The Best Pizza Philosophy

“There is one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life: Reciprocity” -Confucius

One of the many perks of writing this blog is all the recommendations I get from family, friends, and colleagues. Thanks to all the great people in my network I’ve always got a list chock-full of places to try and it keeps getting longer and longer.

Every January I scan my list to calculate my plan for the upcoming year.  The most recommended spots filter to the front of the line and if I see a suggestion multiple times in a short window, that puppy gets picked for the upcoming weekend.

A couple weeks ago one of those hot tips fell right in my lap, so when an impromptu dinner-out with the in-laws popped up, my blessed family obliged me and we ventured to a supposed “diamond-in-the-rough” in downtown Verona, WI.

Avanti’s Italian Restaurant.

Avanti’s is a cozy little Italian family restaurant and pub that boasts old-school family recipes and a homey atmosphere.  It’s ten minutes from my house and I’ve driven by it dozens of times, but I always just figured it was a place for classic Italian American fare like chicken parmesan or lasagna (I do hear both are good).

But, the rave reviews I’d been hearing about came from the pizza section and sounded like the perfect ally for a Wisconsinite who’s about to bundle up and hunker down for a few frigid months of winter:  Pan pizza.

When the temperatures drop I’m more apt to venture outside of my usual thin-crust ways.  Thankfully my father in law loves pizza too, so we could guiltlessly order a pan pizza and thin-crust pizza and share them to get the full experience.

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The pan stole the show. 

Avanti’s low lighting and a warm family-friendly ambiance created the perfect environment to indulge in buttery, flakey, inch-thick pan pizza.  The crust had a light, crispy outer shell, and pillowy soft center.  The bottom had a light oily finish from the pan it was baked in.

And what can I say, I’m a sucker for big chunks of sausage that get nestled into ooey, gooey gobs of cheese and pepperoni.  The toppings and sauce were abundant and the pie was finished with a liberal dusting of Italian seasonings.  (Pro tip:  If you want the pizza to come out when everyone else’s dishes order it as soon as your waitress visits your table, the pan takes 25 minutes to bake.)

Ever since Avantis, I can’t get that thick, cheesy, buttery beauty off my mind and it’s all thanks to the trusted sources in my life who reach out and give me a heads up on what I should try next.

Referrals are the fuel that keeps my pizza engine flowing and it seems like the more I give and the more I get back and around and around.

That’s the beauty of reciprocity.  When we selflessly share and help others we start a cycle of goodwill that creates value for everyone.  If someone does you a solid, it’s hardwired human nature to want to return the favor.

So, whether it’s a recommendation for some righteous pizza or some intel that could provide a leg up we should always revert to the giver inside of us.  

What I’m eating: Avanti’s pepperoni and sausage pan-style pizza

What I’m reading:  Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success –Adam Grant

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The Fight for the Frozen Section

“Victory is reserved for those who are willing to pay its price.” Sun Tzu

There’s a war going down on the west side of Madison. Thankfully it’s not your typical war; no arms, no bloodshed, no casualties.  The war I’m talking about is a grocery store turf war, and clear lines have been drawn down the aisles.

The Westside Pizza Price War (or WPPW1 as I call it ).

At the center of this conflict, in the frosty display cases in the frozen section of my local grocery store sit some heavily discounted pizzas.

One of the perks of living in Madison is the plentiful options of grocery outlets; we’ve got Metcalf’s, Woodman’s, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Aldi’s, Pick N’ Save, Costco and Hyvee. With more and more grocery stores popping up and only so many customers to go around the competition is getting fierce.

Recently the invasion of a Festival Foods nearby has pushed my local retailer Hyvee to resort to tactical measures.  To fortify their position and secure customer loyalty Hyvee went into attack mode with a defensive campaign.

I’m talking 50% off Digornos, 5 for $10 Jacks, 4 for $10 Tombstones, and $3.99 Brew Pub Lottza Mottza’s (their normally almost $9!).  And to stick it to Festival they even lined the pizza coolers with side by side tags of their awesome sale prices vs. the current lame prices at their rival.

It’s safe to assume that my freezer is completely full right now.

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It’s good to be a consumer in the middle of a grocery store feud—when frozen pizzas are so cheap it makes it much easier to branch out and try new things.

During my shopping spree, I swayed from the norm and sprang for an Ultra Thin-crust Bellatoria.  I love thin crust and Bellatoria was the thinnest of the frozen thin I’ve had. The crust is surprisingly flaky and delicate but can hold abundant toppings.

I ran with the “Ultra” concept and got an “Ultra Supreme” that included parmesan, asiago, mozzarella, pepperoni, sausage, roasted red and green peppers, red onions, and black olives.  Bellatoria delivers on their “Ultra” promise—the toppings, cheese, and sauce were bountiful and top-notch.

It’s no surprise Bellatoria is on top of their frozen game, as it turns out they are under the Bernatello Foods frozen pizza umbrella which also offers highly esteemed options like Brew Pub Lotzza Motzza.

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A little competition can help us go a long way. 

While the analogy of war may be a little extreme (and may mean I’ve been watching a little too much WW2 in Color on Netflix), it’s apparent that the arrival of Festival Foods has been a significant motivator for Hyvee to step up their game and offer some sweet deals.

Perhaps we could all use a challenge from time to time.  When we’re having trouble reaching the extent of our limits maybe a little healthy competition could be the force to push us there.

What I’m eating: Bellatoria Ultra-thin crust “Ultra Supreme”.

What I’m reading:  Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success –Adam Grant

All I Want This Christmas Is Crust

“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing” -Socrates

Last weekend after a long day of Christmas shopping I was on the verge of being seriously “hangry”.  So much so, that in a ravished frenzy I ventured into unfamiliar pizza territory.

I’ve always assumed pizza at grocery store buffets and specialty bars would be about the same quality as gas stations—hours old slices that have long since sweated out their essence, laying decrepit and drying out under heat lamps.  So, I may meander over to the pizza-bar at my local grocery store every week to scope out the selection, but I’ll rarely pull the trigger. 

That is, until, I discovered a whole new grocery store pizza experience.  A retailer in my neck of the woods has stepped up their pre-made pizza game and may turn me into a devout lover of the pizza-bar after all.

We’ll take one of everything, please.

With heavy-duty holiday appetites hi-jacking our rational thinking, Tess and I headed for the store where we could pig-out on not just one delicacy, but a whole smorgasbord of ready-to-eat options.

Whole Foods Market’s “Prepared Food” department is a welcoming deli-esque operation where you can fill your basket with everything from mac n’ cheese to chicken tikka masala to sushi (why not all three?!).

Their specialty bars contain an extensive array of sandwiches, soups, salads, and “grab-n-go” meals, and because it’s Whole Foods it’s actually not that bad for you.  According to their website:

“If variety alone doesn’t make you take out your napkin and tuck in, here’s the clincher: you’ll find no artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners or preservatives—and no hydrogenated fats or high fructose corn syrup. It means the food is fresh, flavorful and just plain wonderful.”

So, as “healthy-ish” slabs of lasagna and Asian glazed boneless wings danced in my head I walked over to do my usual peek at their pizza-bar.

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An epic crust for my epic hunger.

My explorations brought me to a majestic mountain-range of golden-brown crust that overlooked a valley of melty mozzarella and pepperoni.  Upon first glance of the pizzas’ magnificent hand-tossed handle and I knew it was meant to be.

I discovered that the highlight of Whole Foods New York Style pie is a rim of perfectly proofed chewy outer crust.  It’s crispy on the outside, and fluffy and filled with air-pockets on the inside.  It’s a ranch dippers dream come true really.  As soon as I got home I went straight for the Hidden Valley bottle. 

The sauce seeps into the nooks and crannies of the light bready base and the larger-than-normal pepperonis get nice and crispy.  Also, a plus, Whole Foods allows you to serve yourself, so no more middle person crushing your hopes by grabbing the one with the monstrous charred up bubble.

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Not only was the crust delicious, but enough to fulfill my gigantic appetite.

Turns out I had been too quick to judge and it’s possible to get a decent slice at the grocery store pizza-bar after all.  All it took was one unexpected, tasty crust in my Whole Foods basket to turn me from a Scrooge to Bob Cratchit.

What I’m eating:  Whole Foods Market pepperoni pizza from the “Prepared Foods” section

What I’m reading:  Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney -Lee Cockerell

 

Thanking My Lucky Stars for Lombardino’s

“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” -Willie Nelson

When out for a romantic dinner at a dimly lit little neighborhood Italian restaurant I would usually reserve my appetite for a prime-cut of meat or a house-made pasta dish, but last weekend two words stopped me dead in the “wood-fired pizza” section.

Spicy giardiniera.

Last Saturday after a couple days of continuous carbo-loading on Turkey Day favorites, I was craving something with a little more zip, so Tess and I jumped at the opportunity for a night out and splurged on one of Madison’s most beloved institutions.

Since 1952, Lombardino’s off University Ave in Madison has combined classic Italian American restaurant ambiance with seasonal, forward-thinking dishes.

“We describe our cuisine as “the way Italians would cook if they lived in Wisconsin.” What this means is we combine locally-sourced ingredients from Wisconsin’s rich farm culture with Italian food traditions to create one-of-a-kind menus that showcase the best of both worlds.” -Co-owner Michael Bonas

That’s one heck of culinary mission if you ask me and the pizza I was after was the epitome of that vision.

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The Fabroni.

My wood-fired delicacy came with Fraboni’s hot Italian sausage, spicy giardiniera, provolone and little dollops of San Marzano tomato sauce on top (my mouth is watering thinking about it).

The pizza came out piping hot and packed some serious heat from the spicy giardiniera.  Instead of typical mozzarella, the toppings were embedded in a salty sheet of melted provolone that gave the pie a unique Italian beef vibe.

After a couple bites, I sat with my mouth ablaze in a moment of blissed-out exaltation.  The spicy giardiniera and hot Italian sausage combo shined a light on how lucky I am to live in a world with such excellent pizza.

And down a rabbit hole of appreciation, I went….. 

Soon, I was thinking about how fortunate I was to live in a city with such fantastic restaurants and to have family nearby that allow us to visit them and to sit across from the love of my life and soak up her company.

I felt grateful for my health, for my family’s health, and my friend’s health too; for our home and our amazing traditions and careers which allow us to live the way we do.  I felt thankful for the changing of the seasons and to be alive; to be free in the most comfortable, convenient and technologically advanced age in human history.

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I imagine it’s easy to think “How many times can this nut-job write about being thankful for pizza?!” 

But, I believe author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said it best “Gratitude is the healthiest of all emotions.  The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.”

So, for me, it’s not a one-off, it’s repetition in a life-long practice.

I’m mentally challenging myself to set my internal default to gratitude and to give Thanksgiving caliber thanks 365 days a year.  Beyond the easy-to-appreciate kid-free nights and provolone covered wood-fired pizzas, I’m going to make counting my blessings a habit.

What I’m eating: Lombardino’s-The Fabroni

What I’m reading: Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney -Lee Cockerell

 

Not Just Another Tool in the Toolkit

“New truths become evident, when new tools become available.” -Rosalyn Sussman Yalow

It was a cold November night, as I huddled close to the warmth of my 425° oven and peered through its grease speckled glass to witness the progress of my frozen pizza crisping upon its glowing heating coils.

The yellowish-orange of the oven light illuminated sweltering cheese bubbles that inched closer and closer to the center of my pie, signaling that it was almost done.  I canceled the digital timer’s red blinking final countdown and rushed to unsheath my favorite utensil.

The most valuable cutlery in the kitchen.

Alongside my parmesan and red pepper flake shakers, my sacred blend of pizza seasonings and my designated pizza knife (a long, dull boning knife for rotation and retrieval) sits my pride and joy “The Duke”.

The Duke is my trusty pizza-cutter and while Tess finds it extremely silly that I’ve given a pizza-cutter a name and detests the name I’ve chosen, I feel a pizza-cutter as badass as mine deserves a nickname of equal badassness.

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The Duke.

Last Christmas, The Duke came as a present from my brother-in-law and craftsman extraordinaire Pat.  It was a thoughtful, handcrafted surprise, that totally leveled up my pizza-cutting game forever (Thanks Pat!).

The Duke is custom-made with a thick contoured wood handle and sharp stainless steel circular blade that glides so gracefully you’d think there were ball bearings inside.

The weight of the solid wood handle is what sets The Duke apart from the rest.  The heaviness of the handle lets momentum do the work—with one swift, fluid motion, it allows me effortlessly sail through even the crispest of crusts.

It leaves behind perfectly straight, even lines and works just as well whether you’re dicing up deep-dish or extra-thin; party-cuts, wedges or strips.

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The pizza cutter is the most important tool in any pizza lovers toolkit, yet often it’s the most overlooked. 

For most of my life, I’ve settled for flimsy, plastic devices that wobble willy nilly from one crust to the next; leaving jagged uneven lines and unproperly cut slices.  In college, I even resorted to scissors once.

But, trust me, once you’ve had your grasp on a heavy-duty pizzeria caliber pizza cutter it’s hard to go back.  As with many of the finer things in life, you don’t know what you’re missing until you experience one.

Who would have thought I’d get as much joy cutting pizzas as I do eating them? 

Perhaps the pizza cutter isn’t just another boring, but necessary kitchen gadget, in my case, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.  Even mundane tasks can become quite enjoyable when we’ve got the proper tools.

What I’m eating:  Jack’s pepperoni perfectly cut in squares thanks to the Duke

What I’m reading: The Richest Man in Babylon -George Samuel Clason

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