The Best (and Most Procrastinated) Pizza of 2018

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending” C.S. Lewis

Since writing my 2018 pizza-eating goal list last January there’s a pizza spot that has continuously tempted me but always got put on the backburner.  Maybe it was the 20-minute drive into the middle of nowhere it would take to get there or the fact that impromptu pizza pilgrimages weren’t as easy with a newborn on board; either way after a full year of procrastination, countless recommendations and consistent reminders from friends and colleagues I finally took a scenic drive for the most highly prized pizza in the Dane County area.

Bar pizza on another level.  

Mount Vernon like many itsy bitsy rural unincorporated Wisconsin communities comes equipped with a church and a bar.  In Wisconsin when most think of bar pizza, they think of an Emil’s frozen or some Portesi Cheese Fries tossed in a little metal pizza oven next to some Green-Apple Pucker bottles.  Mount Vernon’s watering hole, on the other hand, holds an epically magical homemade pizza that has put them on the map.

img_5361-1.jpg

Raising the bar (pizza).

Marcines Bar & Grill has people flocking from all over southcentral Wisconsin for good reason; an inch thick layer of exceptional toppings on a crust that’s as tiny as the town.  I didn’t know what “excessive toppings” meant until I tried Marcines.

It’s like the cook was double-dog-dared into fitting a 20-inch pizza’s worth of toppings on to a 12-inch crust and just nailed it. They offer thin and thick crust—both require a fork and knife as either option basically just provides a vessel in which to shuffle gobs of melted mozzarella, over-sized sausages, and pepperonis into your mouth.

The quote of the day: “Look this bite doesn’t even have any crust, and I’m ok with it.” -Tess

img_5348

Everything from the sauce to the sausage is seasoned extremely well.  The sauce has a deep tomatoey depth of flavor and is not at all what I would expect from bar pizza.  They use really good cheese too, it’s stretchy and wraps itself around everything. Gazing upon a cooled slice you can marvel at the cheese woven through the toppings like the boroughs of an ant farm.

The sausages are so large they look like meatballs and are balanced between a subtle sweetness of fennel and salty pork.  They are hearty yet tender— with a nice texture that’s not too fatty.  They were so delicious even no-sausage-on-pizza purists conformed. Tess, for example, doesn’t usually go for sausage on pizza, but she couldn’t resist Marcines and said it was actually one of her favorite parts of the meal.

Getting our pepperonis in a row.  

New Years is a great time to take stock, tie up loose ends and do a little self-assessment.  As I began to reflect on my 2018 I realized that I had a major box to check off my pizza goal list and I couldn’t stand the idea of heading into the New Year not having tried the #1 pick from last year.

It’s not easy finishing what we start as life pulls us in as many different directions as Marcines mozzarella does, but there is a profound joy that comes from seeing a plan through.  Over the years I’ve often started to enjoy the simple pleasure I get when completing a task more than the tangible benefit the task itself brings.

The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says “True happiness comes from the joy of deeds well done, the zest of creating new things.”

img_5362

What pizza taught me:

It’s better late than never. Whether it’s a New Years goal, resolution or just eating some anticipated pizza, the feeling of seeing our commitments through can often be the most rewarding part of any experience.

What I’m eating: Marcines pepperoni and sausage

What I’m reading:  Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die -Chip Heath and Dan Heath

 

 

Practice Makes Perfect Pizza

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times” -Bruce Lee

I’ve visited several old-school pizzeria’s around the midwest that put their pizzas in paper bags for carry-out.  No sturdy box to protect the precious cargo, just a flimsy paper bag and a cardboard base.  Though this seems odd and impractical, I imagine if a place has been practicing this for decades they’re putting a pretty darn good pie in that bag.

An established pizzeria like that can pack a big ol’ punch of nostalgia into their pizzas, and recently that’s exactly what I have been looking for.  “Hole-in-the-wall” pizzerias have always intrigued me.  I admire their pizza and ambiance, but I also can’t help but wonder how they got to where they are?  How does the “hole in the wall” earn their “hole” and keep customers coming back?

pizza in a bag

A cult classic.

So, Tess and I strayed off the beaten path to find some good old fashioned hometown pizza and arrived in Neenah, Wisconsin.  I took the advice of a co-worker and tried Cranky Pat’s Pizzeria.  After my colleague described this place as having a “cult-like following” I had to look it up.

After perusing Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews I’ve come to learn that Cranky Pat’s Pizzeria has been a Fox Valley staple since 1955.   If you scroll the online reviews you can see that people take this place very seriously.  Loyal locals throughout Oshkosh, Appleton and Green Bay sing the gospel of their greasy thin-crust hometown hero. I figured Cranky Pat’s was a great place to observe the characteristics that lead to small-town pizzeria success.

IMG_7689

A taste of Titletown.

The pizza is ultra thin. It may have been the thinnest pizza I’ve ever had. It’s cut in squares and covered with a glistening layer of greasy melty cheese.  It’s definitely a nice portrayal of my favorite midwestern style tavern-cut.  They make their own sausage in house too; it’s served in medium-sized hand pinched chunks.

On the side we tried the “Cranky Sticks” which were basically a small thin pizza, without sauce and basted with garlic butter.  The “Cranky Sticks” are cut in strips and served with sauces for dipping.

IMG_7446

It was fitting we enjoyed our dinner at Cranky Pat’s during a preseason Green Bay Packer game on a Thursday night.  Even for a preseason game the bar was packed and a live DJ read raffle tickets and played pump-up songs during commercials.  Though the level of devotion these folks share for Cranky Pat’s might pale in comparison to that of the almighty Green and Gold, they do seem pretty committed to their cracker thin-crust pizza.

Cranky Pat’s gave me the same nostalgic sensation as my favorite Gus’ Pizza back in Whitewater, Wisconsin.  In both of these pizzerias you get the sense that they have been around the block and they know what they are doing.  While so many new restaurants fail, these places stand the test of time.  It’s said that only 10% of new businesses survive three years. So, what makes our old-school favorites stick?

The 10,000 hour rule.

The 10,000 hour rule says that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” is needed to become the master of a craft.  I figure I’ve been alive for around 11,000 days and I’ve eaten pizza probably somewhere around 2,000 times.  According to the 10,000 hour rule I’ve got a long way to go before I become a true pizza eating pro.

Cranky Pat’s has been around since 1955 that means they have hand-crafted homemade sausage, cut pizza into squares and put it all in a bag for 62 years.  The owner and employees have spent thousands of hours honing their craft. Places like Cranky Pat’s and Gus’s Pizza (est. 1962) have put in well over 10,000 hours of making pizza and you can tell in their product.

img_7449.jpg

10,000 pizzas devoted.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s New York Times best seller Outliers he says “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” He gives the example of The Beatles hitting their 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” by playing 8-hour sets, seven days a week in Hamburg, Germany years before their mass success in America.  He also discusses how Bill Gates hit his 10,000 early on with unique exposure to computers and coding as a teenager.  That experience allowed him years of extra practice and a huge advantage in the emerging computer business in the 1970’s.

IMG_0638 (1)

The takeaway from these success stories is that you’ve got to put in the time to be great at something.  Practice and dedication are what enable people and businesses to achieve the highest level of accomplishment. Years of commitment to honing a craft is a big piece of what allows establishments like Cranky Pat’s and Gus’s Pizza to create lasting legacies.

What pizza taught me:

By devoting our time and committing ourselves to a skill, we can master it. A quality pizza consistently served over 62 years is bound to become a “hole in the wall” cult classic, even if it’s served in a bag.

What I’m eating: Cranky Pat’s Pizzeria; cheese pizza, sausage and pepperoni pizza, “Cranky Sticks” with ranch and marinara.

What I’m reading: Outliers -Malcolm Gladwell