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.

IMG_8416

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.

IMG_8424

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.

domino

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).

The Yellow Pages: Section P

“Time moves in one direction, memory in another.” -William Gibson

Whenever I wind up in hotel rooms with the Wi-Fi wavering I try to find a phonebook (they still exist some places) and I go straight for the yellow pages to section P. 

Before instantaneous Google searches followed by Yelp or Instagram image confirmations, we had to rely on the yellow pages to plan our pizza eating in unfamiliar territory.  Back there you’d find the full page ads of all the local joints showcasing their menus and specials—a snapshot of what you’ve got to work with side by side.

The ancient book of the landlines. 

Last week we packed up the family for a vacation to New Smyrna Beach in Florida and as soon as we settled into our rented condo overlooking the ocean I couldn’t help but wonder:  What kind of pizza does this little beach town have?

I knew it wouldn’t be long before a pizza craving would strike, so after a long day of travel, with my electronics dying and our Wi-Fi sparse, I began to search for some stashed away coupon catalogs or a stack of menus left behind by the owners.

On an end-table covered in brochures for local attractions—next to the landline phone, I found my New Smyrna guide book.  My instincts guided me as I picked up the paperback artifact, dusted it off like Indiana Jones and slowly thumbed to the yellowish section of its back pages.

IMG-1536

The pizza of New Smyrna Beach. 

My first step in section P was to do a quick scan for any food-porn worthy imagery—though I didn’t expect to find any high-quality images printed back there, I couldn’t even find anything besides run-of-the-mill staged stock pizza photos.  Not a good start.

Next, it was time to get into the details of what each menu had to offer, I began searching for clues to what might make one place better than another.  I combed the details of thin and thick crust options, specialty pizzas and appetizers.

I weighed the options between New York style slice shops, Italian Restaurants and dive pizzerias.  After a lot of internal back and forth and more pizza hypothesizing than Tess cared to hear I had made a decision.

IMG-1572

Manny’s Pizza Beachside.

The first place I opted for was called Manny’s Pizza Beachside.  I figured might as well stick with the vacation “beach vibe” and it was backed by the recommendation of the front desk employee who mentioned they also do a killer breakfast.

I went for a half pepperoni and half deluxe which included pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, and onions.  The crust was the most noteworthy element as it was uniquely reminiscent of focaccia bread.  The pizza portion was thin but the crust rolled up into a hand-tossed handle at the edge that was really good for a dip in some ranch.

The veggies had a nice rough cut and the sausage was sliced in thin medallions.  It wasn’t the best pizza I’ve ever had, but the toppings, sauce, and cheese were flavorful and executed properly (it’s vacation pizza so it can do no wrong).

Visiting the past.

Flipping through the phone book to find Manny’s reminded me of going through catalogs before Christmas as a kid and circling all the things I hoped to get.  Just like vinyl records, cassettes, VHS’s and early Nintendo games, scouring the yellow pages revived a dorky nostalgia within me that was fun to embrace.

With everything we need right in our smartphones, I imagine it won’t be long before the old paper phonebook will be a thing of the past—an item that will stump the kids of the future like 8-tracks or rotary phones.

What pizza taught me:

With technology increasingly integrated into our lives, it’s nice to disconnect and spend time with some of the remnants of our modern age. In New Symrna Beach that old-school method of researching pizzas was almost more fun than the pizza itself.  

What I’m eating:  Manny’s Pizza Beachside half pepperoni and half deluxe

What I’m reading: I Love Capitalism Ken Langone

 

 

Pizza Hacks

“Don’t settle with good, fight for great”-Jim Collins

I’m fascinated with life hacks: health hacks, home improvement hacks and of course pizza hacks.  

Pizza is arguably one of the universe’s greatest gifts so why would something so inherently awesome even need to be hacked?

The millennial in me wants all pizzas to have participation trophies, but the truth is that all pizzas are not created equal.  Therefore, the idea that one slight tweak could optimize a pizza eating experience has got my attention.

Finding an edge. 

Some hacks are as easy as extra cheese, but most are not so obvious.  It could take years to stumble upon a decent hack through trial and error, so instead of finding out the hard way, I’m pooling together some of the pizza hacks I’ve discovered right in my area.

Below I’ve listed some of my tricks of the trade, but I hope to take away more than I share by writing this.  I want to open a conversation on what can take already awesome pizzas to the next level.

Top Six Madison Area Pizza Hacks 2019

Rosati’s- Super Thin

This Chicago chain has a worthy deep-dish and pan, but they go the other way with thin-crust too—not many people know this but they actually have a “super” thin-crust option. They take their normal thin and give it an extra squeeze through the dough rolling machine.  Try ordering super thin with extra cheese and you are in for a Midwestern tavern style treat that can get you through the lonely nights when your missing Gus’s in Whitewater.

rosatis super thin
Rosati’s Super Thin

Ian’s Pizza-Par-Bake

If you get slices to go, stop that quick-handed pizza-tender and have him skip the oven and go for a takeout box.  By taking your pizza home par-baked you set yourself up for a huge win later.  Preheat to 450 at home, keep a close eye and you’ll get a perfect melt and char on those slices that are just as good or better than the restaurant.

img_6255.jpg

Papa Murphy’s-Get it four ways

No more half and half limitations, Papa Murphy’s will let you dial in your topping choices four different ways on a single pizza. If you want a slice of plain cheese, Hawaiin, sausage & mushroom, and green olive you can now get them all nicely divided up in quarters—it’s great for the whole family.

Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 8.02.51 PM

Sugar River Pizza-Skip the crust

If you’re sticking to a low carb or keto diet Sugar River Pizza Co. in Verona has got you covered—they’ve got a pizza bowl.  Take any of your favorite toppings and they’ll throw em in a bowl, smother them with cheese and serve it up with sides of sauce.  The best of pizza without the carb-heavy crust.

Toppers Pizza-Subbing Sauces

One of my all-time favorite switcharoos is swapping BBQ sauce for pizza sauce on the Meat Topper at Toppers, try it and you will forever bow down to its sweet, savory, salty, smokey awesomeness.  Also, step up your red sauce dipping game by giving the infamous Topperstix a spin with a side of pizza sauce (the sauce they put on pizzas) instead of the default marinara.

unnamed-1
Toppers Meat Topper with BBQ sauce

AJ’s Pizza-Get it thinner.

I’ve noticed that places that hand toss their own dough often stretch larges pizzas thinner.  I’ve found this to be especially true at AJ’s pizza in Verona, so I always opt for a large over medium.  I’m a thin-crust lover through and through so I’ll take whatever advantage I can to get my thins as thin as possible.

unnamed
Aj’s  Pizza in Verona

Simple adjustments can take our favorite pizzas from good to great.

Ordering a pizza straight off the menu is a lot like living the status quo—it’s easy—but it can be dangerous as we don’t realize what we’re missing out on—things can also get awfully mundane.

Jim Collins in his book Good to Great says “Good is the enemy of great.””Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”

What pizza taught me:

There are many paths to achieving success, some are quicker than others. With the right mindset, we can not only push our pizzas from good to great but everything else in our lives as well.

What I’m eating: Scraping the toppings off a Pep’s supreme pizza.  The equivalent of my own pizza bowl (low carb hack to work on my spring break beach bod).

What I’m reading: Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success Adam Grant.

Cover photo cred: low carb-pizza-thm-s-pizza-bowl-keto, My Montana Kitchen, October 27 2016 Sarah Hardy

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

 

 

A Wonderful Slice

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole doesn’t he?”-Clarence the Angel

The level of holiday cheer at the Luther household this year is about as cheesy as a pizza with extra mozzarella.  Christmas time always gives me the warm and fuzzies, but with a smiley little 8-month-old squirming around the house, it seems fitting to crank the Christmas spirit-o-meter to 11—amp up the decorations, music and classic movies.

I’ve got a duty to mold some great memories right?

As my family grows bigger I face the delightful dilemma of having an increasing amount of Christmas celebrations to attend within a short amount of time.  The solution for my immediate Luther side this year was a faux X-mas eve get together the Saturday night before Christmas Tuesday.  The result of that festivity was one for the record books.

IMG_5021

Gus’ Pizza for Christmas.

I’ve always felt pizza and Christmas go hand in hand, maybe watching Kevin from Home Alone ordering cheese pizzas and telling the delivery driver to “get the hell outta here” inspired me.  Every year I ask for a Gus’ pizza for Christmas and it usually gets shrugged off as a goof, but this year I got the yuletide miracle I was looking for.

A glistening greasy Gus’ pizza was about all I could ask for.  I was like Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation crying in the attic while watching old family videos.  The folded cracker crust and stretchy cheese gave me a nostalgic sense of Christmas magic.

IMG_5018

Christmas memories share a lot in common with excessively cheesy pizza. 

While I welcome Gus’ as an addition to our Christmas festivities, one tradition that stands the test of time for the Luthers is watching It’s a Wonderful Life.  Every year we gather around the tree, eat way too many appetizers and enjoy each others company as the black and white glow of the 1946 Christmas Classic plays in the background.

It’s a Wonderful Life follows an ambitious man named George Baily, who has led a good life but has always put others ahead of himself in spite of his true passions.  He finds a new level of appreciation when an Angel named Clarence helps him see the world through an alternate lens—one that is void of his presence. He gets to witness the positive impact he has had on those in his family and community.

It’s a familiar Christmas theme, but one that reminds us of the importance of keeping our relationships strong.  I’ve eaten Gus’ my whole life and it provides me a similar reminder of comfort and gratitude. It’s a feeling I am excited to pass down to my son as every day we create memories I hope he will happily hold on to.

What pizza taught me:

Pizza, just like the holidays can be a good reminder of all our blessings.  Every interaction has a ripple effect, sometimes it takes a reminder from a holiday, a greasy Gus’ Pizza or an Angel names Clarence to realize its value.

What I’m eating:  Gus’ Pizza: cheese, half pepperoni half gyro meat, large order cheese sticks.

What I’m reading:  Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration -Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull

 

The Pizzaioli

“Every great player has learned the two C’s; how to concentrate and how to maintain composure” -Byron Nelson

A pizzaiolo is a professional pizza maker; often donning a flour-laden apron while wielding a weather-worn pizza-peel; artfully churning out pies in the Neopolitan style.  Dedication to any craft deserves admiration and for those committed to preparing pizzas full-time, I have the utmost respect.

At Eataly in Chicago, I got a front row seat to observe a couple classically trained pizzaiolo’s in action. Their bodies flowing in a focused ceremonial dance—stretching dough balls, ladling sauce, pivoting between bowls of fresh mozzarella and basil leaves—weaving within each other and a 900º oven with the precision and grace of a martial arts masters.

A packed Friday lunch rush put these pizzaiolos were under the gun. Amidst the chaos, their faces were fixed with an intent and stoic expression, framed between red baseball caps and surprisingly clean white t-shirts —rock-solid composure for one mission only: Put out exceptional pizzas.

La Pizza & La Pasta

Eataly is an international Italian eatery—the brain-child of Italian born Oscar Farinetti—it’s U.S. locations are notably backed by celebrity chef Mario Batali.  The multi-level marketplace celebrates all things Italian:  freshly made pasta, old-world deli meats and cheeses, imported sauces and accompaniments; a smorgasbord of handcrafted desserts—Tess’ go-to is the Gelato. Multiple restaurants and food counters provide delicious morsels around every corner, naturally, I gravitated toward La Pizza & La Pasta where they spare no expense with their wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas.

IMG_3005

Steve Dolinsky in Pizza City, USA says the pizzaiolos of La Pizza are trained by an outsourced company from Napoles called Rossopmodoro that comes in and coaches them up to perform with an authentic edge.

I was mesmerized by their well-executed operation.

Pizzaiolo #1 preps the pizzas and begins by plowing little wads of dough out of a plastic tray; afterward gently tossing them into a mound of flour.  From there he starts a deep tissue massage that widens into a 10-inch pizza skin.  Next comes a splash of sauce, a handful of fresh mozzarella and a sprinkle of basil.

IMG_3007

Pizzaiolo #2 swipes his pizza-peel under the pizza and spins it around into a gold dome-shaped wood-burning oven.  His job is to rotate the pizzas and let the flames kiss them in just the right spots, every so often tossing a log on the fire.

After about 90 seconds the pies are pulled and plopped in front of Pizzaiolo #3 who cuts them up and expedites them out into the restaurant.  Over and over again it goes.

What’s better than a pizza that takes 90 seconds to bake?

In a 900º oven, pizzas need undivided attention and the oven-tender must be extremely diligent.  In about 90 seconds the pizzas are charred up and ready to serve.  The simplicity and quality of Neopolitan style pizzas make them special; a few select ingredients showcase themselves.  A chewy, blackened crust provides the backdrop for a portrait of bright sauce, fresh basil, and gooey fresh mozzarella.

The fresh mozzarella is my favorite part and has a much different texture than typical shredded.  It has a smoother, more subtle milky flavor—not as salty—the slight squeak of a fresh Wisconsin cheese curd.

img_3014.jpg

I admire the finesse of a pizzaiolo, but I was happy to be on the opposite side of the pizza, napkin in lap, ready to eat.

“Sprezzatura” according to prolific writer John Mcphee in his book Draft No. 4 is an Italian term from the 1500’s that means someone with “effortless grace, all easy, doing something cool without apparent effort.”  In other words just being plain awesome and it seems to me, these pizzaiolos must have picked up some “sprezzatura” from their Italian trainers.

Preparing Neopolitan style pizza takes precision and attention to detail.  According to Eataly’s site “In Italy, pizza-making apprentices train under experts for years before earning the title pizzaiolo”.  That means it can take years of practice to master a pizza that bakes up in 90 seconds.

I’m sure they’ve dropped a few dough balls from time to time and may have burned a few pizzas, but their experience has led them to a smooth operation and proficiency in pizza making.

What pizza taught me:

A cool, calm and collected confidence is not only “sprezzatura” it’s something to strive for in any endeavor.  Watching a pizzaiolo execute his craft is a sight for any pizza lover, their training and tradition offer a lesson in mastery as well as a quick, tasty 10-inch pizza.

What I’m eating: La Pizza & La Pasta Counter at Eataly Chicago-Margherita pizza

What I’m reading: John Mcphee Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

 

 

 

Are You Going to Eat That?

“Sometimes all you have to do is ask, and it can lead to all your dreams coming true” -Randy Pausch

Who in their right mind abandons a pizza?  Who has the heart to desert a perfectly fine pizza on the ledge of a pizza-truck pick-up window?

Door County Brewing Co. 

I witnessed the culprits recklessly strolling away with a red blinking restaurant pager in tow—one too many craft beers to notice.

It was a bustling Friday night at Door County Brewing Co.’s outdoor beer garden in Bailey’s Harbor WI.

Echoes of live music from the indoor taproom bled into the air and a bonfire flickered a mellow glow over rows of packed picnic tables.  Amidst the patrons, I spotted the highlight for which I’d come to explore.

Beyond the brews of Door County Brewing Co. they provide some delicious eats; epic meat and cheese boards, corn dogs and push-pops; but I was after the pizza-truck parked out back called Harbor Pizza.  With a “mobile stone oven” local restaurant Chives had expanded their operation and set up shop to serve pizzas to brewery customers.  It appears they feature about three different 12-inch varieties on any given night.

No, pizza is going to waste on my watch.

As I walked by to glance at the menu and observe their outdoor operation, I admired the steady stream of pizzas lining up as customers would approach and trade in their restaurant pagers for their pies.

As the night progressed, each time I’d pass by I couldn’t help but notice one little pizza at the end of the counter that was never picked up.  Every so often I’d crane my neck from where we were sitting and notice all the other pizzas joining their owners and that one pizza continually going unclaimed.

With closing time approaching, I couldn’t help but meander over to the disregarded pie and inquire about its future.  A kind dread-locked pizza-truck employee wielding a pizza peel gently turned around from tending the oven and noticed me gesturing towards the pizza.  “Did someone forget their pizza?” I asked.

“No one ever came back for it, man”

I had to ask whether it’s next home would be the overflowing bar trash can or if someone was going to claim it and to my utmost excitement my newfound hero replied: “you want it?”.

The good samaritan then spun his charred pizza paddle, swooped in to pick up the pie and slung it back in the oven with a smile on his face. A true gentleman indeed (he even gave us a box!).

unnamed-6.jpg
The orphan on round two.  

A few minutes later and the pizza was piping hot and back in business with a giddy new family. I chuckled all the way home, pizza box open in hand, reliving the silliness of the moment; the forgotten pizza resurrected and gifted by the kind-hearted pizzaiolo.

What pizza taught me:

It never hurts to ask the pizza-lovers proverbial question “is someone going to eat that?”.  Never leave a pizza behind (or a loved one for that matter).

What I’m eating: Abandoned pizza at Harbor Pizza pizza-truck at Door County Brewing Co. in Bailey’s Harbor, WI.

What I’m reading:  Own the Day, Own Your Life: Optimized Practices for Waking, Working, Learning, Eating, Training, Playing, Sleeping, and Sex -Aubrey Marcus