Although much has changed, the vibe at Miguel's Pizza remains the same. A local climbing legend heads to the Gorge to catch up with a few old friends.
My friend Porter Jarrard and I arrive at Miguel's Pizza in Slade, Kentucky, just after noon. There's a steady flow of customers for a weekday, but nothing compared to the hungry crowd that descends on Miguel's most evenings after a day of climbing in the Red River Gorge.
Porter heads straight back to the kitchen. He's close friends with owner Miguel Ventura and his family, and feels quite at home here. Porter was one of the first to pioneer sport climbing in the Gorge. He's the guy who, roughly 30 years ago, established many of the routes that are still favorites with climbers today. He's also eaten his body weight in Miguel's pizza several times over in the ensuing decades, and has watched Miguel and Susan Ventura's three children grow from toddlers into active participants in the family business.
There are happy "hellos" and high fives all around.
Miguel makes conversation as he's making pizza. Lunch service is in full swing. There's no sense of stress, however. Miguel's broad smile and friendly tone never wavers as he spreads mozzarella cheese and toppings on pies. I can tell in an instant that he's a genuine spirit who loves what he does. I'm introduced to the rest of the Miguel's crew, who are all working their asses off in a kitchen that's hotter than hell itself. They push right through. No time for complaints back here, the customers are hungry!
Lunch service winds down, and Miguel and his oldest son, Dario, join us for a couple of "mistake" pizzas and Ale-8s out back under the shade next to the Ale-8 graveyard. Miguel's pops the top on more Ale-8s than any place in the state.
Miguel dabs the sweat from his brow and tells us how lucky he feels to have such great employees who deal with that kind of heat every day.
"They all work the oven," he says. "I tend to stay out of their way and work with the toppings these days."
Miguel was born in Portugal and is a self-taught artist. He and his family moved from Connecticut to a farm in Slade in 1983 in search of a quieter lifestyle and, a year later, started up an ice cream shop called The Rainbow Door. The ice-cream shop became Miguel's Pizza in 1986. The logo — a smiling face with long, flowing hair that Miguel first sketched way back when — is known to climbers around the world. Today, it's not unusual to find climbers from all over trading stories over slices or camped out behind the restaurant. It's only $2 a night to camp, with water, bathrooms, showers, good climbing and even internet all at your disposal.
"Some people come from different countries and stay for months at a time just to climb and hang out," Miguel says. "This is also a great place to meet new people — friends and climbing/hiking buddies you could possibly make for life."
Miguel and Porter reminisce about the first time they met 24 years ago at this exact spot.
"Back in those days, I didn't follow a recipe for our pizza dough," Miguel says. "I would hand-mix and just added whatever ingredients I thought would be good; flaxseed, and so on. We had to become more consistent in our recipe once business started to really grow, and of course invest in a mixing machine so we could keep up with the orders."
Ventura's family business has grown right along with the climbing scene in the Gorge. A large, covered pavilion, which Porter helped build, provides a place for campers to hang out, and the family also runs a cabin rental business. They've also opened a gear shop just down the road from the pizzeria.
It's a hot day at the Gorge, and many campers are spending the day swinging in their ENO hammocks or hanging out under the pavilion, preparing their own lunches with the cooking supplies that Miguel keeps out for campers to use.
Susan runs the gear shop, while Miguel and Dario run the restaurant. They all work in sync with one another, and you can see that their love for the business and for each other really holds it all together and keeps everything in motion.
After meeting Susan and checking out the shop, we head back to the restaurant to sit and talk for a bit. A few local Amish children are playing a pick-up game of basketball on the small court by the campground.
It's time for Miguel and Dario to prepare for the dinner, so we say our goodbyes and head out to check out a few favorite climbing spots before the sun sets on another glorious day at the Gorge.
Photography by Savanna Barnett
Visit Miguel's Pizza and Climb Shop at 1890 Natural Bridge Rd. in Slade, or online at miguelspizza.com.
Head on over to the shop for great deals on fresh Kentucky gear, or come on down and visit us at the Fun Mall, y'all! 720 Bryan Ave. in Lexington.