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 Thinnest Pizza I’ve Ever Had

“Decision making can sometimes seem like inner civil war.”-Jim Rohn

Who would have imagined the thinnest pizza I’ve ever had would be in Chicago? 

When most people think of Chicago -style pizza, they picture a pie, an inch thick that’s covered with chunky sauce.  My initial thoughts of “Chicago-style” reflect renown Chicago chef Grant Achatz’s first impressions as he recalls moving to the windy-city area “deep-dish is not pizza, it is a casserole”.  I hold no pizza prejudices, just as Achatz doesn’t, but when you come to Chicago the limelight is undoubtedly fixed on deep-dish.

So, many are surprised to find that the true pizza for Chicago natives, is their thin-crust tavern-style. Tavern-style is known for its cracker-thin crust and square or “party-cut” that’s perfect for sharing.  It’s greasy, cheesy and crispy and the small square pieces provide easy maneuvering, it’s just about everything you could ask for out of a pizza.

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For once in my life, I’m siding with the folks of Chicago on something. 

The next time I’m aggressively and haphazardly cut-off on the interstate, I won’t disapprovingly mutter ******* fib *******instead, I’ll put aside the reckless driving, enormous egos, epic sports rivalries and picture the glory of their thin tavern-style pizza.

There are hundreds of pizza joints in Chicago, so as my trip approached I had a level of anxiety about which places to hit in my narrow travel window. Since I was accompanied by my wife who didn’t want to eat pizza every meal, I knew I had some careful decisions to make.

Soon an overabundance of top ten lists propelled by Google, Trip Advisor and Yelp flooded my mind and proved to make finding a spot even more difficult and complicated than I imagined.

Pizzeria Via Stato.

I was staying in the heart of downtown, right off Michigan Avenue, surrounded by all the notorious deep-dish places like Lou Malnati’s, Giordano’s, Gino’s East and Uno’s, so deep-dish would have been a no-brainer, but I wanted the real-deal tavern-style.  My fear was that the majority of the infamous tavern-style joints I was in search of would be sprinkled throughout the suburbs and a trek from our planned activities.

Through my research, I stumbled upon Pizza Via Stato right near our hotel that at first-glance looked thin, cheesy and promising.  Approaching Pizza Via Strato on State street I was taken aback when I realized it was attached to a hotel.

Hotel pizza! Tess teased.

Here I was in Chicago the mecca for thin-crust tavern-style pizza and I was going to get hotel pizza.  I envisioned my pizza cred going down the drain.  But, for some reason, it felt right.

To my delight, it was no ordinary hotel pizza and to clarify it’s a pizza-bar off a pretty nice Italian sit-down spot called Osteria via Stato.  It was undoubtedly the thinnest pizza I’ve ever had.  It was so thin I would have had no problem putting down multiple pizzas.  The crust was true to the cracker-crust depiction; the outer crust had baked air pockets almost like a pita chip that shattered when you took a bite.

The cheese to crust ratio was a cheese-loving midwesterners dream come true.  The pepperonis were as crisp as the outer crust and the sauce minimal, which made for a very crunchy contrast to the gently bubbled cheese.

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I’ve only experienced the corner piece of the square cut pie.

With only a couple of days to explore the hundreds of available pizza options in America’s third largest city, I found what I was looking for, but holy moly there’s a lot left to explore.  I barely even saw the tip of that iceberg, but next time I’ll be much more prepared—while in Chicago I found a guide.

A major score on my Chicago trip was finding my new favorite book Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town by Steve Dolinsky.   Pizza City, USA is a guide-book that explores the plethora of diverse pizza options throughout the windy city.  The book explores the 101 best pizza joints ranging from tavern-style to deep-dish, Neopolitan to Roman style—they are reviewed and ranked (Thanks for the recommendation Bret!).

The book follows the argument that Chicago’s wide-ranging pizza offerings make it the best pizza city in America. As you thumb through the book which is rich with food-porn worthy imagery it becomes hard to disagree with Dolinsky.  I was pleasantly surprised that Pizza Via Stato made the 101 best pizza places list (I actually hit three off the list while there, but I’ll get to those later).

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Decisions, decisions.

Venturing to a notorious pizza city with an abundance of top-notch spots can be a little intimidating and decision making for the pizza enthusiast can become quite difficult.  The more choices we have the further away we get from a clear decision, as we get lost in a deluge of options.

After I overwhelmed myself with loads and loads of pizza ideas online I didn’t know what to choose. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, he says “We live in a world saturated with information.  We have virtually unlimited amounts of data at our fingertips.””But what I have sensed is an enormous frustration with the unexpected costs of knowing too much, of being inundated with information.  We have come to confuse information with understanding.”

Malcolm Gladwell’s thoughts deal with information overload, and how often it may be more beneficial to not overanalyze decisions and instead go with our unconscious choice-making, in other words, go with our gut.  Often our initial thought is the best one before it gets muddled with complexities.

What pizza taught me:

An overabundance of options can make decision making difficult.  Often the best course of action is to follow our initial gut reaction, in doing so I found the thinnest pizza I’ve ever had.  Chicago is one heck of a pizza town—if it’s the best, I’m not sure yet—but I’m excited to try and find out.

What I’m eating: Pizza Via Stato- tavern-style pepperoni

What I’m reading: Steve Dolinsky Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town