A good meal is especially good when it comes as a donation for a good cause. But, when it’s as good as the Stone Pony Pizza in Clarksdale then it’s just good, period. Matthew Joseph the baker extraordinaire and chef at Stone Pony has put together a menu that pushes the pizza genre, and the public is literally eating it up. With blues-centric tourism driving the local scene, Stone Pony has no shortage of local competition. But, when our 11 paddlers popped in on a recent Saturday night fresh out of the muddy Sunflower River, we were extremely lucky that we were expected. Otherwise we may not have found a table.
The building is a beauty. There’s nothing quite like the feel of a turn of the century brick structure in a small Mississippi town, especially if it’s been renovated to carefully protect the architectural and historic integrity of the place. Outside, the columned and covered entrance at Stone Pony provides a couple of tables and a nice place to eat and people watch on the sidewalk. The inside is stripped down to the brick walls, and the old wood floors and tables provide a warm cozy feeling. The comfortable booths are a great place to settle in for a cold beer from the restaurant’s very good selection.
Matthew obviously understands that pairing pizza with good beer is a necessity. He offers diners 25 options to get it right by providing basic domestic to a good representation of imports. It’s not always easy to get a good Pizza/Beer pairing at some restaurants due to the overuse of tomato sauce. The pies that come out of Matthew’s kitchen don’t make that mistake. We had ten pies delivered to our table during our two visits, and the consistency never wavered. They take what they do seriously at this place.
On Saturday night we skipped the appetizers and went straight for the pizza. We had a selection of seven pies at the table. The one thing that jumped out almost immediately was the quality of the crust. It was cooked perfectly and, again, consistently so. It was crisply cooked on the outside, and fresh and soft on the inside. It was not so thick as to outperform the toppings, but provided a texturally satisfying, well-cooked foundation. If there were ever any problems with finding the perfect temps in the Stone Pony ovens, they were overcome a long time ago.
Some of the new boutique pizza places rely heavily on slick imaging and the creation of a thematic atmosphere, but then can’t deliver when it comes to the food. Stone Pony let’s historic old pictures of Clarksdale do the talking when it comes to the imagery, and then they do what they do best; provide a top-notch pizza. That is the point, after all, right?
The Saturday selection was huge. So, to find a pizza that jumped out at me it had to be distinct. I found it in the “Billy Goat”. This counts as my first pizza with a Dijon base, and I was floored. In fact, after eating a piece of everything on the table, I went back to the Billy Goat for the finale. That was no small task, and I would later wish I hadn’t overdone it. But, at the time those tasty bits were washing over my taste buds, it was good stuff. The Dijon is covered in goat cheese, tomato, fresh basil, caramelized onions and sour cream. Every pizza lover should try this at least once in his or her life.
On the second evening, we decided we should try a few appetizers. We started with a roasted red pepper and blue cheese hummus with Kalamata olives and fresh pita bread. The marriage of sweet, spicy, and tart was a happy one. Since we were sharing the table with two 11 year-old boys, it was a necessity that we order the fried cheese and marinara. If there were any one thing you might figure a restaurant could skimp on it would be the fried cheese. They didn’t. It was the same tasty pizza crust loaded down with mozzarella and cooked not one second too long. The marinara was less than exciting. But with a dish this good it was hardly noticed.
Our waitress Gabrielle suggested we try the Big E, a take on a Philly cheese steak. As with the other pizzas the day before, the Alfredo base was a perfect match to bring out the texture and taste of the toppings. We asked Gabrielle if there was anything on the menu she suggested. We wanted to be sure we had given everything the attention it was due. Without hesitation of thought, her eyes grew wide, her shoulders went a bit limp, and she spoke with the enthusiasm of a kid about to open birthday gifts, “You have GOT to try the CROSSROADS!”
I know. This is getting back toward the sound of those themed pizza places I was knocking earlier. But, we were at the center of the Blues Universe, after all. Plus, the Crossroads wasn’t even on the menu; it was “special”. How special was the question, and I tasked myself with finding the answer.
The dish landed on the table smelling like a pit BBQ, and it was divine. Again, like the others before it, the base was sufficient to taste but didn’t drown out the rest of the ensemble. The toppings were simple: base mozzarella, an easy sprinkle of red onions, and lightly flavored pulled pork. Good flavor, and like everything else we had, not overpowering.
When Gabrielle came back to the table she asked a question that I frequently answer with “No, Thank you.” But, today I was sitting across from two kids who had just spent two days, and 15-plus miles in a canoe. They deserved the reward and—damn it—so did I!
“Dessert?” she asked.
“What you got?”
I know I’m walking on thin ice here when I say the changing of the dessert names works well as a metaphor. I am married, and most of the time happily so. However, things get dicey from time to time with all relations. The sweetness of marriage, like dessert, can come back to leave a bellyache at times. Both could possibly cause a 3-hour drive home like the one ahead of me that evening to be an insufferable misery.
“What the hell! Bring us four spoons!”
I downed another beer in preparation, and Gabrielle brought out a plate of five levels of alternating ice cream and chocolate drenched brownie, gushing with whipped cream.
There wasn’t a morsel left, and the dessert gods smiled. My stomach, my wife, and the two kids slept quietly all the way home.
226 Delta Ave.
Clarksdale, MS 38614