Summer into Fall

“Nothing is worth more than this day” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

September in Wisconsin is something to behold. As Summer reunites with Fall, the two grasp each other like old friends, reliving their glory days, hocking it up over the time they made it 70º and sunny in the Midwest.

We luck out with gorgeous weather from both seasons; a vibrant sun and bright green grass—a crisp cool breeze circulating through open windows and of course, football on TV.  When the temperature drops to “just right” time moves a little slower; the magnificence of this world becomes clear and undeniable and our pizza tastes a little sweeter.

As rare as these moments may be, I recently explored Wisconsin’s primary tourist temptation—Door County—I got the weather and the pizza and despite my habit of overthinking everything I managed to savor every moment.

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The Luther’s take Door County.

On the annual Luther family vacation pizza is a must—as you can probably imagine we take our pizza excursions quite seriously—so, we head to Door County’s primary pizzeria Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza.

Picking up pizza’s at Wild Tomato has become a Luther family tradition; a legacy I’m proud to pass down to 5-month old Ellis.  Ellis even showed his support by wearing his “Born to be Wild” Wild Tomato onesie (I can’t believe it’s been a year since Tess and I bought it in anticipation of his arrival).

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As we approached a swarming Sister Bay—one of the main attractions of the Door County Penisula—we became enamored by the realization of soon scoring some wood-fired slices.  In true Luther fashion and overexcitement, I begin to overanalyze: How many pizzas? What toppings? and What time should we call the order in?  With this amount of traffic, how can we assure proper logistics to get this pizza hot and fresh back to the rental?

I often have to remind myself to chill the F’ out.

The busyness of a restaurant is a tell-tale sign of its greatness and Wild Tomato can handle some high-volume. They have indoor and outdoor seating, an outdoor bar, and a designated pick up entrance complete with two operational registers that have a constant flow of customers.  They churn out very high-quality pizzas in a high traffic area and do it with the utmost finesse.

The sauce at Wild Tomato reigns supreme; it’s fresh, earthy and has the perfect balance of herbs.  Actually, all of their ingredients are premium; from the crumbled sausage to the pesto to the dollops of goat cheese.  They don’t skimp on the mozzarella either as everything is covered under a nice snug cream-colored blanket.

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A perfect opportunity to savor the moment.

In Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity he shares advice passed down from his parents that led him through unnerving odds  “Live for the present and the future will look after itself”.  This motto is one I need a constant reminder of.

When I stop fretting about when I’m going to get my pizza, how long it’s going to take and where I’m going to get it, I can enjoy the details that actually make pizza fun.

I can savor the subtle notes of basil in the sauce, the salty, buttery depth of the mozzarella and the crispy crunch of a well-done pepperoni.  These nuances can invoke the same hyper-aware elation that the brief period of perfect Wisconsin weather can.

What pizza taught me:

I can romanticize summer, fall, and pizza all day long, but the truth is life’s magic is everywhere if we slow down and appreciate it.  Those beautiful days that hang in limbo between summer and fall will always be my favorite, just as Wild Tomato pizza is, but there no point in ruminating over when and where I’m going to get them.

What I’m eating: Wild Tomato Wood-fired Pizza

What I’m reading: Losing My Virginity Richard Branson (it’s a long-ass book!)

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Hidden Gems

“You can only lose what you cling to” Buddha

What do I want?  Every Wednesday that question wracks my brain; whittle’s my wife’s patience to dust.  So much pizza, so little time, naturally mind goes in circles.

We all face that daily dilemma between a finite caloric intake and an infinite amount of pizza possibilities.  It feels as though we’ve got to pick our battles wisely; line up our cravings, shake ’em down and narrow down the cut.  We’ve got to contemplate crusts, consider cheese to sauce ratios and collaborate topping combinations to ensure a perfect pizza night.

Really though, it’s often after we stop over-analyzing that pizza destiny knocks.

Tess and I gratefully had a babysitter on a Saturday night and set out to relive our glory days of frolicking around downtown Madison, WI.  Fun for us comes from exploring uncharted culinary territory—our favorite past-time finding new restaurants.

To rekindle our spirit of adventure we wanted something new, something hip, somewhere we could observe Madison’s foodie elite.  We figured after 6 years we’d hit every spot downtown, but we had left one rock unturned.

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Natt Spil

Natt Spil has no sign and only accepts cash, but is ever so welcoming to the weary capital square traveler.  The space is as intimate as a Hobbit-hole; a DJ booth and globally influenced decor emit an aura that says “hot-spot for the hip”, the tattoed and those craving finely crafted cocktails.  Apparently, it’s also for those who are hungry for Asian inspired Dim Sum and pizza?

The name is Norwegian (meaning “night play”) and the menu is equal parts Asian, Mediterranean and pizza and that’s exactly the eclectic, eccentric sort of thing we were after.  I would say it’s Madison’s best-kept secret, but people have been telling me to go there for years.

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Stepping into an unmarked door. 

If you’re looking for Natt Spil just follow a trail of logs leading down an alley and you’ll hit their wood-burning pizza oven. The pizza has that great char and chew that you only find when your pie has been kissed by the flames of a raging hot wood-burning oven.

Tess and I opted for the Natt Spil Sausage that came delicately balanced with tomato, chevre, red onion and pepperoncini peppers (my favorite touch).  Bites of sausage and pepperoncini peppers excited the tastebuds with an acidic tang to savory counterbalance.

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Look no further.

Happiness and pizza are spun from the same dough. There are times in life when we don’t know what to do and maybe that’s when it’s more important than ever to detach and let the universe reveal the path.

Meditation master and spiritual leader Lama Gendun Rinpoche wrote: “Happiness cannot be found through great effort and willpower, but is already there, in relaxation and letting go.”  “Don’t search any further… Nothing to do, Nothing to force, Nothing to want, and everything happens by itself.”

What Pizza taught me:

The harder we try for happiness the further away it gets; just like our satisfaction when we set the bar too high for pizza night. When we relinquish our desires and let life happen that’s when a crispy, pristine Natt Spil pizza unexpectedly plops itself in our laps.

What I’m eating:  Natt Spil

What I’m reading:  Robert Greene Mastery

 

No Place Like Home

“We carry our homes within us, which enables us to fly.” John Cage

As the 4th of July weekend approached I was feeling restless, my brain held hostage by an exhausting work-week and an ever-broadening list of “daddy duties”.  I was bored with Madison. I wanted to run, to get free, to feel like a kid.  I wanted summer fun; a glistening sun, a pine-laden horizon, friends, fireworks and some great pizza (that’s a given).

I wanted that sense of freedom that arises when you get out into the country or dunk yourself into greenish-blue Wisconsin lake water; resurfacing with a rush—a swirl of adolescent giddiness.  That feeling of leaning back and looking into a vibrant blue sky blotted with fluffy, pillow-like clouds; your day-to-day tensions melting away like sidewalk chalk in the rain.

Most of all I wanted the excitement of seeing my favorite people and eating my favorite pizza. The question is then, where can I capture all these classic 4th of July feels in the same spot?

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Going home. 

Tess and I got a sitter for Ellis (Thanks Mom!) and ventured back to our old stomping grounds Whitewater WI. for the 4th of July, with our eye out for everything I’d been daydreaming of, especially my crème de la crème of Wisconsin pizza: Gus’ Pizza Palace.

If you know me or have read any of my stuff you may realize that Gus’ is not just any old pizza to me; it’s the best pizza, my favorite pizza. The all-time greatest pizza. It’s the rule—the measure—the standard by which I judge all pizza.

For the longest time, I was nervous to even write about Gus’ because it’s so special to me, I was worried about whether or not I would be able to do it justice. Or, worse yet, what if it had changed in some way.  I’ve only had the chance to eat it a handful of times since moving, but I figured I’d try to let the legend shine.

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Confession: I went to Gus’ twice in one day.

If you grew up in Whitewater, you undoubtedly know the passion and loyalty that the locals share for their Gus’ pizza.  It’s the gold standard for small-town, thin crust, cheesy pizza, sliced up in squares since 1962.  That’s right, it’s a legacy, it’s been whipped up by the same family using top-secret family recipes for 56 years (way to go guys!).

For Whitewater folk, it’s lovingly known as “Greasy Gus'”. 

Though they keep their formulas confidential, my conspiracy theory has it that the legendary grease factor is due to them using slices of mozzarella instead of shredded like most pizza places.  When the cheese melts in their old-school deck-ovens, the grease collects on top of the slices and creates this delicious blend of grease, melty cheese, and sauce.  I’ve had no other pizza that accomplishes this unique consistency. It’s bliss.

The crust is super thin—cracker thin and has a hand pinched rim that is efficient in holding an excessive, greasy pool of cheese.  The crust is like a little floury canyon. (Ahh, writing this makes me want to dive right in).

unnamedSimplicity and home go hand-in-hand for me.  With my Gus’ I follow suit; I want the pizza in it’s most pristine form: cheese. I’m a sucker for good quality cheese pizza.  I want to bask in the harmony of the cheese, sauce, and crust; let them join together and do a  sacred dance.  If a pizza place can’t get plain cheese right, then I see no future.

Tess often goes for green olives or we’ll share a pizza with gyro meat on it with a side of tzatziki sauce (their gyros are bomb by the way, meat carved from the spit and all).  I’ve heard rave reviews of topping combinations all over the map; from black olives and feta (put on after it’s cooked), to bacon and onion, to onion, green pepper, extra sauce, extra cheese, the infamous Gus’ Special and as I previously mentioned my friend who will give his right arm for beef, bacon, sausage.  I’ve even heard the old-timers talk about the joy of shrimp on their Gus’.

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Gus’s in recent years also got into the cheese-sticks biz to stay competitive in the college market and their sticks are holy wow, topped with at least a quarter inch of mozzarella, definitely among my top 3 three cheese-sticks (that’s a whole separate blog post).  Also, I just gotta say potato wedges, do it.

 

My 4th of July fuzzies wouldn’t be complete without Gus’. 

Just like home, Gus’ is one place that seems to be a constant in a world that’s always changing; it’s one thing all my old friends and family still share in common. For almost 60 years they’ve stuck to their guns and for the most part, the product goes unscathed (though I always remembered more cheese, my grandma agrees).

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Cheese-sticks

In my glory days, I remember the goal for my friends and I on the 4th was to throw the biggest party we could, now it’s scrounging for babysitters and exchanging parenting tips (did you try this new swaddle!?).  That’s what makes life exciting, it’s constantly evolving as we are.

Phil Knight the founder of Nike says in his biography “Life is growth. Business is growth, You grow or you die.”  Whether it’s new additions to our families or nuances to our holiday traditions; we get reminders every day that everything changes, yet there is a resemblance, a fragment of the past that we can cherish.  That’s Gus’ for me.

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Potato Wedges.

What pizza taught me:

Simply going home can be all the negotiation our nagging mind needs in order to chill itself out.  It’s been six years since I left Whitewater and everything feels different but familiar at the same time. There will always be a part of me that finds comfort in going home and Gus’ is a piece of that history.  I hope everybody has a place like that.

What I’m eating: Gus’ cheese pizza, gyro meat pizza with side of tzatziki, cheese-sticks, wedges

What I’m reading:  Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike –Phil Knight

 

 

 

What’s Your Go-to?

“There are not more than five cardinal tastes; sour, acrid, salt, sweet and bitter, yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted” -Sun Tzu

We all have a “go-to”—the quintessential pie that hits our spot, that classic combination or twist on toppings that just sings to our soul; beckons us back for more.  The “go-to” could also be defined as our interpretation of the perfectly concocted pie; our favorite toppings, perfect cheese, proper portions, on the appropriate crust.

For me, it’s most often pepperoni and excessive cheese, for Tess it’s green olives, for my Dad it’s the kitchen sink. I have multiple friends who would give up their first born child for beef, bacon, sausage at Gus’ in Whitewater and a work colleague who gets sausage, bacon, jalapeno everywhere he goes, no matter what.  That’s the power of the “go-to”.

“Go-to’s” are like excuses, bellybuttons, opinions, and assholes in that everybody’s got one. That’s the beauty of pizza in general—everybody has their own spin on it and it’s reliable.  Therefore, “What’s your favorite pizza?” is my all-time favorite question because it’s a topic of conversation almost anyone can entertain and have a good time while doing so.

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Glass Nickel: the default for the many Madison folks.

Though, I’m pretty committed to thin crust, every now and again I’ll get the hankering for some extra cheesy hand-tossed pizza loaded with toppings and for that, my Madison go-to is Glass Nickel. Glass Nickel was founded in 1997 in Madison, WI, and now have several locations across the state.

When I think Madison pizza I think Glass Nickel and it makes sense because many in the area find Glass Nickel and the term “go-to” synonymous.   Everywhere I turn whether a luncheon or work-function there’s a Glass Nickel box in the vicinity—when I poll friends and colleagues Glass Nickel is the common denominator.

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Pepperoni & Sausage pizza with extra cheese (that I didn’t have to ask or pay for!)

Extra cheese without asking for it.

I personally appreciate Glass Nickel because I don’t need to order extra cheese, they come loaded that way. They use a “house cheese blend” that bakes up with a great oozy and gooey consistency.  The crust is stretchy and filled with little air pockets, like a good artisanal bread and is dusted with cornmeal.

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cornmeal dusted crust

While many times I will opt for classic pepperoni and sausage (dynamite hand-pinched sausage) I have to say they are on top of their “specialty” game.  Some of the stars include the Fetalicious, which is a pie loaded with tons of feta, the Thai Pie complete with Thai peanut sauce, and my personal favorite and “chicken bacon ranch go-to”  The Ranch.

As far as chicken bacon ranch pizza’s go, The Ranch is far superior.  First, off they use good quality chicken that is slow roasted in-house.  Roasted in-house? What pizza place does that? They use these little crispy bacon bits, red onions, and fresh tomatoes that are nestled in a bed of mozzarella.  The best part though is the creamy ranch base that bakes into the crust to form this pillowy, velvety golden base.

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Slice of  The Ranch

Go-tos are not only reliable, they’re relatable. 

You can’t read a book by its cover, but can you read a man by what he orders on his pizza?  I love learning about other people’s favorite pizzas because it almost feels like a glimpse into their soul; a quick look at their quirks and what comforts them.  When you ask “what’s your favorite pizza?” it feels like people open up to you one topping at a time.

Henry David Thoreau said, “is there a greater miracle than to see through another’s eyes, even for an instant?”

The go-to is so intriguing because it can be so simple for some and so complex for others. I have a different go-to for pretty much every different pizza restaurant I frequent, so I get it.

What pizza taught me?

Your go-to is that pizza you can rely on; it’s that pizza that’s faithful to us when we need something familiar. Go-to’s offer us a way to connect and learn from others. The next time you’re stumped on how to spark up a conversation just ask “what’s your pizza “go-to?”

What I’m eating: Glass Nickel The Ranch and Deluxe

What I’m reading: Never Lose a Customer Again Joey Coleman

 

 

A Trip Down Memory Aisle

“The more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is.” -Vladimir Nabokov

When I was little one of my favorite occurrences was free pizza samples at the grocery store on a Saturday morning.  I’d be grocery shopping with my Mom and luck would have it our cart would roll by a little old lady tending a metal pizza oven, serving up tiny squares of piping hot pizza on little paper napkins.

For me, that memory is filled with mystique and a tinge of longing.  That’s nostalgia. 

Nostalgia is that warm, happy place that lives in our memories.  It’s the emotional feeling I get when I see that Pizza Hut commercial from the early 90’s with the kid’s playing baseball (The one before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on VHS).  It’s that sentimental state I get into when I think about staying in on a rainy night, popping in a frozen and getting cozy on the couch with a movie.

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It’s my yearning for Rocky Rococo’s $1 slice Tuesdays when school let out in 8th grade; knowing I didn’t have a care in the world.  The thrill at 2 a.m. in college to have a grease soaked cardboard box with something that resembled pizza in it.  And how my Mom knew that I wanted squares and Jeff wanted triangles when she divvied up our frozen pizza growing up.

Nostalgia provides euphoria in the good times and can console us in times of loss. I’ve often turned to the fuzzy feelings of nostalgia when times get dark.

Fond memories and an oven preheated to 425˚.

I’m not one to get hung up on celebrity news and fanboyism, but I felt an immense sadness by the passing of Anthony Bourdain. He got me excited about exploring the world through food and writing about it.  He was a voice of reason. Though I don’t know the guy beyond reading his books and watching his TV shows, I felt like I lost an old friend.

Maybe that despair comes from the realization that all things grow and die, or that everything changes and that’s scary.  Maybe it’s witnessing an icon fall, and knowing those we look up to have their own weaknesses that can ruin them. Either way, I do believe recounting the beauty of our past can aid in that pain, so we can move forward. In homage to my fallen anti-hero, I spent my last pizza night revisiting the first season of No Reservations circa 2005 in which Anthony kicks off the show in Paris, France. It brought me back to a better place after a rough week.

What pizza taught me:

Moments are fleeting, but our memories are not.  Nostalgia can help us look past our current problems and see the bigger picture; the reasons why it’s worth getting up, dusting off and pushing forward.  When the world gets dark I’ll recall strolling down my favorite aisle with my Mom and find solace in that little old sample lady and the tiny slice she served.

What I’m eating:  Tombstone Original Pepperoni, cut in squares on a paper napkin.

What I’m reading: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life Anne Lamott

 

Picking Up the Pizzas

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” -Victor Frankl

You want that perfect pizza night?  Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

Ordered thin crust? You ended up with thick.

Excited about extra cheese? Looks like you got easy.

What about that side of sauce?  Forget about it; the driver forgot it.

Pessimism? No, just life. It’s easy to view these pizza mishaps as tragedies, but every day we will be faced with late deliveries, missing toppings, and cold pizzas. For most of my existence my knee-jerk reaction to life’s little jabs has been with anger, frustration, and despair, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

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The wrong Roman Candle.

Spring had sprung and it seemed like the perfect Friday night for pick-up, so Tess and I hit the road.  We opted for a scenic drive with baby Ellis in tow to a hip little joint called The Roman Candle.

After arriving at our Fitchburg location (there are four Roman Candles in Madison) the hostess dropped my heart to my stomach when she began searching her computer for our order with a perplexed expression.  After a couple “hmms” and a “are you sure it’s not under a different name?” I knew I had made a major goof.

I had placed our online order to a location about 30 minutes away.  Suddenly in my mind, I was the ultimate failure; the guy who ruined pizza night, the inept husband and worst father of the week; squandering all the fun Friday night hangs.

I was now faced with a hard decision and time was of the essence.  Drive further from home for cold pizza or place a new order and wait out another 25 minutes for a fresh order.  At that moment I had two choices: dwell on the problem or make a decision and work towards the solution. 

We decided to take the wait, but we couldn’t decide on a pizza, so we ordered three. 

Roman Candle is a unique spot; the menu is chock full of specialty pizzas that highlight ingredients you don’t normally see.  Items like beats, arugula and artichokes provide an elegant twist. Though pricey, but I gotta say they churn out really well-portioned pizzas. It’s nice to find a pie that’s so well balanced, with high quality ingredients to boot.

Tess’s usual is The Professional.  It starts with a blend of pesto and alfredo and is then topped with feta, broccoli, roasted chicken, and bacon.  The orginal version comes with green peppers and jalapenos too.  This combo seemed whacky to me at first, but it works.

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I went for their signature The Roman Candle with a few additions.  The pie has a spicy  base called firecracker sauce and is then covered with house-made ground sausage and banana peppers. I added thick artisanal pepperoni and extra house blend cheese. The combination of the meats and banana peppers create a salty, tangy flavor explosion.

I’m not usually one to jump for a taco pizza, but with the quality and craftsmanship of Roman Candle, I had to give their El Jefe a try.  This is definitely not your average taco pizza, the El Jefe begins with a taco sauce and alfredo mix and is then topped with cheddar, onions, tomatoes, lettuce and drizzled with sour cream.

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While waiting we got to catch up as we rocked a crying baby in the parking lot.  It was nice.

In that moment I changed my perception from wasting 25 minutes, to getting piping hot pizzas fresh out of the oven.  I accepted my situation and shifted my outlook from negative to positive and was able to drive off happily into the sunset.

In author Mark Manson’s bestseller The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k  he explains “We don’t always control what happens to us but we always control how we interpret what happens to us as well as how we respond”   Manson echoes the ancient Greek philosophy Stoicism which called this our “reasoned choice”.  “Reasoned choice” is basically the idea that our perceptions are the only thing we truly control and whether we view them as a blessing or a curse it’s up to us.

What pizza taught me:

When life throws us a big ol’ misshapen dough ball it’s up to us knead it into the pizza we want. Whether we stub our toe, lose our keys, or hit all the red lights on the way to work  how we respond is in our control.

What I’m eating: Roman Candle: Party for three: The Profressional, The Roman Candle, El Jefe.

What I’m reading: Mark Manson The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k

 

 

 

 

Helping Hands

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another” Charles Dickens

I’ll never forget that sunny Saturday afternoon in May outside my mailbox.  I inattentively thumbed the weekly ads and routinely strolled to the dumpster to toss them, when I caught a glimpse of a page of coupons that glistened. Amidst the circulars shone a pizza I’d daydreamed of for years; I dashed inside to share the amazing news with Tess.

After years of relentless tinkering, chain behemoth Pizza Hut has finally yielded an ingenious payoff. They took two of their greatest inventions pan pizza and stuffed crust and converged them into a hybrid dubbed the Double Cheesy Crust Pan Pizza.

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What’s better than pizza on a Friday night? 

Friends over for pizza on a Friday night who bring you the new Double Cheese crust Pan Pizza (Thank you, Handy and Anna!).

One of the many perks of being a new parent is the incredible support provided by those closest to us (especially our mothers, Happy Mothers Day!).  From Grandma’s helping with the night shift to friends providing meals and grocery shopping; the level of support we have received is outstanding and so greatly appreciated.

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Pizza Hut please take my money.

For years Tess and I had talked about the possibility of Pizza Hut’s pan pizza conjoining with their stuffed crust.  After years of Pizza Hut tiptoeing around the idea with dozens of pizza concoctions finally, the stars have aligned and they have brought our two favorites together.

The stuffed crust portion of Pizza Hut’s “stuffed crust” is legit, but let’s face it the pizza portion leaves something to be desired.  Meanwhile, pan pizza is just all around righteous with it’s crispy, buttery crust.  With the Double Cheesy Crust Pan pizza, we get the best of both worlds.unnamed-8

The majority of the Double Cheesy Crust Pan pizza is like classic pan style pizza with the exception of a seasoning blend dusted across it and some parmesan baked on the crust.  The crust is not stuffed with cheese as I pictured it.  The cheese forms more of a moat that weaves its way around the outside of the traditional pan crust.

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Cheese moat

Slice support.

Pizza Hut is a Friday night staple for many, just as our family and friends are a constant for us in big life-changing circumstances; like having a baby. Pizza Hut’s new offering came at a perfect time for Tess and I as we work to find our groove in the new rhythm of parenting.

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Ellis and Uncle Andy after some pizza.

 

 

What pizza taught me:

We should nurture our circle of friends and family because just like our favorite pizza they are there for us when we need them.  Tess and I are truly blessed with an amazing network.  Thanks to my ultimate support Tess, happy first Mothers Day!

What I’m eating: Pizza Hut: Double Cheesy Crust Pizza

What I’m listening to: Beach House Pay No Mind

What I’m reading: Emotional Intelligence 2.0