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

The Perfect Bite

“The five senses are the ministers of the soul” -Leonardo Di Vinci

The first bite of a slice is a fantastic experience for all five senses. 

From the moment you open that warm box and get a waft of garlic, basil, buttery cheese, and cardboard, it’s undeniable your sense of smell, sight, sound, touch, and taste are in for an epic treat.

It all begins, as your eyes flicker back and forth making an initial scan for the best slice—searching for the piece where the toppings fall in the just the right places—the perfect pepperoni count—maybe even one with those pepperoni slivers that get lodged in the extra cheese that spills into the canyons created by the pizza cutter.

Next, you gingerly pick up your chosen slice.  You pinch a dry corner of flour-dusted crust—you can feel the heat emitting from the molten cheese and grease that sieges it.

You let out a gentle, whispered blow, your mouth slightly whistling as your breath sends steam rolling off of it—simultaneously cooling it down and speeding up eating time.

Finally, the best part, your sensory pleasure cruise crescendos as you open up wide and your teeth and gums plunge into melty cheese—unleashing grease that graces the roof of your mouth.  The sauce and toppings mix as your lips close around them—all of the elements merging together into a harmonious collision.  The lapping of your tongue fusing together the flavors into a compacted ball of pizza mush with each gyration of your jaw.

There’s nothing quite like that first bite and usually, it’s gone before I think twice.

Recently I witnessed my 1-year-old son frantically scarfing down his dinner as fast as humanly possible.  Prior to that, for about half an hour, he had whined for it, moaned and groaned for it and then as soon as he had it, down it went in the blink of an eye.

“Slow down and enjoy it, buddy” I commented.

Then, I paused and pondered those words for a second: slow down and enjoy it?  

I thought about when I get that pizza box in front of me and my taste buds are about to be stormed with a deluge of salty goodness, I quite often go HAM and just devour it all as well.

Maybe I’m the one who needs to slow down?

Shouldn’t I savor my favorite moments?

Perhaps I could reach new levels of pizza eating enjoyment if I just paid more attention?

Taking that first bite to another level. 

Best-selling author and reformed stock market manipulator Jordan Belfort (portrayed by Leonardo Dicaprio in the film The Wolf of Wall Street (no worries, he says he only uses his powers for good now)) takes that idea one step further in his recent book on persuasion Way of the Wolf.

In the book, he describes a process called “neuro-linguistic programming” in which he explains we can achieve a primed state on demand by honing in on our senses while in a moment of success.  The theory says that we can condition ourselves using sensory experiences to create behavioral patterns.

In essence, it works by connecting powerful emotions to memories, similar to the way we get the warm and fuzzies when we smell fresh cut grass in the summer, cookies around Christmas or pizza straight from the oven.  When we experience those sensations we get transported right back to the time we enjoyed them.

So, the idea behind Belfort’s concept is to manufacture that effect by concentrating on the most intricate details of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings when we are in “the zone”.  By doing that we can create a connection or an “anchor” to that moment.  We can then call upon that “anchor” by using whatever sensation we connected it to and in doing so trigger our A-game when we need it.

So, looks like I’m carrying around pizza seasoning in my pocket from now on.

What pizza taught me:

I don’t know if romanticizing pizza will help me reach my ideal state, but slowing down and cherishing that first bite made me realize how close to perfection pizza already is.

What I’m eating: Marco’s Pizza: hand-tossed old world pepperoni pizza

What I’m reading:  Jordan Belfort Way of the Wolf: Straight Line Selling: Master the Art of Persuasion, Influence, and Success

Slowing My Rolls

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”-Viktor Frankl

I could eat pizza every day and at one point in my life, I did.

It all started my freshman year of college when I first realized the freedom of being on my own.  I could stay out as late as I wanted, sleep in as late as I wanted and eat pizza anytime I wanted.

And why not eat it all the time?  After all, it’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s versatile—a great breakfast, lunch or dinner (on many occasions I made it was all three).

I got along just fine eating pizza at every whim for quite some time too.  Living in a college town made it quite easy:  I had Gus’ Monday, Rocky’s Tuesday, Rosa’s Wednesday and Toppers Thursday.  Life was good.

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Then one day, just past my mid-twenties with the thrill of college life behind me, I noticed that some of the favorite clothes started to feel a little snug.  Shirts I had worn for years, filled with nostalgia no longer fit like they used to and my pants were getting tight in all the wrong places.

After a while, my mirror reflection was confirming what my constricting shirts and inner self-consciousness were:  The metabolism of my youth could no longer keep up; the daily pizzas were going straight to my hips, belly, chin, butt, arms, and back.  I was getting…..husky.

Slowing my rolls. 

Before long it was apparent that my diet needed to change and with a passion for pizza as strong as mine saying goodbye would be no easy feat.  The thought of losing the warmth and security of my old friend shot a ripple of anxieties through me.

What would I have left to look forward to?

Would dinner even be any fun anymore?

Would this mean I’d have to go grocery shopping?  And cook? 

Though I was apprehensive I knew the only way back from the belly I’d created and was to ease up on the cheese and dough.  I would need the discipline to pass on the late night deliveries and skip the leftover breakfast slices.

To curb my pizza habit I would have to figure out how to embrace change.  Looking back, the guide to making those changes may have been right in the blue and red pizza box on my post-college apartment table.

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Dominos.

The first pizza place that comes to mind when I think of change is Dominos.  For as long as I can remember Dominos has been innovating their menu—sometimes gently following the trends of other chain behemoths like Pizza Hut (introducing pan crust), other times aggressively jerking the wheel to save face (revamping their hand-tossed crust).

From twisty bread in the 90’s to those breadstick loaves in the 2000s to the parmesan bread bites and full circle back to the current garlic bread twists, Dominos is always evolving.  There’s practically a different Dominos menu for every phase of my life.

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My favorite time in Dominos history was in High School when they had the “Beat the clock” medium special in which the price of the pizza matched the time you called—my friends and I would load up.

Then in college, they revolutionized pizza specials forever with the trend-setting pick two for $5.99 deal.  Now they delve into technology leading the way with their pizza ordering app and “piece of the pie” rewards program.

Over the years they’ve experimented with pasta bowls, sandwiches, breadsticks stuffed with stuff and even used boneless chicken wings as the base for a crustless pizza amalgamation (still scratching my head on that one).

Whether you consider those experiments successes or failures Dominos continual exploration has undoubtedly contributed to their growth.

What shall I do in the next dire moment?  Focus my attention on the next right move.  -Jordan Peterson

Dominos ability to quickly pivot has allowed them to remain one of the biggest pizza companies in the world. I give them credit because course correcting is no easy task, especially if we don’t want to change the behavior that needs changing.

When I started packing on the lb’s it was apparent I couldn’t have my pizza every night and eat it too, but I didn’t want to give it up.  Change has never come easy for me and losing the comfort of those cheesy pizzas made me feel lost.

To ensure that I would have years of pizza eating ahead of me, it was obvious I’d have to switch it up—I would have to strike a balance.  I’d have to settle with only indulging on pizza once a week—for that night I chose Friday.  Today I’m healthier, happier and still enjoying my pizza everyday (by writing about it).

What pizza taught me:

Change is inevitable: our waist sizes can change, our jobs can change, our families can change and even our favorite pizzas can change.  How we adapt is what really matters.

When you stop growing, you start dying– William Burroughs

What I’m eating:  Domino’s thin cheese and garlic knots

What I’m still reading:  12 Rules for Life Jordan Peterson (it’s a long ass book).