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

The Circle of Slices

“As a mountain is unshaken by the wind, so the heart of a wise person is unmoved by all the changes on this earth” -Buddha

Six years ago I moved to Madison, started a new job and began my search for the most beloved pizza in my new city.   

The workplace, it turned out, was a pretty stellar environment for discovering pizza places. With a wide array of co-workers to poll, you quickly uncover a diverse range of preferences.

On one of my first days at the office, I recall chumming it up with my neighbor at the desk next to mine, our conversation naturally turned to our all-time favorite pizzas.

He could sense my passion as I eagerly painted mental pictures of greasy thin-crust pies cut in squares with toppings positioned under extra cheese.  As I rambled on about Rosa’s and Gus’s and the small-town pizza of my youth my excitement must have rubbed off, because before I could finish my sentence he blurted out:

You have to try Maria’s in Oregon!

He told me the tale of a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria off the beaten path, where the pies were thin, loaded with toppings and prepared with the same finesse and tradition by the same small family for 40 years.

It sounded right up my alley, and immediately topped my list of places to try.  But, as time went on my list kept getting longer and longer and somehow Maria’s kept falling farther and farther—they always ended up on the back burner.

Now, they’re closed.

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That’s right I missed out on Maria’s.  The phrase “you snooze, you lose” has never hit closer to home.  All I’ve got are the legends, the myths, some dingy yelp photos and a facebook post with all their tables upside down.

To make it worse, the closing of Maria’s came as no surprise, they posted early on last month that Sunday, June 30th would be there last day of operation.  I was forewarned and reminded by colleagues at work that my days for Maria’s were numbered, but still, I didn’t act.

As the sand in Maria’s hourglass thinned I heard rumors of lines out the door—die-hard, long-time patrons, stopping by to pay their respects like those gathering for a wake.  The Oregon Chamber of Commerce even gave an appreciation award to owners John and Joanne Indelicato for so many valued years of service.

As I sat at home and dwelled on the pain of missing out, an ad for the revamped Lion King floated across my Fire Stick homepage and provided me a reminder of one of the most fundamental laws of our universe.

The circle of life.  

Just as one local legend was closing their doors another was about to reopen theirs.  After a 2 year hiatus, Rosa’s in Whitewater was finally resurrected from the fire damage that put their operation on hold.  So, while Maria’s had folks lining up to pay their respects, Rosa’s had lines forming to celebrate their return. With death comes new life.

 

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Ed Sheeran is quoted by saying “Pizza is a circle.  Pizza is my life.  Pizza is the circle of life.”  While I can’t say I enjoy his music I do like his pizza analogy.

The way I see it though, life is more like one long pizza buffet, sometimes we’re up next for that piping hot slice of our favorite variety and sometimes the breadsticks bin is empty.

But, we need those burned frozen pizzas, 2-hour late deliveries, and lukewarm gas station slices to know the true joy of pizza when it’s perfect.  If it wasn’t for those sour moments the sweet would be meaningless.

We can use this insight to aid us in our day to day routine.  By tuning our minds to this balance, we can appreciate life when life gets tough.  The Tibetan Buddist Lama Yeshe said, “If you expect your mind to be up and down, your life will be much more peaceful.”

What pizza taught me:

Missing out on Marias was bitter, but that longing was recompensated with the reopening of Rosa’s.  When disappointment strikes as it inevitably will, it’s assuring to remember that we need the bad to appreciate the good.

What I’m not eating: Maria’s because I missed it.

What I’m eating: Rosa’s because it reopened.

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

Thanks to Justin for the recommendation all those years ago and Amanda for the reminders to catch them before it was too late and the picture!

 

Reheating the Perfect Slice: New York Style Edition

“The true method of knowledge is experiment” -William Blake

I’m always looking for ways to level up my “pizza reheating” game. With my eyes typically being bigger than my stomach, most Saturday mornings I’ve got a fridge full of leftover slices and while cold pizza has its perks, I usually want them back in their piping hot pristine form.

So, I’ve been on a mission to refine my reheating skills.  I know there’s got to be a formula for evenly melted cheese and a crispy crust on round two.

The test subject for my first reheating experiment was a New York Style pepperoni slice from Pizza Di Roma on the west side of Madison.  I’ve found that New York Style is one of the hardest slices to reheat properly at home.

Looking beyond the standard methods.  

I ashamed to admit it, but many times my impatience will get the best of me and I’ll toss my leftovers into the microwave.  While nuking them is good for a quick fix, I feel guilty submitting quality slices to those harsh rays—it seems they do more harm than good.

The result after a zap is usually a soggy crust and oddly melted cheese; one half of the slice is cold and the other half will burn your tongue.  For some styles like New York style, the microwave is an absolute death sentence as the high gluten flour that makes pizza crust chewy constricts and becomes tough.

The oven is the more foolproof option, often pizza boxes suggest you put the slices on a baking sheet and preheat to 350°.  This does a better job, but the slices can easily get dried out and lose a lot of flavor, especially the cheese as all the moisture evaporates under the direct exposure from the upper heating element.

So, what’s next? 

How else can we get a solid reheat at home?

Throw another slice on the barbie! (said in an Australian accent)

There’s nothing like getting outside on the 4th of July, firing up the grill and gracing the neighborhood with the pleasant aroma of crisping meats.  So, this Independence Day as I was torn between the grill and the pizza box, I figured it was the perfect opportunity to test out an alternative method for getting my perfectly reheated slice.

It’s well known that the grill can be quite handy for cooking Jack’s frozen pizzas and charring up homemade pies made with fresh dough, but I was about to discover perhaps the best pizza application for the barbeque yet.

Reheating a slice the size of my head on the grill.

When you get a New York style slice at the pizzeria, it’s usually coming out of a calibrated pizza oven with the temperature dialed way up and that is often hard to recreate with our ovens at home. With the grill, on the other hand, extremely high temperatures are easy to reach and we can better mimic the features of a pizzeria oven.

What I found after liting my gas grill and getting it as hot as possible was that because the slices take high heat from the bottom and only get residual heat on the top we get perfectly melted cheese and a delicate crisp crust.

A perfect reheat?

Turns out grills aren’t just for brats and hotdogs as our leftover pizza gets an upgrade over open flames.  As far as New York style slices go, I would argue that the grill is the ticket and it will definitely be my method of choice going forward (weather permitting).

What pizza taught me:

Each variety of pizza with its unique make-up of ingredients will require a little experimentation to reach reheated perfection.  The only thing I can do with the wide array of pizzas that end up in my fridge is to keep tinkering with them and that’s a job I’ll happily accept.

What I’m eating: Leftover Pizza Di Roma

What I’m reading:  Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think -Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Hans Rosling, and Ola Rosling

$1 Slice Tuesday

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” -Aesop

Growing up in a small town like Whitewater, Wisconsin it was easy to know just about everyone.  From the local cops to the kids skateboarding on the church steps, the town drunks to the one and only cab driver, all the business owners, the athletes, the slackers and even the creepy old man that walked around town releasing balloons into the streets.

Back when I was coming-of-age, the best person to know was the employee running the register at Rocky Rococo’s Pizza on Tuesday.

Anyone aged 11-18 in the late ’90s and early 2000s in Whitewater knows the highlight of most any week was undoubtedly Rocky’s $1 Slice Tuesday.

The best deal of all time?

Arguably one of the greatest deals in pizza history, every Tuesday we were blessed with a slice of Detroit-style pan pizza for a buck—that’s right, you could get a huge slice with basically the spare change you found in the parking lot on the way into the place (I think that actually happened to me once).

If you’re familiar with Rocky’s pizza, you know that getting a slice for a dollar is nothing to shrug at—when it’s hot and fresh, it’s outstanding.  Rocky’s has great sauce, a doughy crust that gets golden and crisp around the edges and is highlighted with hearty chunks of hand-pinched sausage.

Since moving away I’ve found that quality varies drastically from location to location, but the Whitewater shop, with their dirt cheap deals and their pepperonis-under-the-cheese, will forever hold a place in my heart.

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Back in my Middle School days in between skateboarding and loitering, I’d always meet friends at Rocky’s.  We would have slice eating competitions and literally stack those tan rectangular boxes as high as we could go.  It was a glorious time for pizza binging.

Since it was easy enough to pool together a buck for some pizza, it became the place for many teens to gather—a hotspot for friends, teammates or even a date.

Just as Rocky’s was packed with hungry teens it was also, mostly staffed by teens, so, in a small town, where everybody knows everybody it was pretty easy to have an inside man.

A colleague on the opposite side of the counter that could potentially score you an extra dipping sauce, a cherry coke in your “water glass” or maybe even extend a trash-can destined breadstick or slice your way.

Because of food safety regulations those slices and breadsticks can only sit on the heat rack for so long, so I guess the high school kids manning the front counter figured it’d be best not to let them go to waste.  The resulting generosity from them always left me feeling like a celebrity.

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The gift of a slice goes a long way. 

Back in those days, I was socially awkward, self-conscious and insecure and any sort of thoughtfulness from a peer put me on top of the world, especially if it was a pizza perk at the most happening place in town.

As my friends and I would pack one of those maroon booths, I recall glowing at the sight of my $1 slice and whatever extra I scored upon receiving my order.  In my mind, I had the connections and loyalty of a “made man” from a mobster movie.

As I reflect on the recent loss of an old friend who was once among the ranks of those employees, I’m transported back to the glory days of $1 Slice Tuesday and the realization that our kindness can outlast us.

What pizza taught me:

Life is short, but the courtesy we extend to others has lasting effects.  To all the Rocky’s alumni out there (I know there are many of you) I salute you.

What I’m eating: Rocky Rococo’s slice of the day: Pepperoni Motherload and Sausage and Pepperoni Superslice.

What I’m reading:  Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think –Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling

RIP Kyle, you were always a great laugh, a good conversation, and an accepting, righteous dude.

A Personal (Pizza) Day

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” -Confucius

Has a stress-filled day ever turned you to food? 

When I’m pushing my threshold I’ll get the urge for pizza—my security blanket—the thoughts of cheese and pepperoni often tempting me to yank the steering wheel across busy lanes of traffic to the nearest Little Caesars.

I know, it goes against my cardinal rule of “no pizza until Friday”, but on the brink of burn-out, it’s easy to rationalize a mid-week pizza sesh.

Last week I faced such a stress-inducing day that stress-eating pizza seemed like just about the only viable method of managing.

To cheat, or not to cheat?

As I internally debated my moment of weakness, I weighed the pros and cons of breaking my diet, by breaking for pizza:

A mid-week slice would certainly turn my frown upside down?

But, what about the regret and disappointment I’d create for my future undisciplined self?

Those thoughts wrestled in my mind on my commute home, until off in the distant some shiny new signage, on Madison’s Mineral Point road caught my eye.

A new spot in town I’d been hearing about, with the promise of “a super fast pizza experience”.

And just like that, I knew my answer.

We all deserve a break every now and again?  Right?!

Ordering pizza on a Tuesday.

Thanks to the fad of fast-casual pizza shops popping up all over the country getting a “superfast” pizza made-to-order is getting a lot easier.

National quick-serve pizza chain Mod Pizza has recently expanded 3 new locations to the Madison area and their speedy, customizable pies are perfect for an impromptu visit.

It’s like the Subway or Chipotle of pizza, where you stand in line in front of a sneeze guard and pick your toppings as you move towards the register.  Then the pizza goes into an 800° oven and minutes later out comes your pizza, just the way you want it.

At Mod you basically get an 11-inch canvas to go crazy and with 30 available toppings, the customizations are endless.  What’s better than your own personal pizza when you’re trying to give yourself some personal time?

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Tess’s pick

A slice to keep my sanity.

Pizza at the end of the week is usually the carrot that keeps me going, but everybody needs a break sometimes and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

No matter how disciplined or motivated we are there will always be moments in life when we reach a boiling point and we need a breather.

The most important part of giving ourselves a cheat is simply getting back on the horse.  Instead of beating ourselves up we just need to course correct and move on.  It’s not like one hiccup in a diet routine is going to derail it.  If anything we’ll most likely come back rejuvenated and inspired to get back to action.

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Mod cheese sticks, surprisingly good (ordered with extra cheese).

What pizza taught me:

When the stressors of life are peaking, maybe some personal time with a personal pizza is the ticket to avoiding burn-out.  If some unexpected extra mozzarella can keep me mentally stable, I’ll take it, even if it’s on a Tuesday.

What I’m eating:  Mod Pizza-cheese pizza

What I’m reading:  Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization -John Wooden

The Frontier of the Frozen Section Part 1

“The cure to information overload is more information” -David Weinberger

Frozen pizza is truly a gift to the pizza enthusiast—considerably one of modern man’s greatest culinary reimaginations (a rung right below the creation of pizza itself). 

Thanks to the frozen pizza we can have pizza whenever we want; any time of day, without leaving the house.  A perfect pairing for lazy days, late nights, entertaining friends or as a quick dinner with the family.

We simply have to wait for the glow of the little red preheat light to give us the go-ahead and in 12-15 minutes we’ve got piping hot pizza.

Beyond convenience, the frozen puts us in control—we don’t have to worry about the inconsistencies (or interactions) of a restaurant.  We can cook it well-done or almost doughy, cut it in any shapes we want and put our spice racks to use—seasoning it to perfection.

We are fortunate to live a time of such luxury.  There’s only one problem…

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The frozen section dilemma.

The real challenge these days becomes picking out the right pizza.  Sifting through the ever-growing selection of the frozen pizza aisle to find the brand that suits our preference best is not as easy as it used to be.  Tombstone alone has close to 20 different variations to choose from.

For some, the choice is a no brainer, it’s the warmth of tradition—classics like Jack’s or Red Baron or whatever you grew up with—for others, it could be the influence of mouthwatering TV advertising from the likes of a brand like DiGiorno.

What fascinates me most are the eccentric regional up and comers like Brewpub “Lottza Mottza”, Palermo’s “Screamin’ Sicilian”, “Connie’s” and “Urban Pie”, and my favorite from right in my backyard O’Grady’s.  I’ve found many of these young pizza brands are pushing the boundaries of frozen pizza quality, so I’m setting out find the best of the best among them.

Recently I came across one of those startups with a mission to craft pizzas that reflect the overlooked styles of middle America.  With three words, I was sold.

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Milwaukee Style Pizza.

Outsiders Pizza Co. is a brand that is popping up all over the pizza aisle. It appears they’re out to capture heart and soul of midwestern pizzeria’s into frozen form; they’ve currently got a Milwaukee Tavern Style and a Detroit Style.

They explain on their website “Outsiders Pizza was born to celebrate these under-respected regional styles. Because damn good pizza can come from anywhere.”

Though they are backed by a Nestle incubator in Ohio, the idea that they are trying to showcase “lesser-known regional styles from places that reminded us of our hometowns” is wildly refreshing to me.

So, being the proud Wisconsin boy who’s excited to celebrate just about anything that rises to fame out of the midwest, I was thrilled to explore a Milwaukee Tavern Style option equipped with cheese curds and everything.

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That’s right, cheese curds.

Cheese is the key to any Wisconsinites heart, so I had to start with the “Spicy Sausage and Cheese Curds” Milwaukee Tavern Style option.

Once I sunk my teeth into a pool of melted curd, it was obvious that the coveted Wisconsin delicacy’s time to shine on a pizza was long overdue.  After all, it’s a sure-fire way to take a frozen pizza up a notch into extra cheesy greatness—a level that can hardly be reached by brittle white shreds.

The curds are nestled between peppers, onions, and spicy sausage chunks that lay on a woven bed of thick cut mozzarella rectangles about the width of a stick of Orbit gum.  All of the ingredients are brought together by a spicy red sauce and to create a true tavern style experience the instructions recommend a square cut (how cool is that).

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The future of frozen’s.

Outsiders Pizza Co. is one of the many brands that get me excited about the future of the frozen pizza aisle.  They’ve got a great mission and a righteous pizza.

Outsiders also helped me realize that having a plethora of options isn’t always a bad thing—we can use our accumulated knowledge to find a choice that fits us best.  I believe pizzeria caliber frozen pizza is still out there and my search will continue with the hope that one day we’ll have a product that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

What pizza taught me:

We live in an age of unlimited choices and that can make choosing awfully challenging. There is a bright side though: There’s a higher chance we can connect with our perfect niche or find our perfect pizza.  With cheese curds on frozen pizzas, the world seems like a better place to me.

What I’m eating:  Outsider Pizza Co.: Milwaukee Tavern Style: Spicy Sausage and Cheese Curds

What I’m reading:  Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization –John Wooden

Photo cred: Adam Kuban