Slice of Life: The people, pizza, and personality of Indiana, PA

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They make you wait for it: this little college town tucked an hour and a half slightly north but mostly east of the city. For miles, Route 286 is a tease, lazily winding its way past strings of box stores and Golden Arches, suburban dreams that come wrapped in promises of 24-hour convenience.
 
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Finally, a slight curve and then you see it. Straight ahead: The Jimmy Stewart Museum. The crown jewel of Philadelphia Street, three stories of brick and mortar that pay homage to Indiana’s favorite son, whose voice you hear when you cross the intersection of 7th Street.
 
Ahh, this is Jimmy Stewart. The walk signal is on for all crossings, so take your time… 14, 13, 12, 11, 10….
 
Although much has changed here, much remains the same. It’s the Indiana Gazette, four generations strong since 1890, the whirl of its printing press still luring pressed noses to glass walls every morning around 11 to watch it spit out the daily. It’s Henry Hall Office Products, “Indiana County’s Oldest Continuously Operated Business” since 1866, where 25 cents gets you two gumballs out of a Kiwanis Club machine. Luxenberg’s Jewelers has been in operation since 1916, and two generations have owned Michael B.’s Shoes. Fashion… Fit… Comfort!
 
Intertwined throughout is connectivity that’s as visceral as it is ancestral. You needn’t be part of the immediate family to be invited to sit at the table. You just need to open the door.
 
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Nap’s Cucina Mia & Josephine’s Pizzeria Enoteca
 
Even as they’re running out of time to pack for a family vacation in the south of Italy, Mary Jo Karas is going to take the time to tell you the story.
 
How her father, Napoleon Patti, came back from World War II and in 1949 announced, “I don’t want to mend shoes anymore… I want to open a bar.” He wanted to open a shot-and-beer joint for people to take a load off. A cold Genesee or Schmidt’s would be waiting when the whistle blew at dawn to end shifts in subterranean coal seams.
 
When Nap and Josephine’s daughter, Mary Jo, turned one, they moved into the upstairs apartment. She grew up in the bar, watched her mom serve up homemade spaghetti and meatballs every Wednesday, noodles made from a simple recipe of fresh semolina, egg, and water.
 
In 1992, when her dad turned 76, he made another announcement. I’m tired of the bar. I think we need to open a restaurant. We’ll call it Nap’s Cucina Mia.
 
From the open kitchen came a combination of family recipes that included Josephine’s famous sauce, what is referred to as “Nonna’s Sauce” today. Still proudly served even as delivery men come and go.
 
Hey, how you doing? Ready for the trip?
 
Employees breeze by with wide smiles. They’ll tell you over and over they love it here, even when their matriarch is out of earshot.
 
“It’s not just a job, it’s a family,” says Ryan “Goose” Gesler, one of their jack-of-all-trades.
Mary Jo’s husband, Bill, comes in. Hey Bill! A few minutes later, one of the many regulars arrives. Hello, Mr. Graziano. Everyone is gearing up for the trip oversees. In their absence, the employees will run the restaurant, including Josephine’s Pizzeria & Enoteca next door.
 
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There, a 5,000-pound wood-fired Stefano-Ferrara oven sits like a pot-bellied Buddha, burning at 800 degrees and able to finish a pizza in 90 seconds. Mary Jo’s son, Nick, and his wife, Jessica, picked it up in Naples during their honeymoon. Every chef in the place is jealous. Isn’t that awesome? Shopping for the Cadillac of pizza ovens on your honeymoon?
 
“This is the pizza you have to try,” Nick says. Thin, crispy crust that only a few hours ago was hand-kneaded, freshly made dough, rolled out and topped with roasted broccoli, a thin layer of ricotta cheese, and speck.
 
Even the cocktails are made from scratch, each containing only a handful of raw ingredients to compliment the alcohol: freshly squeezed orange juice, hand-infused fig vodka and homemade cinnamon syrup.
 
As Nick makes his way around the room, Jessica’s grandma and grandpa arrive for lunch. When they get up to leave, he jumps out of his chair and sends them off with a kiss. Bye grandma. Bye grandpa. See you after the trip.
 
It’s not unusual to see people finish their pizza and return five hours later for dinner next door at Nap’s, spending an evening in the company of everyone from movie stars to miners, students to state senators. It’s like coming to someone’s house and finding them permanently planted in the kitchen. Where else could you possibly have to go? Sit down and eat.
 
A steady stream arrives on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday for Chicken Romano night: singles, older married couples, college kids, families of four and more. When they sit, they stay, even as the clock ticks closer and closer to midnight.
 
“We don’t rush anybody,” Nick says. “We don’t pop a check down on the table until someone asks for it.”
 
When the last of the customers finally leave, ’Night Mr. and Mrs. Rairigh!, someone nonchalantly switches off the “Open” sign, but none of the employees make a dash for the door. Instead, BBQ chicken with creamy polenta and green beans, or seared beef roast with gravy and chunked tomato comes out piping hot and delicious from the oven. Aprons are untied. Chef jackets taken off. Cold beers popped. It’s time for the nightly family dinner. It’s been a long day. But this? This was worth the wait.
 
1035 Philadelphia Street, 724.465.5396. napscucina.com
 
While You’re There…
 
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Six Hand Bakery
There’s a lot of life happening while people are standing in a line that wraps halfway around the block from the Six Hand Bakery. Inside, proprietors Stephanie Chandler and Jean-Yves Boulard are whipping up a selection of fresh-from-scratch pastries and breads that varies daily. The name is a nod to their naiveté when they threw open the doors, thinking that three bakers could do it all. Which turns out was a lot: eclairs, scones, croissants, semolina, and baguettes on Friday and Saturday, focaccia, white loaf, chocolate chip cookies, and tarts on Wednesday. “We like to think of it as consumable art,” says Stephanie. 29 North 8th Street, 724.349.1030.
 
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The Artists Hand Gallery & Espresso Bar
It’s a work in progress, the acrylic on canvas scene that artist Greg Langham is painting in the corner of the Artists Hand Gallery & Espresso Bar. He’s seated at a wooden easel. Within reach is a sterling silver platter dotted with gobs of paint and a plastic Cool Whip container with brushes swimming in murky water. Just how much progress he makes is dependent on how often people come over to say hello, stare, or talk. “I just had a lot of fun arguing politics with a potter,” he says. Open and airy, the atmosphere is uniquely unpretentious. A place whose existence is embedded in its simple mission statement: Where artists and patrons meet. 732 Philadelphia Street, 724.463.8710.
 
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The Jimmy Stewart Museum
Peruse the memorabilia and then take a seat in the 1930s vintage movie theater to watch a reel of Stewart’s film clips and career retrospectives. Cap it off with a visit to his boyhood home, now a private residence, just down the way at 104 North 7th Street. 835 Philadelphia Street, 724.349.6112.
 
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Book Nook
Part bookstore, part general store. Indulge in the penny candy. Regional books, great magazine selection, titles that will surprise and delight. 711 Philadelphia Street, 724.463.0831.
 
It’s a Wonderful Life Festival & Parade
Held annually on the Friday before Thanksgiving. Roast marshmallows over an open fire, watch the parade, and head to the old Indiana theater for a free showing of the iconic movie at 8:15 p.m. during the kickoff weekend. Every weekend starting November 18 to December 23.
 
Christmas Tree Farms
Head out to the fields to cut your own or enjoy a grab and go. Choose from White Fir, Scotch Pine, White Pine, Colorado Spruce, Fraser Fir, Douglas Fir, Canaan Fir.
 
Fleming’s Christmas Tree Farms LLC, 1803 Fleming Road, 724.463.0570. flemingstrees.com. Gregg Van Horn’s Christmas Tree Farm, 5601 Highway 954, North Creekside, 724.463.8201.