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No Place Like Home

“We carry our homes within us, which enables us to fly.” John Cage

As the 4th of July weekend approached I was feeling restless, my brain held hostage by an exhausting work-week and an ever-broadening list of “daddy duties”.  I was bored with Madison. I wanted to run, to get free, to feel like a kid.  I wanted summer fun; a glistening sun, a pine-laden horizon, friends, fireworks and some great pizza (that’s a given).

I wanted that sense of freedom that arises when you get out into the country or dunk yourself into greenish-blue Wisconsin lake water; resurfacing with a rush—a swirl of adolescent giddiness.  That feeling of leaning back and looking into a vibrant blue sky blotted with fluffy, pillow-like clouds; your day-to-day tensions melting away like sidewalk chalk in the rain.

Most of all I wanted the excitement of seeing my favorite people and eating my favorite pizza. The question is then, where can I capture all these classic 4th of July feels in the same spot?

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Going home. 

Tess and I got a sitter for Ellis (Thanks Mom!) and ventured back to our old stomping grounds Whitewater WI. for the 4th of July, with our eye out for everything I’d been daydreaming of, especially my crème de la crème of Wisconsin pizza: Gus’ Pizza Palace.

If you know me or have read any of my stuff you may realize that Gus’ is not just any old pizza to me; it’s the best pizza, my favorite pizza. The all-time greatest pizza. It’s the rule—the measure—the standard by which I judge all pizza.

For the longest time, I was nervous to even write about Gus’ because it’s so special to me, I was worried about whether or not I would be able to do it justice. Or, worse yet, what if it had changed in some way.  I’ve only had the chance to eat it a handful of times since moving, but I figured I’d try to let the legend shine.

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Confession: I went to Gus’ twice in one day.

If you grew up in Whitewater, you undoubtedly know the passion and loyalty that the locals share for their Gus’ pizza.  It’s the gold standard for small-town, thin crust, cheesy pizza, sliced up in squares since 1962.  That’s right, it’s a legacy, it’s been whipped up by the same family using top-secret family recipes for 56 years (way to go guys!).

For Whitewater folk, it’s lovingly known as “Greasy Gus'”. 

Though they keep their formulas confidential, my conspiracy theory has it that the legendary grease factor is due to them using slices of mozzarella instead of shredded like most pizza places.  When the cheese melts in their old-school deck-ovens, the grease collects on top of the slices and creates this delicious blend of grease, melty cheese, and sauce.  I’ve had no other pizza that accomplishes this unique consistency. It’s bliss.

The crust is super thin—cracker thin and has a hand pinched rim that is efficient in holding an excessive, greasy pool of cheese.  The crust is like a little floury canyon. (Ahh, writing this makes me want to dive right in).

unnamedSimplicity and home go hand-in-hand for me.  With my Gus’ I follow suit; I want the pizza in it’s most pristine form: cheese. I’m a sucker for good quality cheese pizza.  I want to bask in the harmony of the cheese, sauce, and crust; let them join together and do a  sacred dance.  If a pizza place can’t get plain cheese right, then I see no future.

Tess often goes for green olives or we’ll share a pizza with gyro meat on it with a side of tzatziki sauce (their gyros are bomb by the way, meat carved from the spit and all).  I’ve heard rave reviews of topping combinations all over the map; from black olives and feta (put on after it’s cooked), to bacon and onion, to onion, green pepper, extra sauce, extra cheese, the infamous Gus’ Special and as I previously mentioned my friend who will give his right arm for beef, bacon, sausage.  I’ve even heard the old-timers talk about the joy of shrimp on their Gus’.

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Gus’s in recent years also got into the cheese-sticks biz to stay competitive in the college market and their sticks are holy wow, topped with at least a quarter inch of mozzarella, definitely among my top 3 three cheese-sticks (that’s a whole separate blog post).  Also, I just gotta say potato wedges, do it.

 

My 4th of July fuzzies wouldn’t be complete without Gus’. 

Just like home, Gus’ is one place that seems to be a constant in a world that’s always changing; it’s one thing all my old friends and family still share in common. For almost 60 years they’ve stuck to their guns and for the most part, the product goes unscathed (though I always remembered more cheese, my grandma agrees).

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Cheese-sticks

In my glory days, I remember the goal for my friends and I on the 4th was to throw the biggest party we could, now it’s scrounging for babysitters and exchanging parenting tips (did you try this new swaddle!?).  That’s what makes life exciting, it’s constantly evolving as we are.

Phil Knight the founder of Nike says in his biography “Life is growth. Business is growth, You grow or you die.”  Whether it’s new additions to our families or nuances to our holiday traditions; we get reminders every day that everything changes, yet there is a resemblance, a fragment of the past that we can cherish.  That’s Gus’ for me.

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Potato Wedges.

What pizza taught me:

Simply going home can be all the negotiation our nagging mind needs in order to chill itself out.  It’s been six years since I left Whitewater and everything feels different but familiar at the same time. There will always be a part of me that finds comfort in going home and Gus’ is a piece of that history.  I hope everybody has a place like that.

What I’m eating: Gus’ cheese pizza, gyro meat pizza with side of tzatziki, cheese-sticks, wedges

What I’m reading:  Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike –Phil Knight

 

 

 

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To Find Excellent Pizza, Accept Pizza.

“Good luck is nothing but preparedness and opportunity coming together” -Deepak Chopra

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Navigating through life and finding a new favorite pizza place can share the same anxieties, lessons and triumphs.  I uncovered this several years ago after I relocated to Madison, Wisconsin for work and found myself equal parts excited and overwhelmed. I had the stress of a new job, new living arrangements and the biggest challenge of all; discovering which pizza place would become “my new pizza place”?

Pizza compels me.

I should start out by explaining that I absolutely love pizza, more than most things. Everyone knows I have a serious passion for pizza, my friends tease me about it, my co-workers regularly inquire about it, my wife’s embarrassed by it, and my parents seem confused over it.  I crave it all the time and every week build anticipation for my next pizza adventure. So, this whole idea may seam trivial, but pizza, in my opinion is one of life’s finest pleasures.

Gus’ Pizza in Whitewater, Wisconsin is my all-time favorite pizza.  It’s very thin, cut in squares and really cheesy.  In my opinion close to the perfect pizza composition.

Off to my new home.

As I set off for Madison I had nerves about adapting to a new home, it was my first time moving away from the small town I grew up in.  I had traveled a bit and I knew I would adjust and probably come to love it, but at the end of the day I also wanted a good piece of pizza.

Though I had many things on the table, I would commonly find myself asking “How was anything around here going to compete with Gus’ pizza?”  “Who’s going to have a little hand pinched crust like them?” “What place would deliver that borderline excessive amount of cheese?”

Gus’ and their cracker thin crust had transformed into the security of back home, it was a warm a quilt of high quality mozzarella snuggling me in, delicate hints of basil assuring me I’d be ok.  Worse than that, Gus’ had become the metric by which I was judging all other pizza.

I had put Gus’ pizza on a pedestal.

What I was really asking is “How can a new pizza restaurant compete with the idea of Gus’ pizza” I’ve created in my mind?”

In my first few weeks in Madison, what do you know?  I tried too hard to replicate that cheesy cracker thin-crust I missed from Gus’ back home.  Often, I would force a solution: I would order thin-crust pizza from a notorious deep-dish pizza place, then walk away in disappointment because it didn’t live up to expectations.  I would order chain pizza with extra cheese to mimic the “hole in the wall” pizza I craved so much.  I was forcing outcomes into square “tavern style party cuts”.

Then I learned to let go.

I’m an avid reader, especially into mindfulness, behavioral psychology, personal development, leadership etc.  Through my extra curricular learning, I found how to enjoy myself and enjoy pizza even more.

I discovered how to take delight in an experience and let it soak in, the new pizza along the way was a perk. I started reaching out of my comfort zone and trying new varieties of pizza and savoring every bit of the uniqueness they brought.   Along the way I found new favorites and created fond memories.  And of course I found new favorite spots.

What pizza taught me:

When I attached to a specific result in my pizza quests I set myself up for disappointment.  The pictures I created in my mind of how I wanted situations to play out, created unrealistic expectations and often left me feeling like things didn’t go my way.  By opening up my mind to alternative options and to the infinite ways life can go, I felt the real joy of living.  I was free to ebb and flow with the world and let opportunities present themselves.

We should all invite change and different experiences and enjoy them for what they are. I have to force myself to do this everyday, but the results are worth it.  You will be able to seize unforeseen opportunities because you won’t be set on one specific outcome. Know what you want, detach from the result, enjoy the moment and just be; you will find what you’re looking for.

  • What I’m eating: Rosati’s, Madison West, super thin crust (yes, that’s an option) extra cheese, pepperoni.
  • What I’m reading: “The Happiness Hypothesis”-Jonathan Haidt

Pizza’s Ultimate Sidekick

“Never settle for average” -Steve Jobs

Can a pizza place capture our hearts with a menu item that isn’t even “pizza”?  Those who’ve ordered pizza after midnight in any Wisconsin college town would have to adamantly give a big “hell yes”.

With the new year here I feel like I need to switch it up from same old tomato sauce, cheese, and pepperoni. So, I’m opting for a slightly different option from one of my all-time favorite places, where you not only get great pizza, but you also get pizza’s garlicky, ooey gooey, extra cheesy, stick-shaped half-brother.

Toppers Pizza.

Toppers Pizza could be personified as punk rock, as they playfully push boundaries with their menu and loudly vocalize their vendetta against the system (in their case Dominos Pizza; recently unleashing an ad campaign calling out Dominos lack of product quality that ended up in a lawsuit).

They use menu creativity, quality, and marketing charisma to forge a competitive edge against the big boys and of course, they are open later than anybody else so it’s naturally the pizza of choice for party people and real-life punk rockers.

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The Triple Order

The Sticks are Stacking Up.

With Toppers rapidly climbing the ranks of the chains and expanding franchises across the U.S. it’s fun to remember that behind the wheel of their accelerated growth sit their legendary Topperstix.

The famously decadent fusion of pizza and cheesy garlic bread known as Topperstix are a dippers dream come true—smothered in cheese, sprinkled with toppings if you wish and served with a variety of dipping sauces like ranch, nacho cheese, and garlic butter.  The combinations are so crave-worthy that midweek daydreams of them often send me reaching for the ranch bottle.

They aren’t the only cheesy breadsticks on the block, but they definitely own the block. 

With Toppers headquartered in Whitewater WI. I’ve had the privilege of eating Topperstix my whole life.  Triple orders fed grade school sleepovers, provided afternoon snacks in high school and were a prized nightcap in college.

Before there were Baconstix and Nachostix, I remember the first time I ever tried a triple order and thinking Why on earth doesn’t every pizza place have this!?  Back then cheesy breadsticks to that caliber were not a menu norm, I haven’t done the research but I feel Toppers was a pioneer in the cheese stick revolution.

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In a recent marketing jab Toppers pits, their Famous Topperstix vs. Dominos Stuffed Cheesy Bread, those who have enjoyed a good batch of Topperstix know there is really no competition.

Topperstix aren’t the only menu item that makes them a leader in pizza innovation either.

They’ve got some off the wall house pizza combos as well.  My personal favorites include Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese Topper, Old School Sausage and Pepperoni and my own spin on the Meat Topper in which I sub a BBB/pizza sauce mix for the standard pizza base sauce—it’s rich, smokey, savory and sweet, amazing.

Never Settle. 

Toppers Pizza inspires me not only because they blazed the trail for cheesy breadsticks and their house pizzas are as alternative as 102.1, but because they embody their slogan Never Settle.  

They always have new menu items in development, riffs on classics and tweaks to their sauces for the stix and that’s what makes them fun.  Regardless if you agree or disagree with their rapid menu changes you have to respect their ambition to continually improve.

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Meat Topper with BBQ sauce base.

What pizza taught me:

Every Friday I order pizza, so it’s nice to shake things up a bit with some Topperstix that have all the greatness of pizza but are not exactly pizza.  Never Settle is a good mantra for 2019 as when we are too attached to a particular view or way of doing things life gets stagnant.  Luckily there are places like Toppers that not only welcome pizza innovation but make it incredibly delicious.

What I’m eating: Toppers: Triple order original stix with extra cheese and Meat Topper with BBQ/pizza sauce mix as the base (referred to as MATAS by the OG’s)

What I’m reading:  Sam Walton: Made in America –Sam Walton

 

The Best (and Most Procrastinated) Pizza of 2018

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending” C.S. Lewis

Since writing my 2018 pizza-eating goal list last January there’s a pizza spot that has continuously tempted me but always got put on the backburner.  Maybe it was the 20-minute drive into the middle of nowhere it would take to get there or the fact that impromptu pizza pilgrimages weren’t as easy with a newborn on board; either way after a full year of procrastination, countless recommendations and consistent reminders from friends and colleagues I finally took a scenic drive for the most highly prized pizza in the Dane County area.

Bar pizza on another level.  

Mount Vernon like many itsy bitsy rural unincorporated Wisconsin communities comes equipped with a church and a bar.  In Wisconsin when most think of bar pizza, they think of an Emil’s frozen or some Portesi Cheese Fries tossed in a little metal pizza oven next to some Green-Apple Pucker bottles.  Mount Vernon’s watering hole, on the other hand, holds an epically magical homemade pizza that has put them on the map.

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Raising the bar (pizza).

Marcines Bar & Grill has people flocking from all over southcentral Wisconsin for good reason; an inch thick layer of exceptional toppings on a crust that’s as tiny as the town.  I didn’t know what “excessive toppings” meant until I tried Marcines.

It’s like the cook was double-dog-dared into fitting a 20-inch pizza’s worth of toppings on to a 12-inch crust and just nailed it. They offer thin and thick crust—both require a fork and knife as either option basically just provides a vessel in which to shuffle gobs of melted mozzarella, over-sized sausages, and pepperonis into your mouth.

The quote of the day: “Look this bite doesn’t even have any crust, and I’m ok with it.” -Tess

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Everything from the sauce to the sausage is seasoned extremely well.  The sauce has a deep tomatoey depth of flavor and is not at all what I would expect from bar pizza.  They use really good cheese too, it’s stretchy and wraps itself around everything. Gazing upon a cooled slice you can marvel at the cheese woven through the toppings like the boroughs of an ant farm.

The sausages are so large they look like meatballs and are balanced between a subtle sweetness of fennel and salty pork.  They are hearty yet tender— with a nice texture that’s not too fatty.  They were so delicious even no-sausage-on-pizza purists conformed. Tess, for example, doesn’t usually go for sausage on pizza, but she couldn’t resist Marcines and said it was actually one of her favorite parts of the meal.

Getting our pepperonis in a row.  

New Years is a great time to take stock, tie up loose ends and do a little self-assessment.  As I began to reflect on my 2018 I realized that I had a major box to check off my pizza goal list and I couldn’t stand the idea of heading into the New Year not having tried the #1 pick from last year.

It’s not easy finishing what we start as life pulls us in as many different directions as Marcines mozzarella does, but there is a profound joy that comes from seeing a plan through.  Over the years I’ve often started to enjoy the simple pleasure I get when completing a task more than the tangible benefit the task itself brings.

The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says “True happiness comes from the joy of deeds well done, the zest of creating new things.”

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What pizza taught me:

It’s better late than never. Whether it’s a New Years goal, resolution or just eating some anticipated pizza, the feeling of seeing our commitments through can often be the most rewarding part of any experience.

What I’m eating: Marcines pepperoni and sausage

What I’m reading:  Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die -Chip Heath and Dan Heath

 

 

A Wonderful Slice

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole doesn’t he?”-Clarence the Angel

The level of holiday cheer at the Luther household this year is about as cheesy as a pizza with extra mozzarella.  Christmas time always gives me the warm and fuzzies, but with a smiley little 8-month-old squirming around the house, it seems fitting to crank the Christmas spirit-o-meter to 11—amp up the decorations, music and classic movies.

I’ve got a duty to mold some great memories right?

As my family grows bigger I face the delightful dilemma of having an increasing amount of Christmas celebrations to attend within a short amount of time.  The solution for my immediate Luther side this year was a faux X-mas eve get together the Saturday night before Christmas Tuesday.  The result of that festivity was one for the record books.

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Gus’ Pizza for Christmas.

I’ve always felt pizza and Christmas go hand in hand, maybe watching Kevin from Home Alone ordering cheese pizzas and telling the delivery driver to “get the hell outta here” inspired me.  Every year I ask for a Gus’ pizza for Christmas and it usually gets shrugged off as a goof, but this year I got the yuletide miracle I was looking for.

A glistening greasy Gus’ pizza was about all I could ask for.  I was like Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation crying in the attic while watching old family videos.  The folded cracker crust and stretchy cheese gave me a nostalgic sense of Christmas magic.

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Christmas memories share a lot in common with excessively cheesy pizza. 

While I welcome Gus’ as an addition to our Christmas festivities, one tradition that stands the test of time for the Luthers is watching It’s a Wonderful Life.  Every year we gather around the tree, eat way too many appetizers and enjoy each others company as the black and white glow of the 1946 Christmas Classic plays in the background.

It’s a Wonderful Life follows an ambitious man named George Baily, who has led a good life but has always put others ahead of himself in spite of his true passions.  He finds a new level of appreciation when an Angel named Clarence helps him see the world through an alternate lens—one that is void of his presence. He gets to witness the positive impact he has had on those in his family and community.

It’s a familiar Christmas theme, but one that reminds us of the importance of keeping our relationships strong.  I’ve eaten Gus’ my whole life and it provides me a similar reminder of comfort and gratitude. It’s a feeling I am excited to pass down to my son as every day we create memories I hope he will happily hold on to.

What pizza taught me:

Pizza, just like the holidays can be a good reminder of all our blessings.  Every interaction has a ripple effect, sometimes it takes a reminder from a holiday, a greasy Gus’ Pizza or an Angel names Clarence to realize its value.

What I’m eating:  Gus’ Pizza: cheese, half pepperoni half gyro meat, large order cheese sticks.

What I’m reading:  Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration -Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull

 

Presumptions

“Despair ruins some, presumption many.” -Ben Franklin

As I sat at the Cheers bar in Boston (the one of classic 80’s sitcom fame), I listened to some New Yorkers sitting next to me adamantly protesting the notion of any decent pizza in the vicinity of Boston (during a Yankee/Red Sox playoff game to boot).  As one of America’s oldest cities, Boston certainly is rich with history, from its role in the American Revolution to Fenway Park, but what about the pizza?

Though I’d expect some dynamite clam chowder or some signature baked beans, I’ve never heard much about the pizza and the opinions soaring around the bar made me wonder if these New Yorkers were biased or if Boston really has second-rate pizza.  So, with a finite amount of free time at my disposal, I set out to discover Boston’s finest.

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Step #1: Ask the locals. 

I had 24 hours to eat pizza in Boston, so every slice counted. With a limited amount of time, I wanted the best of the best—something authentic, historic and adorned by the locals—so my first move was to start by asking the natives.

For pizza advice, I usually skip the concierge and go straight to the valet—I want the voice of the people.  When you ask the average joes you skip the cookie-cutter touristy stuff and get real honest feedback and usually the best recommendations.

Step #2: Cross-reference the web.

Next, I like to fact-check against the internet.  Pizza preferences are relative to individual opinions and there’s a lot of puffery on the web, so it’s always helpful to cross-check promising pizza intel before making a commitment.  Pictures can really help validate the pizzas you have learned about from the locals.  Eater.com is my usual starting point, followed by a general Google image search.

When I end up on sites like Yelp I always avoid reading the reviews as people are fickle and I don’t want my pizza experience to be biased by someone’s crappy day and emotional meltdown.  I visit Yelp just to make sure that the pictures of the pizzas match cravings at the time.  I wanna make sure the thin is thin and that the cheese is in ample supply.

Step #3: Find the common denominator.

Then I go for the most recommended place between the two. For Boston, various top ten lists praised the likes of Ernesto, Picco, Antico Forno, and Regina Pizzeria. The common denominator between the Bostonians I questioned on the streets and the internet led me to the small Boston chain called Regina Pizzeria.

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Regina Pizzeria.

Since 1926 Regina Pizzeria has been one of the most famed pizza joints in Boston, so I ventured to its original Northend Italian neighborhood location on Thatcher St.  The tight-knit quarters of the dining room and natural wear and tear of the fading tabletops and booths gave a rich sense of the history of the restaurant, much like the cobblestone streets that disorderly zig and zag across the city.

At Regina we had the best seat in the house, we were parked directly next to the pizza cutting station.  The piping hot pizzas pulled out of the ancient looking brick oven, tossed up into a service window then pinched down onto a table designated for slicing them.  Grease would splash as rapid strokes of the pizza cutter swiped from end to end.  If pizza pictures are considered food porn, I was getting a real live striptease.

Regina Pizzeria pizza is like New York style but with a slightly thicker hand-tossed crust.  They use a brick oven that provides a nice char along the outer rim.

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Who to trust?

I’m glad I ignored the initial impressions about Boston pizza I heard at the bar.  It would have been easy to assume that the New Yorkers hailing from arguably the best pizza city in the world would know what they are talking about, but if I had taken their word I may have missed the awesomeness of Regina Pizzeria.

That’s the trouble with assumptions.  We may not only miss an opportunity if we follow the wrong guidance, but hearsay can also cloud our experiences with unnecessary stigma and lead us to a crummy time when conditions aren’t that crummy.  Opinions can be as loud as those New Yorkers at Cheers bar and the internet amplifies them even more.

Being too presumptuous can also be dangerous not only to our pizza but also to the people around us as we judge them.  Don Miguel Ruiz says in his best-seller The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom  “Don’t’ make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and express what you really want.  Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.  With just this one agreement you can completely transform your life.”

What pizza taught me:

It’s a good idea to never assume gossip is gospel and to inform ourselves from a variety of sources before taking a stance. Whether surfing the net or interviewing the locals for the next binge-worthy pizza spot, it pays to keep an open mind.

What I’m eating: Regina Pizzeria half pepperoni, half sausage

What I’m Reading:  The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom Don Miguel Ruiz

 

 

Leftovers

“There is nothing permanent except change.” -Heraclitus

Thanksgiving weekend is usually a four-day eat-a-thon and my favorite part is the leftovers.  It’s not just turkey sandwiches and stuffing either, as it turns out when Thanksgiving Thursday hits, Wednesday naturally falls in place of Friday and we get faux Friday night pizza mid-week.  So, along with my turkey-day leftovers, I’ve also got a fridge full of pizza.

As I’m lounging on the couch, feet-up, working up my next appetite I’m contemplating the cold beauty of the leftover slice.  That amalgamation of cheese and toppings twisted into a cold statue of its former self, like Han Solo frozen in carbonite.  The once contrasting textures of crispy crust, melty mozzarella, and pepperoni set into a savory pastry-esque version—a cool tomato sauce filling running beneath the surface that can rescue the mouth from the dryness of hardened cheese.

 

The paradox of leftover pizza. 

I’ve found that the quality of leftover pizza often has little correlation with how good the original pizza was.  Pizza in its piping-hot prime and a pizza a day-later can differ by a great deal.  Some pizzas just don’t reheat well and are not enjoyable cold, while others can shine in their coagulated state.

For example, my favorite pizza of all time is Gus’ Pizza in Whitewater WI; Gus’ is super-thin square cut tavern-style at its finest.  It’s a superstar fresh out of the oven, it’s crispy and greasy and cheesy, but it doesn’t hold up well the next day.  It’s sauce to cheese ratio doesn’t make for the best cold slice and when you go to reheat it the chemistry is off (I would welcome pro reheating tips if someone has figured this out).

On the other hand, simple chain pizza like Pizza Hut pan style is outstanding cold.  Tess swears by Dominos thin-crust cheese pizza leftover and will let it sit after it’s been delivered because she prefers it room-temperature or cold.  That’s the paradox of leftover pizza.  The pizza that’s the best at the pizzeria can be the worst leftover and the pizza you’d least expect like chain pizza can be the best later on.  Luckily, sorting through this is quite enjoyable.

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Tess driving to Thanksgiving with a leftover slice on her lap.

What’s the best leftover pizza?

What’s your favorite pizza? is my favorite question, therefore what’s your favorite leftover pizza? is my next favorite question. The perfect slice for breakfast will always be in the eye of the beholder but asking what’s your favorite leftover pizza? is a fun game to play and there is a lot to learn.  Ording a pizza and doing your own research is even better.

With my mind in the thankful Thanksgiving mode, I realize there is a lot to appreciate in a day old slice.  We get a second chance to experience our pizza.  We get to enjoy a different set of attributes and can prepare it in a variety of ways.  Leftover pizza is quite versatile as it’s great on the go, can be eaten hot or cold, can be enjoyed for any meal of the day or just as a snack.

What pizza taught me:

Whether you prefer your leftover pizza cold, room-temp, nuked or reheated at 350°, there is no doubt it’s the gift that keeps on giving.  This Thanksgiving weekend I’m thankful for my family, friends and my fridge full of leftover pizza.

What I’m eating:  Leftover Rosati’s-Super thin-crust, extra cheese half pepperoni, half green olive.

What I’m reading:  The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done Peter Drucker

 

 

 

 

The Pizzaioli

“Every great player has learned the two C’s; how to concentrate and how to maintain composure” -Byron Nelson

A pizzaiolo is a professional pizza maker; often donning a flour-laden apron while wielding a weather-worn pizza-peel; artfully churning out pies in the Neopolitan style.  Dedication to any craft deserves admiration and for those committed to preparing pizzas full-time, I have the utmost respect.

At Eataly in Chicago, I got a front row seat to observe a couple classically trained pizzaiolo’s in action. Their bodies flowing in a focused ceremonial dance—stretching dough balls, ladling sauce, pivoting between bowls of fresh mozzarella and basil leaves—weaving within each other and a 900º oven with the precision and grace of a martial arts masters.

A packed Friday lunch rush put these pizzaiolos were under the gun. Amidst the chaos, their faces were fixed with an intent and stoic expression, framed between red baseball caps and surprisingly clean white t-shirts —rock-solid composure for one mission only: Put out exceptional pizzas.

La Pizza & La Pasta

Eataly is an international Italian eatery—the brain-child of Italian born Oscar Farinetti—it’s U.S. locations are notably backed by celebrity chef Mario Batali.  The multi-level marketplace celebrates all things Italian:  freshly made pasta, old-world deli meats and cheeses, imported sauces and accompaniments; a smorgasbord of handcrafted desserts—Tess’ go-to is the Gelato. Multiple restaurants and food counters provide delicious morsels around every corner, naturally, I gravitated toward La Pizza & La Pasta where they spare no expense with their wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas.

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Steve Dolinsky in Pizza City, USA says the pizzaiolos of La Pizza are trained by an outsourced company from Napoles called Rossopmodoro that comes in and coaches them up to perform with an authentic edge.

I was mesmerized by their well-executed operation.

Pizzaiolo #1 preps the pizzas and begins by plowing little wads of dough out of a plastic tray; afterward gently tossing them into a mound of flour.  From there he starts a deep tissue massage that widens into a 10-inch pizza skin.  Next comes a splash of sauce, a handful of fresh mozzarella and a sprinkle of basil.

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Pizzaiolo #2 swipes his pizza-peel under the pizza and spins it around into a gold dome-shaped wood-burning oven.  His job is to rotate the pizzas and let the flames kiss them in just the right spots, every so often tossing a log on the fire.

After about 90 seconds the pies are pulled and plopped in front of Pizzaiolo #3 who cuts them up and expedites them out into the restaurant.  Over and over again it goes.

What’s better than a pizza that takes 90 seconds to bake?

In a 900º oven, pizzas need undivided attention and the oven-tender must be extremely diligent.  In about 90 seconds the pizzas are charred up and ready to serve.  The simplicity and quality of Neopolitan style pizzas make them special; a few select ingredients showcase themselves.  A chewy, blackened crust provides the backdrop for a portrait of bright sauce, fresh basil, and gooey fresh mozzarella.

The fresh mozzarella is my favorite part and has a much different texture than typical shredded.  It has a smoother, more subtle milky flavor—not as salty—the slight squeak of a fresh Wisconsin cheese curd.

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I admire the finesse of a pizzaiolo, but I was happy to be on the opposite side of the pizza, napkin in lap, ready to eat.

“Sprezzatura” according to prolific writer John Mcphee in his book Draft No. 4 is an Italian term from the 1500’s that means someone with “effortless grace, all easy, doing something cool without apparent effort.”  In other words just being plain awesome and it seems to me, these pizzaiolos must have picked up some “sprezzatura” from their Italian trainers.

Preparing Neopolitan style pizza takes precision and attention to detail.  According to Eataly’s site “In Italy, pizza-making apprentices train under experts for years before earning the title pizzaiolo”.  That means it can take years of practice to master a pizza that bakes up in 90 seconds.

I’m sure they’ve dropped a few dough balls from time to time and may have burned a few pizzas, but their experience has led them to a smooth operation and proficiency in pizza making.

What pizza taught me:

A cool, calm and collected confidence is not only “sprezzatura” it’s something to strive for in any endeavor.  Watching a pizzaiolo execute his craft is a sight for any pizza lover, their training and tradition offer a lesson in mastery as well as a quick, tasty 10-inch pizza.

What I’m eating: La Pizza & La Pasta Counter at Eataly Chicago-Margherita pizza

What I’m reading: John Mcphee Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

 

 

 

The Thinnest Pizza I’ve Ever Had

“Decision making can sometimes seem like inner civil war.”-Jim Rohn

Who would have imagined the thinnest pizza I’ve ever had would be in Chicago? 

When most people think of Chicago -style pizza, they picture a pie, an inch thick that’s covered with chunky sauce.  My initial thoughts of “Chicago-style” reflect renown Chicago chef Grant Achatz’s first impressions as he recalls moving to the windy-city area “deep-dish is not pizza, it is a casserole”.  I hold no pizza prejudices, just as Achatz doesn’t, but when you come to Chicago the limelight is undoubtedly fixed on deep-dish.

So, many are surprised to find that the true pizza for Chicago natives, is their thin-crust tavern-style. Tavern-style is known for its cracker-thin crust and square or “party-cut” that’s perfect for sharing.  It’s greasy, cheesy and crispy and the small square pieces provide easy maneuvering, it’s just about everything you could ask for out of a pizza.

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For once in my life, I’m siding with the folks of Chicago on something. 

The next time I’m aggressively and haphazardly cut-off on the interstate, I won’t disapprovingly mutter ******* fib *******instead, I’ll put aside the reckless driving, enormous egos, epic sports rivalries and picture the glory of their thin tavern-style pizza.

There are hundreds of pizza joints in Chicago, so as my trip approached I had a level of anxiety about which places to hit in my narrow travel window. Since I was accompanied by my wife who didn’t want to eat pizza every meal, I knew I had some careful decisions to make.

Soon an overabundance of top ten lists propelled by Google, Trip Advisor and Yelp flooded my mind and proved to make finding a spot even more difficult and complicated than I imagined.

Pizzeria Via Stato.

I was staying in the heart of downtown, right off Michigan Avenue, surrounded by all the notorious deep-dish places like Lou Malnati’s, Giordano’s, Gino’s East and Uno’s, so deep-dish would have been a no-brainer, but I wanted the real-deal tavern-style.  My fear was that the majority of the infamous tavern-style joints I was in search of would be sprinkled throughout the suburbs and a trek from our planned activities.

Through my research, I stumbled upon Pizza Via Stato right near our hotel that at first-glance looked thin, cheesy and promising.  Approaching Pizza Via Strato on State street I was taken aback when I realized it was attached to a hotel.

Hotel pizza! Tess teased.

Here I was in Chicago the mecca for thin-crust tavern-style pizza and I was going to get hotel pizza.  I envisioned my pizza cred going down the drain.  But, for some reason, it felt right.

To my delight, it was no ordinary hotel pizza and to clarify it’s a pizza-bar off a pretty nice Italian sit-down spot called Osteria via Stato.  It was undoubtedly the thinnest pizza I’ve ever had.  It was so thin I would have had no problem putting down multiple pizzas.  The crust was true to the cracker-crust depiction; the outer crust had baked air pockets almost like a pita chip that shattered when you took a bite.

The cheese to crust ratio was a cheese-loving midwesterners dream come true.  The pepperonis were as crisp as the outer crust and the sauce minimal, which made for a very crunchy contrast to the gently bubbled cheese.

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I’ve only experienced the corner piece of the square cut pie.

With only a couple of days to explore the hundreds of available pizza options in America’s third largest city, I found what I was looking for, but holy moly there’s a lot left to explore.  I barely even saw the tip of that iceberg, but next time I’ll be much more prepared—while in Chicago I found a guide.

A major score on my Chicago trip was finding my new favorite book Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town by Steve Dolinsky.   Pizza City, USA is a guide-book that explores the plethora of diverse pizza options throughout the windy city.  The book explores the 101 best pizza joints ranging from tavern-style to deep-dish, Neopolitan to Roman style—they are reviewed and ranked (Thanks for the recommendation Bret!).

The book follows the argument that Chicago’s wide-ranging pizza offerings make it the best pizza city in America. As you thumb through the book which is rich with food-porn worthy imagery it becomes hard to disagree with Dolinsky.  I was pleasantly surprised that Pizza Via Stato made the 101 best pizza places list (I actually hit three off the list while there, but I’ll get to those later).

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Decisions, decisions.

Venturing to a notorious pizza city with an abundance of top-notch spots can be a little intimidating and decision making for the pizza enthusiast can become quite difficult.  The more choices we have the further away we get from a clear decision, as we get lost in a deluge of options.

After I overwhelmed myself with loads and loads of pizza ideas online I didn’t know what to choose. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, he says “We live in a world saturated with information.  We have virtually unlimited amounts of data at our fingertips.””But what I have sensed is an enormous frustration with the unexpected costs of knowing too much, of being inundated with information.  We have come to confuse information with understanding.”

Malcolm Gladwell’s thoughts deal with information overload, and how often it may be more beneficial to not overanalyze decisions and instead go with our unconscious choice-making, in other words, go with our gut.  Often our initial thought is the best one before it gets muddled with complexities.

What pizza taught me:

An overabundance of options can make decision making difficult.  Often the best course of action is to follow our initial gut reaction, in doing so I found the thinnest pizza I’ve ever had.  Chicago is one heck of a pizza town—if it’s the best, I’m not sure yet—but I’m excited to try and find out.

What I’m eating: Pizza Via Stato- tavern-style pepperoni

What I’m reading: Steve Dolinsky Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town