HOURS: Mon-Tues, 4:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.
Wed– Sat, Lunch 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and Dinner 4:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.
A pizza tradition at Indianola’s Rocket Inn
Food is obviously central to culture. The cuisine we grew up with is always going to have a special place at the table. In Indianola, one food central to the culture for decades was a very special pizza recipe, brought to Nebraska by an Italian war bride in the late 1940s. The dough itself was fabulous, but one thing that made her pizzas unique was the careful infusion of a secret ingredient into the crust.
The Rocket Inn has been in continual operation for 70-odd years with only four owners, and even today, in a farming community of only 700 people they sell 500 pizzas a week, Mondays through Saturdays.
We had heard about the Rocket Inn in Indianola and their unique take on pizza crust, but when we saw it on the list of restaurants chosen for the 2013 Nebraska Passport program, it was all the motivation we needed to give it a try. The Passport program launches May 1 and is run by the Nebraska Tourism Commission to encourage travelers to explore Nebraska unique and interesting places, collect stamps from participating attractions and earn prizes. The Rocket Inn is one of eight restaurants chosen for the “Savor the Flavor” tour.
The night we went — a Tuesday — the rest of Indianola looked pretty sleepy but the cars parked on the main street in front of the Rocket Inn were numerous. The Rocket Inn has the look of a place that was named at a time when rockets were a big deal and is serious about maintaining tradition — a big 1950s-style illustration of a pizza man is painted on the wall, and a weather vane in the shape of an elongated rocket graces the roof.
Not fancy, but really friendly
William Least Heat Moon has wonderful descriptions of small town restaurants in his book Blue Highways and we were reminded of them was we walked into the Rocket Inn. It had the universal look of pizza joints everywhere — Formica tables, metal chairs, a coin-op pool table in the bar and walls hung with a hodgepodge of vintage signs, calendars and pictures.
As our server welcomed us, it was clear that a friendlier, more perky personality would be hard to find in Indianola or anywhere else. She loved working at the Rocket Inn, loved the pizza and was convinced — practically guaranteed us — that we would love it too.
We had called ahead for reservations, so the owner’s sister, Kathy Osterman, came out to greet us and share a little of the restaurant’s history. She told us she had worked at the Rocket Inn in high school and her sister, Carol Blackman, has owned it with her husband Dave Fjelseth for 13 years.
She also told us the original Rocket Pizza was introduced to south central Nebraska by Fiorella Blume, who brought the recipes for the dough, the sauce and a peppery condiment with her from Italy after the war. Of course, it is hard to say what people’s experience with pizza might have been at that time in Indianola, but if they had never tasted pizza before, we can say that they got a fine first experience. Back in the day, Kathy said, pizza nights were Wednesdays and Fridays, and people lined up down the sidewalk waiting their turn.
We order the special
Although there are a variety of relatively standard pizza combinations to order from, we ordered the Rocket special, a meat-lovers pizza with hamburger, Italian sausage and pepperoni along with spicy sauce and mozzarella.
We were not surprised to learn that this place is hopping on Friday and Saturday nights, when they also offer specials such as shrimp, steaks, and pork chop dinners, and we would be remiss not to mention that there are also burgers and an assortment of sandwiches on the menu, as well as salads and other entrees. It’s just that we had come for the pizza.
When it arrived, it was not Pizza-Hut round, but baked in a rectangle and served in the pan. The crust was crisp, almost papery on the blistered bottom, though thick enough to be substantial. The flavor of the homemade pizza sauce shone through the abundant meat toppings and the cheese. We gave Rocket pizza three thumbs up.
A place to party
Kathy told us the Rocket Inn was a popular place for birthdays, anniversaries and other occasions because the staff will decorate and even provide a cake free of charge. It’s clearly popular with children because the Rocket Inn offers a playroom with lots of toys to keep them occupied while the adults visit over dinner. There is also a kid’s menu and they even have child-sized picnic tables to enjoy their meals. And of course there’s the pizza.
The Rocket Inn uses Facebook to promote their weekend specials, and people come from Kansas and Colorado to pick up their take-and-bake pizzas. Kathy spoke so enthusiastically about the popular take-and-bake pizza that we bought one to take home.
So that’s the coda on this story. When we baked it at home, the flavors of the sauce and crisp texture of the crust and slightly crunchy texture of the fresh vegetables merged into a savory and delicate pizza pie.
If food is culture, we feel as if we sampled two: the Italian roots of Fiorella Blume and the Rocket Inn as the cultural glue that helps hold Indianola together. If you’re in the area, we recommend you give it a try.