Pizza FOMO

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” -Thomas Haynes Bayly

It’s been two months since I’ve seen the glowing neon “Open” sign that dangles from my favorite New York slice shop in Madison, WI. 

Slices-the-size-of-your-head are hard to come by on Madison’s westside and I’m starting to experience some serious pizza FOMO.  It’s not your normal fear of missing out either; like the kind a teen feels when held up from a Saturday night with friends. My fear feels permanant, more haunting.   

I’m afraid I’ll never get to see my reflection in the greasy sheen of an extra cheese Pizza Di Roma slice ever again.  I’ll forget how the oversized slice flops between my  fingers as I give it a fold.  Where am I going to get a quality BBQ chicken slice?  And will I even be in the radius of any New York style delivery zone?  

As businesses begin to open back up I visit the Pizza Di Roma Facebook page daily; desperately scouring for a glimmer of hope— a new post, a notification or a clue that they could be opening up.  Though, the original downtown location resumes business, all of us loyal westside patrons, have only been offered a bleak post: “Closed until further notice” (I’m disheartened to admit I glimpsed a rumor that there is a “For Sale” sign out front!). 

Now that I can’t have Pizza Di Roma I want it more than ever. 

I look back and kick myself for all the times I could’ve ordered it, but didn’t.  All the times I settled for a single slice instead of a whole pie.  All the 20 inchers I didn’t tilt through my door. 

Moral of the story:  Life is short so eat your favorite local pizza as much as you can.  

What I wish I was eating:  Pizza Di Roma

What I’m reading: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us  –Daniel H. Pink

Graham Patrick’s First 24 Hours of Pizza

“Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.” -Zig Zigler

Spring is the season for new life, so Tess and I popped out a baby.  

It just so happens that our new prince Graham Patrick wiggled his way out of the womb into my favorite 24 hours of the week: Friday. Like when the stumbling fawn Bambi first found out he would one day rule the forest, Graham was about to discover the power and prestige that Pizza Day holds for the Luther family.

First, we had to get our hands on some pizza.

Tess and I had endured a 24 hour induction process that was filled with skin crawling, chest tightening, anxiety spiking complications (Thank god for meditation!).  By the end of it, both of us were emotionally and physically exhausted. So, when Graham met the world and we finally had a chance to settle down in our birth suite we were both long over due for some quality nourishment.

But, confined to a locked-down hospital I wondered how would we score some pizza?

When my first son Ellis was born we had it easy, my parents and brother were able to smuggle in some Salvatore’s Tomato Pies to get us through our hospital stint, but with a pandemic and strict visitation policies we were on our own.

Though hospital food gets a bad rap I wasn’t about to give up, so I scoured the Meriter Hospital room service menu looking for a solution.

Open-face Hot Turkey Sandwich with Gravy? Rosemary Roasted Chicken Breast?  Sliced Pork Loin served with Apple Sauce? No. No. No! (Regretfully I believe I shouted “old people food!”).

Then I saw it, a glistening ray of hope on the back of the menu: Personal Pizza. 

However dingy it looks in my photo (I think it has cheddar on it?) in that moment that mini hand-tossed, extra cheese and pepperoni pizza offered me a sigh of relief that cradled me as I cradled our new little man.  (To the credit of Meriter Hospital all of their food was pretty good.) 

A perk of the whole “birth during a pandemic scenario” was that if Mom and baby are healthy after 24 hours you get to go home early.  We jumped at that opportunity mostly because Tess and I both missed our first born Ellis.

As we packed up and made our way out of the hospital I had a revelation:

Meriter Hospital is a couple blocks from Ians!

Our hospital pizza experience would now be reinforced by one of my Madison favorites. So, as we pulled out of the hospital with baby in tow we spun over to the Frances street Ian’s to pick a 20 inch cheese pizza and a couple slices of Mac n cheese.

Graham’s first day had a delicious and happy ending. Too bad he couldn’t really appreciate all the pizza surrounding him on his first rotation around the sun, but it was nice to find some fun in a rather chaotic and anxiety inducing time.  We can always fondly look back and remember that Graham Patrick was ready to “pizza party” from day one.

What I was eating on Graham’s birthday: Meriter Hospital pepperoni personal pizza and Ian’s 20 inch extra cheese pizza.

What I’m reading: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team –Patrick Lencioni

Where’s All the Stuffed Crust?

“The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.” -Helmut Schmidt

Stuck at home I’ve got plenty of time to ponder the great mysteries of the world:  What is the meaning of life?  What happens when we die? Are we alone in the universe? Why isn’t there more stuffed crust pizza?

Of course, there’s the original gangster Pizza Hut, several frozen pizza brands dabbling and small players Rocky Rococco’s giving it a whirl once a week with their “motherload” slice, but where is everybody else?  Surely stuffing crusts with cheese is a lucrative business decision and it’s delicious, so why isn’t everyone jumping in?

Oddly enough, the king of cheap, Little Caesars just joined the ranks of the upper-crust class, by making their “Extra-Most-Bestest” better.

They’ve had cheese rimmed crusts before, but they’ve never woven one through their greatest accomplishment yet the “Extra-Most-Bestest”.  The “Extra-Most-Bestest” is a hand-tossed pepperoni pizza with extra cheese and extra pepperoni (who could ask for more!).

And now within that hand-tossed handle is a yard of cheese, that’s right, they claim they’ve got three feet of their mozzarella and muenster blend packed in that crust. Just make sure you order an extra sauce cup, because between the “Crazy Bread” and dunking that cheese-filled crust you’ll need additional rations.

While stretching my mind around the stuffed crust quandary I did learn a valuable lesson from Little Caesars stuffed “Extra-Most Bestest”:

There’s always room for improvement.  Even in these trying times, there are opportunities for growth; the stuffed crust “Extra-Most-Bestest” goes to show that everything can be made better (with more cheese!).

So, why isn’t there more stuffed crust pizza?   Not cost effect?  An operational challenge?  Not the right marketing play?  Who knows.  But, I’m sure there are a lot of people sitting at home right now that would be happy to try them out.

What I’m eating:  Little Caesars Extra-Most-Bestest stuffed crust pepperoni

What I’m reading: Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities –Swami Parthasarathy

A Really Good Friday

“When a father gives to his son, both laugh; when a son gives to his father, both cry.” -William Shakespeare

My son Ellis is a shred off the old block.  In a couple weeks he will be two years old and though his pronunciation of pizza sounds more like “pizzu” than pizza, his passion is already rivaling mine.  It won’t be long before my little prodigy surpasses me as the seasoned connoisseur, like a young Luke Skywalker with the power to wield the force stronger than Vader. It’s enough to make me tear up a bit.

Our weekly celebration begin every Thursday night as we dream up all the “pizzu and sticks” the weekend will bring us.  Friday morning the whole family shouts “Happy Friday!” and our ritual of fist-pumping and stomping around Ellis’s bedroom like Andrew W.K. begins.  We chant “pizzu! pizzu! pizzu!”.

Then when 5:30pm rolls around and our TGIF feast is steaming on the counter we raise our slices and “cheers” them.

A really Good Friday. 

Most Friday afternoons I’m restless, but last week my eagerness was overflowing for what awaited my little pizza-buddy and I.  Turns out that my dad was making a special trip to Madison to drop off some of our favorite old-school hometown pizza.

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Forget Doordash and Dominos delivery when you’ve got Dave Luther, my hero, and transporter of a coveted Rosa’s “Extra-large two-topping and large sticks special”.  The guy drove an hour from Whitewater to Madison to lay it in the front yard (bless his social distancing heart).

 

Rosa’s will forever hold a place in my heart, not just because of my nostalgic attachment to it, but because it’s the pizza that has brought and continues to bring the Luther family together.  It was on the kitchen counter as an excuse to get the family together when I was teen, it was on the coffee table when Tess and I had our first date nights in college and when Ellis first started gnawing on solid food.

This last Friday, the Luthers passed around the Rosa’s again, this time from grandfather to father to son (with clean hands and from 6 feet apart!).

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Sauces on the sticks, classic Rosa’s! Gotta love it.

Several weeks of social distancing is bringing these family moments into focus.  Lori Gottlieb American writer and psychotherapist spoke to this idea recently on The Tim Ferris Podcast explaining how she was “relishing” the time in isolation by simply watching her son and cherishing the fleeting moments she has with him.

There’s a lesson in that for everyone.  We can embrace this extra time with our families and make lasting memories.  So, while Ellis and I perform rain dances to the “pizzu Gods” and Tess giggles a long while nibbling Rosas cheese-sticks I savor the moment and toast my slice to strengthening our relationships.

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What I’m eating:  Rosa’s Extra-Large sausage and pepperoni and large sticks for

What I’m reading: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft –Stephen King

Rolling With the Dough

“You don’t want to stand rigid like a tall oak that cracks and collapses in the storm. Instead you want to be flexible, like a reed that bends with the storm and survives.” -Deepak Chopra

I love Spring break.  It’s the rare occasion I’ll allow myself the debauchery of a full week of pizza-binging.  So, as you can imagine the Luther family Spring break vacation is a highly anticipated trip.

But, this year with a pandemic on the rise I reluctantly canceled our long-awaited travel plans to New Smyrna Beach, Florida.  With potential lives at stake, beachside pizza loses all it’s fun.

One thing was for sure though, I was in no-way-shape-or-form going to settle for any old boring staycation-pizza.

I decided that for the vacation vibes I was after I would just go on a week-long Tour-de-Pizza hitting all my favorite Madison spots.  A trip around all the local joints would surely lift my spirits.

Then Wisconsin governor Tony Evers restricted all dining-in restaurants and bars, closed all non-essential businesses and recommended everyone stay at home.  That idea was squashed like a dough ball.

What else could I do besides frozen pizzas and no-contact delivery? 

As I mulled it over, it became apparent that social distancing and self-isolation would provide a great opportunity to dial in my home-made pizza skills.

So, while everyone else was grasping for TP I cruised the grocery store for the core pizza essentials and set out to create my own destiny.

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I even took the idea one step further and decided to recreate the New Smyrna Beach pizza I was counting down the days for. 

For months I’d been daydreaming of a pizza in New Smyrna Beach from a restaurant called Third Wave Cafe.  Last year Tess and I stumbled across the little spot while frolicking down the main drag Flagler Avenue.

On a whim, we ventured into a dark, unmarked entrance outlined with palms.  Walking in was like going from the grey scheme of Kansas to the technicolor of Oz, as we discovered a lively tiki-themed bar complete with live music and a new American menu that highlighted wood-fired pizzas.

Third-wave’s concoctions were something you’d expect to see on a trendy big-city pizza menu, not in a little beach town.  This year the pie I looked forward to the most at Third Wave was called the “Honey Baby”: A sweet and spicy combo comprised of Calabrian chiles, spicy soppressata, and drizzles of honey.

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Creating the “Honey Baby” at home. 

We started with a ball of cooled, pre-prepped pizza dough that we tossed on our flour-dusted counter and went to town stretching.  I had a brief stint in the pizza biz after college, so I called upon all the dough stretching skills my muscle memory could muster.

Our primary goal was a faux wood-fired crispy crust and for that, we turned to the gas grill.  After a liberal drizzle of olive oil, we tossed the bare pizza-skin on the grill, heated to 500°.  We were after a par-baked crust and it didn’t take long for the dough to start getting firm and bubbling up.

Next, it was time to dress the par-baked crust with cheese, sauce, and toppings and finish it in the oven.

I took a trick out of my all-time favorite pizzeria Gus’s playbook and used slices of mozzarella instead of shreds.  On top of that, I sprinkled diced-up hot cherry peppers, pepperonis and sent the pie off to a preheated 450° oven.  Once the crust and cheese were golden brown I removed it from the oven and then drizzled it with raw organic honey.

It was spicy, sweet and savory; exactly what I was looking for.  To quote the late, great Tanners from the sitcom Full House “Whoa “Honey” Baby!”

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What pizza taught me:

The bright side can be easily lost in troubling times, but it’s always there.  On my mission to salvage my Spring break pizza-eating session, it took a few pivots but I found my way.  The next few months will probably take similar adjustments, but by being adaptable we will prevail on the other side.

What I’m eating: Homemade pepperoni, hot cherry peppers, mozzarella, and honey drizzle.

What I’m reading:  On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft -Stephen King

Put the Cheese in Your Hands

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.” William Shakespeare

Have you ever looked down at your slice and wished there was just a little more cheese?

With every pizza there’s always the risk of “poorly-portioned-mozzarella-melancholy”:  The sorrow you feel when you get a slice with lack-luster cheese distribution.  We’ve all seen that one spot on the pie that’s showing just a little too much red and not enough shreds.

But, I’ve stumbled across the solution; a quick, cheap fix that will surely prove to be even more essential than the parmesan and red pepper flakes:

A pizza-patching kit.

Also known as a spare bag of mozzarella cheese in the fridge for filling in those dreaded cheeseless gaps. For $3 or less you provide yourself some extra cheesy insurance that can save the day any day of the week.

For many, this concept is a total “no duh”, an age-old no-brainer to step up any pizza, but for folks like myself who’ve always just settled for what they’re given, it’s an awakening.  I will no longer bear the anguish of inadequately allocated cheese on my pizzas.

It works especially great on frozen pizzas and take-n-bakes where you never know what sort of machine malfunction or light-handed cheeser could screw up your balance.

Most recently I brought out my bag to beef up a take-n bake pepperoni pizza from Aldi’s on Madisons Westside.

I grew up giving Aldi’s a bad rap (maybe because my only impression was from the dingy Janesville location as a kid).  But, it appears they’ve revamped their set up (they’re actually under the same umbrella as Trader Joe’s) and their take-n-bake pizzas and cheese sticks are surprisingly awesome and super cheap.

Last weekend it turned out though that the toppings on the pizza I grabbed got shuffled around a bit leaving a few slightly barren areas.

Before.

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I was in the mood for “next-level” cheesiness, so I took out my pizza patching kit, did a quick waltz around the pie like a fairie sprinkling pixie dust and voila, I found what I was after.

After.

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That pizza patching kit is a force multiplier. 

In military science, a force multiplier is a skill, a tool or strategy that will give you a leg up and enable higher output and better results with minimal additional effort.  That’s what I got when I put the cheese in my hands.  With my trusty bag of mozzarella, I’m no longer at the whim of the fates I can take any pizza from good to great.

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Final Product

What I’m eating: Aldi’s take-n-bake pepperoni pizza (with extra mozzarella from the fridge).

What I’m reading:  Benjamin Franklin: An American Life –Walter Isaacson

The Lure of Limited Time Offers

“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” Ben Franklin

When it comes to pizza nothing creates more urgency for me than the words “limited time”. 

When I hear “limited availability” all decency goes out the door as I scramble for the nearest slice—I resemble George Costanza from the sitcom Seinfeld shoving women and children out of the way when he hears “Fire!”.

Toppers Pizza, bless their hearts, has got my business locked down for the month of February by playing on this age-old law of human nature.  For the brief 29 days, Toppers has gifted us back two beloved old school all-stars: Taco Stix and Cool CBR (chicken, bacon, ranch) Pizza and I am extremely stoked (Hallelujah it’s a leap year, we get an extra day of Tacostix!).

taco stix back

Growing up in Whitewater WI. the home of “topperstix” I’ve been ingrained with a deep infatuation with cheesy, garlicky breadsticks of all varieties, especially Topper’s Tacostix.

Every so often I’ll get a craving so intense I’ll have no choice but to flip “pizza-night” into “cheesy-breadstick-night” and last weekend with their limited-time offer bewitching me I couldn’t ignore my urges and headed straight to stick-town.

Tacostix. 

Luckily for me, I have got an inside man (Thanks Adam!) who leaked this intel so I could start feasting January 31st as soon as they hit the menu (though I had to give a refresher to the employees on how to make Tacostix).

After my first dunk in the ranch cup, I was transported back to a better time—when I could eat Tacostix whenever I wanted.  I relished those little bits of taco meat that nestle themselves into melted mozzarella, cheddar cheese, and garlic-butter basted dough.

A deadline is a powerful thing.

Years ago I could enjoy Tacostix from 11am-3am any day of the week (yes, they have insane hours), but now that those zesty stick’s days are numbered that has unleashed an undeniable enticement within me.

When somethings about to go bye-bye it makes us want it ten times more—that’s the law of scarcity.  Or in Topper’s case artificial scarcity; clever marketing to create demand with a limited run (but hey it works for me!).

Though Topper’s brief return of my most beloved classic feels a little like they’re tugging at my heartstrings (I’m not the only one who shares that sentiment, see below), there’s no doubt they’ve engaged an effective strategy to create some buzz and secured some business for the month.

Sentiment

What I’m eating: Toppers Tacosticks with ranch dipping sauce.

What I’m reading:   Benjamin Franklin: An American Life –Walter Isaacson