Balancing the Pizza Budget

“A budget tells us what we can’t afford, but it doesn’t keep us from buying it.” -William Feather

I recently found out I’ve got a second little pizza buddy on the way.  That’s right, Ellis is going to be an older brother and while Tess and I feel extremely blessed, it’s apparent we’ve got to step up our adulting game and tighten up our budget.

In other words:  I’ve got to scale back my pizza spending.

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to get decent pizza cheap.

You’ve always got the chains.

Thanks to the chains, it’s easier than ever to get a semi-quality pie for under $10—Domino’s $5.99 mediums, Pizza Hut $7.99 larges if you order online, and old faithful Little Caesars with their $5 Hot-n-Ready’s—but with potential taxes, tips, and delivery fees you’ll still end up forking over a good chunk of change.

You could make it yourself.

With just a handful of ingredients, you could always make a pizza from scratch, but without the know-how, technical capabilities, equipment and time that can seem like a daunting task.  You’re still probably not getting yourself below $7 or $8 when all is said and done.

Go frozen.

You could always go frozen and go bulk.  Find those Jack’s 4 for $10 deals or thank the heavens for your Costco Membership and stock those party packs to the sky.

But, what if we want to go really, really cheap, cheaper than gas station pizza and still keep our dignity?

When pizza’s on a bagel, you can eat pizza anytime!

That catchy jingle from the mid-90’s “Bagel Bites”  TV advertising may be on to something.

It turns out that for just $2 you can get a plain cheese PIZZA bagel at Bagels Forever on Madison’s University Ave, and for an extra buck you can add pepperoni and whatever other toppings you want.

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In theory, it makes perfect sense, bagels have the same high-gluten chewiness and crispy, toasty texture like a pizza crust.  With the appropriate amount of sauce and toppings, you end up with two mini, circular thick crust pizzas.

At Bagels Forever they pile the mozzarella and zesty red sauce on a freshly made bagel of your choice and toss it in a convection oven to toast up.  You get the benefit of choosing your flavor of crust a la carte from all the classic New York-style shop options—you could go Everything bagel, Sesame or Onion like I did.

Bagels are not only filling they’re also budget-friendly.

While Bagels Forever certainly isn’t going to be my number one pizza stop for the next nine months, it was fun to eat, good on the go and left me with enough spare change to stock the piggy bank to ensure my growing family will have future bagel money.

What pizza taught me:

When pinching pennies, we don’t have to give up what we enjoy, we can find creative and thrifty new ways of getting what we want. When I’ve got two little Luthers to feed, I know where I’m taking them for their own mini pizzas.

What I’m eating: Bagels Forever pepperoni pizza bagel

What I’m reading: Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance –Alex Hutchinson

 

 

After the Underrated

“What is easiest to see is often overlooked” -Milton H. Erickson

Hitting a new pizza spot when traveling is a must.  With daddy duties and work, I’ve been pretty stationary lately, so when I do travel I’ve got to make my slices count.

I’m fortunate Tess always plays along nicely, just last weekend obliging my pizza escapades on her birthday weekender to Door County’s annual Fall Fest in Sister Bay.

While a Door County trip is always filled with epic sunsets, sightseeing, apple cider donuts, and supper clubs it doesn’t have that much pizza.

Actually, when most think of Door County and pizza, I’d bet they either draw a blank or imagine the winding lines and lengthy waits that come with the infamous Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza.  While Wild Tomato is delicious and the obvious choice for most pizza craving tourists, I had to wonder what else is out there…

Maybe, something a little thinner, a little crispier and cut a little more rectangular? 

For the last three years, Joe Jo’s Pizza in Sister Bay has been on my to-do list with their super-thin tavern-style pizza, but with only so many mealtimes in a day and vacation itineraries to max capacity, they’ve always taken a back seat to Wild Tomato. 

This year though I opted to follow the road less traveled to the pizza less eaten and finally made it Joe Jo’s (despite their insanely early closing hours, 8:30pm!)

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Toppings under the cheese, yes, please.

Joe Jo’ had a delicate and almost brittle outer crust that was speckled with spices—that dusting across the cheese gave the pizza a unique oregano forward flavor, which I quite enjoyed.

In common tavern-style fashion, they tuck their housemade hand-pinched sausage and pepperonis underneath the cheese and let that mozzarella toast up to a golden brown on top.  It’s finished off with a party-cut.

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Joe Jo’s was a welcome change of pace from Wild Tomato. 

There’s no doubt that Wild Tomato is the Door County staple for pizza, but Joe Jo’s had many perks of its own, for starters, you can skip the 1-2 hour long wait times that can accompany Wild Tomato during dinner time and you get a unique spin on a tavern-style pie (plus there’s gelato).

Joe Jo’s made me realize that to continuously expand my pizza prowess, I’ve got to break the norm and look beyond the most popular places, even though their reputations may make them the obvious places to hit.

The hippest and trendiest restaurants, with the rave reviews and lines around the block, will always have a place, but there’s beauty in discovering those mom and pop joints off the beaten path.

What pizza taught me:

Perhaps in the shadows of the things we put on pedestals, there’s something that suits us even better.

What I’m eating: Joe Jo’s half pepperoni and sausage

What I’m reading:  Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance –Alex Hutchinson

 

 

 

Making It to the Market (For Wood-Fired Pizza)

“Art is too important not to share.” -Romero Britto

What’s the best way to lure a husband to an outdoor craft fair on a cold and rainy fall day?

Set up a wood-fired pizza stand complete with wood-burning oven.

Apparently, the coordinators of such events in southwestern Wisconsin have gotten wind of this fact, because they’ve rewarded me on back to back drizzly cold weekends to get out of bed and attend an early outdoor craft fair with made-to-order wood-fired pizza.  Thank you and thank you.

Fall is the perfect season for orchards, hayrides and markets and oh boy, does my wife love a good market, especially one that’s outdoors, in her favorite season and loaded with crafts.

For me, a fall weekend is a great time to sleep in and recharge my batteries, eventually popping in frozen pizzas and binge-watching Netflix shows and football in my comfiest of outfits.  But, when Tess (and wood-fired pizza) beckon, I follow.

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Two Wood-Fired Pizza Stands in Two Weeks

Round one:  Firepie Pizza at The Makers Market, Sun Prairie

The annual Makers Market in Sun Prairie is an event that naturally brings great joy to Tess as local artisans present clothing, candles, jewelry, soaps, and artwork.

I sought out the waterlogged tent that sheltered a neat little stack of chopped wood and a petite portable metal oven with flames flickering out the back end.  Through the veil of rain droplets falling from the canopy, I could see a duo busy in action; rolling out mini dough balls, pinching toppings and rotating 10-inch pizzas through a mini oven.

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Firepie is described on facebook as “Utilizing the most mobile pizza oven on the market, our Ooni Pro delivers authentic wood-fired pizza in as little as 60 seconds!”.

The pie indeed had a nice flame-kissed outer crust and a chewy, slightly thick center which provided proper support for the cheese and a balanced portion of toppings.  Each pizza was assembled to order from a list of about 7 different classic options like pepperoni, Hawaiin and deluxe.

We settled on deluxe and took turns swapping the umbrella for the pizza.

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Round two:  It’s Good For You Pizza at Fall Village Vintage Market, Mount Horeb

The Fall Village Vintage Market in Mount Horeb stretches along three blocks of the downtown area of the small community and has all the same clothing, candles, jewelry, soaps, and artwork as Makers Market but even more.  It has more food vendors, live music, trolls and you could order drinks at establishments and walk the streets with them (that’s right trolls, they take their Norwiegen heritage seriously).

In the middle of the festival sat the concrete dome for which I came.

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It’s Good For You Pizza sets a high bar for any pizza truck or stand.  It’s Good For You goes for quality over quantity, with only three options to choose from and all three of them executed incredibly well.  Their enormous traveling oven (I honestly can’t believe they haul that thing around!) and high-caliber ingredients definitely give them a leg up.

I went for the pepperoni pie and it was exceptional.  The crust was the star and the wood-fired method really elevated its flavor and texture; it was super thin, but crispy and chewy at the same time—a balance that seems hard to strike for many pizza joints.

The sauce was as simple, but that’s what made its bright tomato flavor shine.  The pepperonis were slim and crisped up and the mozzarella blistered to a nice brown.

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Pizza made from scratch is the perfect accompaniment for browsing the craftsmanship of local artists.

I hope this trend of mobile wood-fired pizza stands continues to climb, especially at events I wouldn’t usually attend, so I get off my butt and go experience them.

Regardless of which pizza was better the spirit behind all those vendors to lug around, assemble and display their art for the community in the damp early morning in Wisconsin is admirable.

What pizza taught me:

Perhaps it’s worth getting out of bed for the local scene, even if there isn’t a slice on the line.

What I’m eating: Deluxe pizza (sausage, pepperoni, onion, green pepper) at Firepie Pizza at Makers Market in Sun Prairie and Pepperoni at It’s Good for You Pizza Fall Village Vintage Festival in Mount Horeb.

What I’m reading:  Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur –Derek Sivers

 

Getting Back to Cheese

“Everything in life goes back to the basics” -Kron Gracie

There’s something soothing about plain cheese pizza.  A mattress of crust, sheets of sauce and a security blanket of melted mozzarella that provide the same comfort as crawling into bed after an exhausting day.

There’s magic when we press into that first bite and pull back an elastic tapestry of cheese that sways between us and our slice like a hammock in a breeze.  We are reassured “everything will be ok” as we sink into that salty, buttery mozzarella, herbaceous marinara and the roasted aroma of charred dough that gently rocks us to sleep.

With no frills to sidetrack our experience, a slice of cheese allows us to embrace the harmonious foundation of which all pizzas are made:  Crust. Sauce. Cheese.

An uncomplicated classic that’s perfect for when life gets complicated.

When looking for solace in my house the easiest and quickest place to turn is the freezer.  Within that ice speckled box sits my key to homeostasis: Jack’s thin-crust frozen cheese pizzas.

While I appreciate Jack’s pepperoni, sausage, supreme and maybe even a bacon cheeseburger now and again, there are times when I need to get back to the basics— back to that blank canvas of yellowish-brown molten melted cheese (with any luck there’s a 5 for 10 deal at the grocery store!).

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Can a step back get us ahead?

The simplicity and familiarity of Jack’s crunchy outer crust and even layer of cheese are sure to get me into the right headspace.

Perhaps the key to maintaining mental vitality is in dialing everything back to zero every so often (or the oven to 425°).  Getting back to the basics puts us in control, we can calm our tensions and silence our apprehensions by going through the motions of what we know through and through.

Whether it’s tidying up the house, doing laundry that’s piled up or treating ourselves to the most basic of all pizzas when we direct our focus towards the fundamentals we can recharge and begin again refocused.

What pizza taught me:

Sometimes the quickest way forward is simply back to square one (or the corner triangle slice).

What I’m eating:  Jack’s thin-crust cheese pizza

What I’m reading: Awaken the Giant Within:  How to Take Immediate Control fo Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny -Tony Robbins.

Dying for a New Delivery Option

“Abundance is not something we acquire, it’s something we tune into.” -Wayne Dyer

If you’ve lived in the same neighborhood for an extended period of time, it’s easy to assume you know the local pizza delivery scene like the back of your hand. You know the best time to order, what days to avoid, and when the solid specials are.

Lately, it feels like I can count my pizza delivery options on one hand and that’s got me feeling stuck.  I’ve long since mapped out all the local delivery zones and measured delivery times, so I figure I’m pretty tuned in unless a new spot opens up.

This past weekend, some mysterious force (craving) for a pizza joint I figured was well outside of my delivery area (5 miles away) urged me to do a little research.  I pulled up their website to scan the current menu offerings and check out their pick-up hours as I anticipated chauffeuring my extra cheesy pepperoni home myself (boo).

For the fun of it, I navigated to the “Delivery & Takeout” page to see just how far their delivery area extended.

Before my eyes were words that exceeded my wildest expectations:

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By some grace of the pizza delivery Gods, the beautiful little yellow shaded delivery radius wrapped well around my neighborhood.  I jumped for joy I as I could now drive straight home and shed the fear of my pizza rapidly depreciating in the front seat sitting through Friday night traffic (I need one of those heated pizza delivery bags like the pros!)

Who stepped up their delivery game on Madison’s westside?

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Photo by (Lindsay Christians, madison.com)

At a Food Fight restaurant, you can almost always count on a creative well-thought-out ambiance and a forward-thinking menu; now with their pizza operation Luigi’s on Midvale, you can get that delivered too (to my house!).

Food Fight Restaurant Group has a diverse portfolio of over a dozen restaurants around Madison.  Themes vary from taquerias (Canteen) to Hawaiin style poke (Miko Poke), gourmet burgers (Dlux) to upscale Italian (Cento) and even elevated brunch (Bassett Street Brunch Club) and apparently they are in the delivery biz now as many of those locations offer delivery options on their website.

At Luigi’s, you get the usual hipster flair, only reimaged to land on a hand-spun, corn-meal dusted crust.  You’ve got an array of diverse ingredients like Calabrian chiles and burrata that come sprinkled across a variety of red and white pies.

There are options like Fig and Prosciutto with mozzarella, goat cheese, caramelized onions, fig jam, prosciutto, arugula, and balsamic drizzle;  Bacon and Brussels with white sauce, fontina, bacon, and shaved brussels sprouts, and of course interpretations of all the classics as well.

The pie I sprung for was The Racket complete with white sauce, fontina, mozzarella, house-made sausage, herb-roasted mushrooms, chives, and truffle oil.  If you’re looking for the ultimate umami pizza experience then look no further because house-made sausage and mushrooms nestled in a garlicky white sauce and drizzled with truffle oil will seduce you down a road of savoriness.

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The Racket delivered.

Finding a new place that delivers doesn’t happen every day.

Or maybe it does?  

It’s quite easy to default to a “scarcity mindset”; one in which we believe there is only so much to go around.  If we live in anxiety of there not being enough or in fear of losing what we already have we greatly limit ourselves to the plentiful opportunities life presents.

Luigi’s provided a reminder to embrace an “abundance mindset”.  Through the lens of abundance, there’s peace in knowing we have unlimited resources (pizza options) at our disposal for a happy life.

What pizza taught me:

Instead of longing for a new delivery spot, I should be filled with enthusiasm that one is right around the corner.

What I’m eating:  Luigi’s The Racket

What I’m reading:  Awaken the Giant Within:  How to Take Immediate Control fo Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny -Tony Robbins.

The Slices of Summer: 2019

“Keeping a journal is like taking good care of one’s heart.”-Ted Kooser

I’m fortunate so many Wisconsin summer activities include pizza.  Heck, there’s pizza at Summerfest, Brewer’s games, Noah’s Ark, even at weddings when sweaty “cha-cha slide” dancing patrons are rewarded with slices as a night-cap.

Amidst all that fun, it’s easy to lose track of all the great slices I score along the way, so, a couple years back I started keeping a journal.

Initially, it was a place to organize my thoughts and dump my ideas, but it turned out to be especially useful for logging the pizza I came across when out exploring.  After a few years into it, that journal has become one of my favorite possessions.

As I sit outside soaking up the tail end of this fun-filled summer I thumb the pages of my beloved pizza-archive and reflect on all the glorious slices I’ve had over the last couple months.

Let’s do a recap…   

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Summerfest Pizza.

At Summerfest, you not only get 800 musical acts from all over the world, but you also get an epic spread of festival food.  You’ve got classics like Saz’s cheese curds, AJ Bombers bacon cheeseburgers, Famous Dave’s ribs, sausages at Klements Sausage and Beer Garden and Robby’s Roasted Corn.

As for me, I bee-lined it to the Pizza Man booth.

Pizza Man is a Milwaukee staple since 1970 so it’s fitting they finally set up shop at the “city of festivals” largest festival.  At the Pizza Man booth you a get a slice about the size of a paper plate.  The crust is thin, almost brittle around the edges, with a chewy center loaded with toppings.

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Wedding Pizza.

Summer is wedding season, and in your early 30’s the wedding invites can start to stack up quickly.  Luckily for me, I’ve noticed a trend at receptions in which the evening is concluded with pizza as a snack.

Sometimes its late-night delivery while other times it’s a little pizza buffet provided by the venue or caterer.  Next time you’re out celebrating someone’s big day keep an eye out after 10pm—there’s nothing like a late-night slice and a slow dance to celebrate summer love.

Brewer Game Pizza. 

Most folks think of peanuts, footlongs, and waffle fries when they hit the ballpark, but Miller Park the home of our beloved Brewers has some pizza joints sprinkled throughout the stadium.

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A couple years ago Miller Park did a $20 million concession stand overhaul and we scored more pizza!  If you’re in Section 210 or 218 you’re in luck, because you’re in pizza town.

I opted for a slice of Zaffiro’s on level 1 behind the “Johnsonville Party Deck”.  It was greasy, thin and cut in squares and a perfect pick-me-up for the seventh-inning stretch.

Door County Vacation pizza. 

A trip to Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula can truly rejuvenate the soul, it also nixes a huge craving of mine which is Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza and Grille.

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Cheesy slices ready to go at the back-bar.

The Sister Bay location leveled up their game this year by offering pizza by the slice at the back bar.  So, instead of bearing an excruciating wait (up to 2 hours sometimes!) you can now grab a slice and enjoy it at the waterfront or maybe at an outdoor concert in the park across the street.

Wisconsin Dell’s Pizza. 

Every year Tess and I will do a quick little weekend getaway to the Wisconsin Dells, to enjoy the waterparks and a “kid-free” night out at a resort to act like kids.

Though there are tourist fixtures like Moose Jaw and Pizza Pub, the main event for us has become “late-night hotel room Dominos“.  After hitting the waterslides and lounging around the swim-up bar we’ll hit the hotel room, crank down the AC, put on some late-night comedy and eat some thin-crust cheese pizza in bed (I may even use the hotel-room towels as napkins).

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This summer was one for the history books (or at least my current Moleskine). 

Opening up that journal provided me a path to fond memories—a quick skim allowed me to count my summer blessings and gear up for fall.  Out of all that great pizza over the course of this summer, the best was the pizza I shared with Ellis.  He can eat pizza now!

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What I’m Eating:  Leftover “Hotel room Dominos”.

What I’m reading: Awaken the Giant Within -Tony Robbins

 

The Art of Order Taking

“The knowledge of courtesy is a very necessary study; like grace and beauty, it breeds mutual liking” -Montaigne

In between fantasizing about my weekly pizza excursion and photographing it, I’ve got to order it.  While I wish I could skip right to the pizza-eating part, first I’ve got to pick up the phone, express my vision to the pizza guy and get the logistics figured out.

Though I love pizza, I tend to have mixed feelings placing my order.

Of course, there’s an inherent joy in pitching my weekly plan to another person willing to listen, especially someone who will play a roll in executing it.

And, having a person on the line makes it easier to articulate complex orders and confirm any important questions that may arise (How thin is the thin-crust? Do you cut your pizza’s in triangles or squares?).  

But, there’s the chance that interaction feels like a necessary evil—a social exchange so poor that it’s hard to find pleasure afterward.

I’m talking about the times when nothing is confirmed or heard properly and we aren’t even upsold extra cheese (come on, basics!).  Sometimes the communication is so bad our pizza-night lands in a pickle as we end up with incorrect items, missing toppings and no sides of sauce.

With the prevalence of online ordering, we don’t need to worry about these situations as much anymore, but technical difficulties and peak order periods that cause shops to unplug are still ordinary, meaning we’re faced with picking up the phone and calling in our orders old-school.

When handling information as delicate as someone’s pizza order, it’s evident the employees manning the phones have a great responsibily and must have the utmost attention to detail.  They set the tone for the entire experience—their demeanor, pace, and politeness in that initial contact is crucial.

When I want fuss-free ordering I turn to a spot where the front line employees excel and a great customer service experience is almost guaranteed.

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Rosati’s West in Madison. 

When it comes to phone order taking, I consider Rosasti’s West on Mineral Point Road to be masters (at least in my experience, in which there are many).  They are kind, competent, concise and pleasantly nail the interaction every single time.   They repeat everything back to you and will take on most requests.

Beyond killer customer service, you also get the option of “super-thin crust” if you’re in the “know”.  Perhaps the greatest pizza hack of all-time besides “extra-cheese”; all you have to do is ask and they’ll gladly give your crust an extra spin through the dough rolling machine.

Any place that has the option of “super-thin” is good in my book, so I usually go with super-thin, extra cheese and maybe some pepperoni or green olives.  Some nights if I’m feeling frisky I may even venture further into the menu and throw myself a little “Chicago Thanksgiving” complete with an Italian beef sandwich, Chicago style hotdog, and maybe even a calzone.

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Calzone (Yes, there is an inch of melty cheese in there)

A botched interaction is more expensive than you might think.

The pain-free ordering at Rosati’s greatly increases my to desire to eat there, so I return to them regularly.

On the other hand, a pain-filled ordering experience can haunt me for months and causes me to pause, consider my choices, no matter how good a spots grub might be—I just don’t want to deal with shenanigans when it’s pizza time.

These days with so many options at our fingertips it’s easier than ever for customers to fall in and out of love with a restaurant based simply on their service and it’s harder than ever to regain that trust and loyalty.  One wrong order, miscommunication or argument and that customer could be gone for good and that could mean losing out on big bucks for the restaurant.

In Seth Godin’s book, This is Marketing he urges businesses to consider the “lifetime value” of a customer when interacting with them.  It takes massive amounts of time, money and energy to earn the business of new customers, so when you’ve got them it’s critical to treat them well, woo them and hopefully retain their business to make good on your investment.

One customer can add up to thousands of dollars in sales over the course of a lifetime of repeat orders.  So, there’s no time to mess around with anything less than stellar service.

What pizza taught me:

A pleasant encounter can make our day, especially if there’s pizza afterward.  Considerate and concise communication is something to strive for—a worthy pursuit that will undoubtedly yield more than well-executed pizza orders.

What I’m eating: Rosati’s “super-thin crust” green olive, extra cheese

What I’m reading: This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn To See –Seth Godin