The air starts to feel different when you cross over East Valley Water Mill Road. After you’ve pulled away from the strip malls, traffic lights, convenience stores, pawnshops and payday loan offices, the temperature is perceptibly cooler. Hints of grass, hay and honeysuckle waft through the open car windows. As you drive over the sloping hills, Jack pine, Mockernut hickory, Hawthorn and oak trees blur together in a kaleidoscope of greens. You’ll breathe in the sweet country air and the stresses of work and life will slowly start to slip away. When you see a sign that reads Millsap Farms: Good for Earth and Good For You, you’ll turn left onto Farm Road 68.
After you’ve parked, it’s only a short distance to the main event. As you walk past gardens full of Swiss chard, carrots, fennel and beets and the greenhouse bursting with tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and eggplants, you’ll be walking further away from the everyday and deeper into a world where everything feels just a little bit magical. Hanging lights cast a soft, dreamy glow, and live music floats through the air. Once you reach the check-in table manned by a precocious, wide-eyed, barefoot, smiling little girl, you’ve arrived at a Millsap Farms pizza night. And you’re in for a treat.
417-landers from all walks of life come together for one thing: devouring fresh pizza.
Held every Thursday night between the months of May and October, pizza nights were originally started by Curtis and Sarah Millsap as a fun way to connect with family and friends over food. The events were so popular, the Millsaps decided to open them up to the public in the summer of 2014. It was then that my friends and I first ventured out to the farm for a pizza night, and we’ve been hooked ever since.
When pizza season rolls around, we pack up chairs and coolers and pile into cars to caravan out to the farm, scrambling to leave early enough to secure a prime seating spot but not caring if we don’t because any spot at these dinners feels lucky, as they routinely sell out. The last time I tried to purchase tickets, the next available night wasn’t for three weeks. Luckily, the weather threatened to storm that Thursday, and there were some last-minute cancellations. We scored four spots.
It was the first pizza night of the season for us, and when we finally pulled up to the farm my stomach was starting to growl. In order to partake in pizza night, you must first be part of the pizza club. However, joining the club is easy. A dollar from your first ticket purchase is your membership fee, and from there on out, you’re in. We checked in and were each handed a white paper plate. This simple object would be the key to so much deliciousness that lie ahead of us for the evening. With this plate, we are able to get unlimited pizza, as much as our hearts desire and our stomachs can stomach. But first, we needed to find a place to sit. The seating area is a clearing dotted with picnic tables and covered by a canopy of tree branches. We rarely arrive early enough to snag a picnic table, so we always bring lawn chairs. On this night we set up camp on the northern edge of the clearing, a perfect spot for people watching.
Family and friends pitch in and help make pizza night happen each week.
The types of people you see at pizza night are as varied as the pizza toppings: hipster Christians and traditional Christians, regular hipsters and their traditional parents, farmers, musicians, grandparents, kids, dogs and everything in between. It’s wonderful to watch this melting pot of people interact and delight in each other’s company. Within the perimeters of pizza night surrounded by trees and engulfed in the sounds of music and the smells of pizza and burning wood, typical social barriers fall away, and what’s left is a spirit of openness and community. Kids are as free-range as the chickens, so don’t be surprised if one or two stop by your camp to ask you a question or to simply stand, wide-eyed, and stare for a moment before something or someone else catches their attention.
There are always a lot of kids at pizza night. And it’s easy to see why. This is one dining experience where it’s perfectly acceptable for kids to be kids. They can run around, be loud, get dirty and play with their food without eliciting raised eyebrows and disapproving looks. The Millsaps have 10 kids themselves, nine of whom live on the farm, and many of whom can be found working at pizza night. Along with their children, the Millsaps enlist the help of extended family members and farm workers to make pizza night happen.
It’s a scientific fact that pizza tastes better when eaten surrounded by fields of flowers.
Each week the Millsaps serve up four varieties of pizza. There is always your classic cheese, but the other three pizzas vary according to what farm produce is currently available. The combinations are always surprising, and they’re always delicious. Sarah works hard to serve something new each week, but favorites are often repeated. The bacon, arugula and tomato pizza is one crowd-pleaser that makes several appearances each season.
Curtis Millsap cooks all pizza night pizzas in wood-fired ovens.
The last time we went, Garlic Lovers Delight, Spring Chicken and Strawberries and Cream were on the menu. The Garlic Lovers Delight is made with garlic scapes, zucchini and mushrooms with garlic scape pesto and mozzarella. In contrast to what the name might suggest, the pizza was surprisingly mild. Garlic scapes are the flower bud of the plant, and they produce a less-intense and slightly sweeter flavor than the garlic bulb. For the Spring Chicken pizza, roasted chicken, kale, onions, garlic aioli and mozzarella were combined to create a medley of flavors that was tasty. The kale, crispy from the oven, provided a nice addition of texture. The third pizza of the night, Strawberries and Cream, was a sweet and unexpected move. It could have easily served as dessert.
One of the best things about these events is you can eat as much as you want. The pizzas are served buffet-style, and you can go back as many times as you like. I don’t mess around when it comes to pizza night. I always make sure to have a light, early lunch so I’m at max hunger level by the time dinner rolls around. I also employ the technique of eating at a speed typically reserved for pubescent teenage boys. I eat so fast that by the time my brain signals to my stomach I’m full, I’ve already devoured three heaping plates.
Part of the reason the pizza is so good is because of the way it’s cooked. The Millsaps built two New Mexico–style Horno wood-fired earthen ovens that reach 800 degrees. The pizza only cooks for two minutes, and the bottom gets crispy while the top stays soft. The dough is made from scratch with a simple recipe of flour, yeast, water and salt. It is then refrigerated and allowed to rise overnight, which allows flavor time to develop. Many of the toppings are sourced right from the farm. The pizza nights are an economical way for the Millsaps to make use of extra produce. If there is an abundance of spinach that week, you can place a pretty safe bet that spinach will show up on the menu, and there is something special about eating produce that was grown feet from where you are standing. What’s not grown on the property is often acquired from other local farms.
Once I settle into my chair and crack open my beer, I pause for a moment before I begin my mad dash for the pizza line. Melinda Mullin’s enchanting, lilting twang fills the air as she sings songs about love and loss. A dog wanders by in hopes of a handout only to quickly realize there was none to be had at the moment. A mother chases after her toddler. Enjoying the moment, I almost don’t want to get up out of my chair. But then I smell the pizza.