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Pizza with a view: Eastern Iowa farms offer unique dining experience

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There are no menus, booths or even walls at Stone Wall Pizza. That’s the point.

At this unconventional pizzeria on Julia McNurlen’s farm just north of Wellman, diners gather almost every Friday night throughout the summer for food, conversation and an unimpeded view of the surrounding rolling green hills.

It’s part of a growing trend of “pizza farms,” pop-up restaurants of sorts that offer outdoor dining across the Midwest.

At Stone Wall, patrons bring their own chairs and beverages and pay $10 for all-you-can eat pizza, baked in a hand-built brick oven that sits behind the McNurlen family home. On the first Friday of the month, a local musician provides entertainment under the twinkle lights strung between the trees. On nights with no music, cicadas and crickets keep up a gentle chorus. On chilly nights diners can gather around a firepit in the middle of the lawn, and when it gets too cold, they move into a barn.

McNurlen grew up on this stretch of country road — her grandparents used to own the farm, which she and her husband moved back to over seven years ago. Her father and brother work the surrounding land, and her children, ages 9 and 2, play on the same grass she did as a child.

“It’s a lot of work being out in the country, but it’s so worth it,” she said. “I just love sharing our view and what we have with others.”

Her husband Mike McNurlen is a mason, so five years ago he built the wood-fired oven from salvaged red bricks. The couple also own a food truck with a second pizza oven inside that they take to local celebrations and festivals.

The ovens are fueled with hickory from a saw mill Mike’s uncle runs. They use the bark-covered sides of wood the mill can’t use but which are perfect for heating the ovens to between 700 and 1100 degrees, hot enough to cook each pizza in two minutes.

On a live music night, Stone Wall serves anywhere from 75 to 200 pizzas. McNurlen makes the dough and sauce from scratch and tops them with seasonal ingredients that change weekly. Her favorite is the Sweet Summer pie, with fresh tomatoes, sweet corn and bacon.

She started slinging pies four years ago, following in the footsteps of Geyers Oven, on Dave and Anna Geyer’s farm near Oxford, where pizza nights have been a tradition since 2005, supplementing their flower cutting business. The Geyers gave the McNurlens advice when they started up their operation, and the two refer people to each other. The Geyers hold their pizza nights on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, from the end of May through the end of September. The setup is similar to Stone Wall’s — people bring their own chairs or blankets and pay $12 for the pizza buffet, which comes with a cooler of tea or juice. Anna Geyer serves up both classic pizzas like pepperoni and seasonal pizzas, topped with whatever is growing on the farm.

“We try to do something new and a little bit out of the ordinary. Last week it was caramelized onion and elderberry with a cheese blend,” she said.

She also likes making fruit dessert pizzas. Recently that has been peach, and soon they’re switching to apples, all grown on the property.

The pizzas are proving popular — Geyer said last year her average pizza night attendance was 250, and this year it has been 400.

“It’s hard for me to always know why it’s so magnetic for people, but it seems to be that way,” Geyer said. “What I love about this space is the beauty of nature. The nature and the people are really quite lovely”

Last Friday, longtime Iowa City friends Marilyn and Darel Truitt and John and Janet Tiffany gathered for dinner at Stone Wall. They have been eating out together on Friday nights for almost 50 years. Usually they try restaurants in town, but they were enjoying this different dining experience.

“It’s just nice to be outside,” Darell Truitt said. “It’s more fun than going to a restaurant.”\

IF YOU GO

Geyer’s Oven

Where: 1259 Rohret Road SW, Oxford

When: 5 to 8 p.m., second and fourth Thursdays from end of May to end of September

Cost: $12 per adult; pay what seems adequate for children

Groups of 10 or more are requested to call ahead

Information: (319) 325-6609, geyersovenbreadandpizza.com

Stone Wall Pizza

Where: 3297 320th St., Wellman

When: 5 to 8 p.m. Fridays, May 6 through Oct. 28. No pizza Sept. 9 or Oct. 7. Live music Oct. 7.

Cost: $10 per person

Groups of 10 or more are requested to call ahead

Information: (319) 530-3239, stonewallpizza.com

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