Pizza in Paper Bags?

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans” Allen Saunders

I’ve always been intrigued by the pizza-in-a-bag phenomenon.  While this rarely occurs outside of old-school pizzerias I have to wonder the intent:

Is it to cut costs?  

Nostalgia the old-timers cling to?

Perhaps a Mythbusters worthy scientific explanation involving the pizza staying fresher?

Either way, pizza in bags does NOT seem very practical.  One wrong move and your pizza could incur some serious damage.  When picking up you’ll need as many helping hands as the pizzas you’ve ordered and delivery seems awfully dangerous.

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Last weekend I was fully prepared for some of the best pizza in Milwaukee, but I didn’t anticipate a bag.

I don’t get to Milwaukee as much as I’d like, so when I’m in town I like to spend time checking off infamous pizza joints.  A friend of mine has been hounding me for the last several years to try Balistreri’s Italian-American Ristorante on 68th Street (it’s got to be the one on 68th! he’d insist).  Now was my time.

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Balistreri’s is a cozy sit-down Italian restaurant that opened in 1968, it’s got classic Sinatra playing in the background and nice white tablecloths—its a place I’d like to sit down and savor a historic pizza eating experience, but with a finite amount of babysitter time that wasn’t going to happen.

My plan was to eat the pizzas on the way home—it’s not that hard to open a box and grab a slice in the car.  So, Tess and I ordered for pick-up and after a 15-minute wait, I was handed two piping hot oval shaped paper bags?

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How in the heck am I going to eat this in the car?

As I walked to the car with the scorching hot pizzas searing my fingers, it was obvious I’d have to reassess my plan.

I knew there was no way I could enjoy this delicacy on the interstate—to taste it in its prime I’d have to get down to business on the streets of Milwaukee.  Hilarity ensued as I struggled to unwrap and balance the bagged pizzas next to a snowbank on the side of the road.

Neighbors gawked and cars slowed down to catch a glimpse of the weirdo blowing on seething hot pieces of pizza, meanwhile, his accomplice snapping pictures of him fumbling around to get stretchy cheese shots.

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It was worth every sloppy minute.

We ordered two mediums: a classic cheese to provide a baseline and a pepperoni & sausage combo to assess toppings and they were both superb.  The pizzas were rectangular and from observing the dining room may have been cooked on baking sheets—they looked more like larges than mediums.

The cheese was stretchy, glistening with grease and speckled with a dusting of flavorful spices that baked in.  The crust was delicate and had a flaky crisp to it.  The sauce was oregano forward and was spread in a thin layer that provided a bright contrast to the meaty hand-pinched sausage and crispy pepperonis.

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Bagged Balistreri’s is how it’s supposed to be. 

Outside of Balistreri’s, on the slushy street, eating my pizza out of the backseat of Tess’s car I had the choice to feel disgruntled or to embrace the goofiness.  I realized there is no point in denying Balistreri’s operations, after 50 years they know what they are doing—the pizza belongs in a bag and I shouldn’t wish it any other way.

Amor fati is an ancient Latin phrase that translates to “a love of fate” and is often linked to Stoic Philosophy and the German Philosopher Freidrech Nietzsche who said:

“My formula for greatness in a human being is Amor Fati:  That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary…but love it.”

Stoic revivalist and author Ryan Holiday echoes him as he describes Amor fati as “the Stoic mindset that you take on for making the best out of anything that happens: Treating each and every moment—no matter how challenging—as something to be embraced, not avoided.”

What pizza taught me:

Remembering Amor fati can provide a mental cushion when life throws our plans sideways —a reminder that the difference between highs and lows is all in our perception.  There’s beauty in every pizza we are dealt, even if it comes in a bag.

What I’m eating: Balistreri’s on 68th Street; cheese pizza and pepperoni & sausage pizza.

What I’m reading:  The Inner Game of Tennis-Timothy Gallwey

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Madison Area “Must Haves” of 2019

“Focus is a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do.” -John Carmack

Goal setting is serious business in the Luther household.  9-month-old Ellis is scooting towards the perfect crawl, Tess is dominating the Whole30 diet and I’m working on expanding my pizza expertise.

As I map my pizza eating curriculum for 2019 my natural urge is to go big:

  1. Try as many pizza places as possible (52 different pizzas in 52 weeks?).
  2. Travel the country on an epic pizza eating bender. 
  3. World pizzeria domination.
  4. Transcend space and time entering into a peaceful state of pepperoni and melty mozzarella bliss.

My pizza eating goals don’t lack any ambition, but with thousands of glorious, greasy options, limited free time and a baby where do I begin?

Every week I gather new recommendations, most of which are right in my back yard.  Madison’s got some diverse options, ranging from New York style to Neopolitan.

I’m not sure if it’s watching Tidying Up with Marie Condo on Netflix or reading about prioritizing in Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing, but the idea of narrowing my focus and pinpointing my aim locally is starting to sound like a worthy pursuit.

So, in 2019 I’m abandoning the idea of “going big or going home” and just focusing on going home—I’m compiling all the places in Madison that are overdue, have been overlooked or have just been put on the backburner.

2019 Pizza Goal List: Homing in on my hometown pizza.

Greenbush Bar- Downtown Madison

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Greenbush Bar is a name that pops up over and over again when polling Madison folks about their favorites.  It’s right off Regent Street and is tucked in the basement of the Italian Workman’s Club.  They serve up Sicilian style pizza in an old school setting complete with dangling Christmas lights.  Their notorious thin-crust creates lines into that basement that will leave you feeling like your waiting for a red cup at a college party.

The Pizza Oven-Monona

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Pizza Oven pizza was described to me as looking similar in style to my all-time favorite Gus’ Pizza in Whitewater so it immediately ranked as a high priority.  A quick skip down the beltline to Monona and you’ve got old school pizza parlor vibes and thin-crust pizza cut in squares.  The place even comes equipped with vintage arcade games and a nice bar perfect for weekend hangs.

Sugar River Pizza-Verona

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This up and comer has locations in Verona and New Glarus and has some pretty devote followers in the area.  The pies are loaded to the brim with toppings and they don’t shy from experimentation; the menu has everything from Asain Chicken to Baked Potato pizza.  They’ve got an assortment of delicious looking appetizers and a solid craft beer list as well.

Luigi’s-Midvale Madison Westside

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I got a Food Fight Restaurant Group gift certificate for Christmas and I know exactly where I’m using it. At Luigi’s Food Fight bring their forward thinking ingredient list and craftsmanship that you’d expect from any of their eateries and apply it to pizza.  A modern environment and exotic spin on traditional pies make it spot I’ve got to get back to.

It’s Time Bar & Grill-Verona

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After trying Marcines in Mount Vernon I’ve got a newfound appreciation for bar pizza, so when I heard about this super-thin-crust house-made bar pizza I knew it had to go on the list.  A colleague of mine described the crust as “brittle” and that was enough to make the super-thin-crust addict in me instantly start jonesing.

Naples 15-Madison Downtown

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This spot always pops up on my google maps searches and I always scratch my head wondering what the heck it is.  It’s a few blocks from downtown and looks like a nice Italian restaurant that happens to have wood-fired pizzas on the menu.  Like any good Neopolitan style the ingredients look simple and of the highest quality.

Zoe’s Pizza-Waunakee

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Zoe’s Meat Eater, complete with crumbled sausage.

What can I say, I’m a sucker for crumbled sausage.  I’ve always been fond of noodles on pizza too, so when I heard about a spaghetti and meatball pizza I was instantly intrigued.  Zoe’s has a whole list of heavy-duty pizzas and it’s not too far off the beaten path.

Buck’s Pizza-Cottage Grove

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Everything about Buck’s hole-in-the-wall vibe seems like it should be right up my alley.  It’s very thin, cut in tiny squares and comes in a paper bag.  Buck’s once had a location right in my area, but now like an endangered species, they’re down to just one that remains in Cottage Grove.

Pizza Brutta-Middleton 

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Pizza Brutta is on top of their wood-fire kissed 10-inch game.  They take their menu up a notch with a broader menu and funkier concoctions than similar Neopolitan places.  They have locations in Middleton and on Monroe Street.

Finding my one thing.

Author Gary Keller in his book The ONE Thing explains that we need big goals, but a narrow focus to accomplish them.  He recommends asking the “Focusing question”:  “What’s the one thing I can do right now, such by doing it, will make everything else easier or unnecessary?”.

By searching for that “one thing” you clear the clutter, you can find your most important, doable task and put all your energies towards completing it.  This creates a ripple effect on all your future efforts.

I will most likely not be traveling across the country with a toddler for the pizza tour of my dreams in 2019, but if I widdle down my lofty pizza goals I can get the momentum going.  First I’ll take Madison, then surrounding communities, eventually Wisconsin and the dominos will topple.

What pizza taught me:

Extra large pizza goals are great but if they’re not specific they can be overwhelming and intimidating. By narrowing our focus with a well-defined, achievable goal we can chip away at our big-picture goals one slice at a time.

What I’m eating:  Leftover Pizza Hut Pan pizza for breakfast as I plan my 2019 pizza goals.

What I’m reading: The ONE Thing -Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan