BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
An Indiana University student was interning at People magazine when, in 1982, the editors decided to publish a piece on the nation’s best pizzas. The judges came to Bloomington because the intern raved about the pizza made at Mother Bear’s Pizza. At first, owner Ray McConn thought it was a scam. Today he calls it “the grace of God” because the article mentioning Mother Bear’s doubled his sales and, more than 30 years on, his business card still reads “‘One of America’s top nine pizzarias …’ —People magazine.” It’s an honor McConn isn’t eager to let Bloomington forget.
In fact, Mother Bear’s has a place way back in Bloomington’s food memory. McConn opened the restaurant with partner Bruce Storm in April 1973 to supply pizza to their down-the-street bar, Bear’s Place. McConn managed Bear’s Place full time, but it didn’t have a kitchen big enough to produce pizza. After McConn sold Bear’s Place in 2000 (full disclosure — I worked for him there while I was in graduate school many years ago), he took back full-time management of Mother Bear’s, which had lost its focus under a succession of managers. Once he rededicated himself to pizza, he worked on consistency — precise measurements, careful babying of the dough, perfecting the sauce — and the place started coming back to its 1982 glory.
Today Mother Bear’s has expanded beyond its original narrow 70-seat restaurant, by absorbing other shops on the block, and now it has 175 seats in a spacious, rustic college-pizzeria ambiance. If you have ever lived in a college town, you know exactly what that means. If you have not, you haven’t really lived.
The pizza is still Midwestern, thick of crust, which means that both the traditional pan and the deep dish are thicker than New York–style but not as thick as Chicago. The sauce is sweet and loadable with all kinds of ingredients from pepperoni to pineapple. Besides the traditional red and a Parmesan and garlic white, sauces include Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ and the intriguing Salsa del Rafano, which balances some of the sweet of the red sauce with the bite of horseradish.
But pizza is not the only thing going at Mother Bear’s. There are killer fried mushrooms — portobellos fried ’til crisp and unlike those fried mushrooms that explode in your mouth with searing hot liquid, these are really good. There are pasta dishes — spaghetti and meatballs, chicken Parmesan over linguini, and excellent spinach lasagna — and a variety of subs and sandwiches. And Mother Bear’s still serves their side salads with Goldfish crackers as croutons (delicious — really, why doesn’t everyone do this?) and the salad still comes in a double bowl, so you can dump salad from one to the other and dress it properly!
The only thing missing at Mother Bear’s (well, besides eggplant Parmesan- — hint, hint, Ray) is a dessert worthy of the pizza that precedes it. Currently there is one lonely dessert on the menu — Ghirardelli chocolate brownies. Some vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce would go a long, long way to making them feel less forlorn. Next time you are in Mother Bear’s, let Ray know that a little ice cream would not go amiss. Tell him I sent you. And put in a plug for eggplant Parm while you are at it.