on both sides. Place three meatballs on the bottom half. Put a dollop of sauce on each meatball, then top with sliced mozzarella.

6. Bake until brown and crusty on top.

7. Fold, cut and MANGIA! Yum.

First appeared in the January 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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