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?
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.
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).
Simplicity 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’.
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).
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.
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