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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Pizza’s Ultimate Sidekick

“Never settle for average” -Steve Jobs

Can a pizza place capture our hearts with a menu item that isn’t even “pizza”?  Those who’ve ordered pizza after midnight in any Wisconsin college town would have to adamantly give a big “hell yes”.

With the new year here I feel like I need to switch it up from same old tomato sauce, cheese, and pepperoni. So, I’m opting for a slightly different option from one of my all-time favorite places, where you not only get great pizza, but you also get pizza’s garlicky, ooey gooey, extra cheesy, stick-shaped half-brother.

Toppers Pizza.

Toppers Pizza could be personified as punk rock, as they playfully push boundaries with their menu and loudly vocalize their vendetta against the system (in their case Dominos Pizza; recently unleashing an ad campaign calling out Dominos lack of product quality that ended up in a lawsuit).

They use menu creativity, quality, and marketing charisma to forge a competitive edge against the big boys and of course, they are open later than anybody else so it’s naturally the pizza of choice for party people and real-life punk rockers.

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The Triple Order

The Sticks are Stacking Up.

With Toppers rapidly climbing the ranks of the chains and expanding franchises across the U.S. it’s fun to remember that behind the wheel of their accelerated growth sit their legendary Topperstix.

The famously decadent fusion of pizza and cheesy garlic bread known as Topperstix are a dippers dream come true—smothered in cheese, sprinkled with toppings if you wish and served with a variety of dipping sauces like ranch, nacho cheese, and garlic butter.  The combinations are so crave-worthy that midweek daydreams of them often send me reaching for the ranch bottle.

They aren’t the only cheesy breadsticks on the block, but they definitely own the block. 

With Toppers headquartered in Whitewater WI. I’ve had the privilege of eating Topperstix my whole life.  Triple orders fed grade school sleepovers, provided afternoon snacks in high school and were a prized nightcap in college.

Before there were Baconstix and Nachostix, I remember the first time I ever tried a triple order and thinking Why on earth doesn’t every pizza place have this!?  Back then cheesy breadsticks to that caliber were not a menu norm, I haven’t done the research but I feel Toppers was a pioneer in the cheese stick revolution.

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In a recent marketing jab Toppers pits, their Famous Topperstix vs. Dominos Stuffed Cheesy Bread, those who have enjoyed a good batch of Topperstix know there is really no competition.

Topperstix aren’t the only menu item that makes them a leader in pizza innovation either.

They’ve got some off the wall house pizza combos as well.  My personal favorites include Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese Topper, Old School Sausage and Pepperoni and my own spin on the Meat Topper in which I sub a BBB/pizza sauce mix for the standard pizza base sauce—it’s rich, smokey, savory and sweet, amazing.

Never Settle. 

Toppers Pizza inspires me not only because they blazed the trail for cheesy breadsticks and their house pizzas are as alternative as 102.1, but because they embody their slogan Never Settle.  

They always have new menu items in development, riffs on classics and tweaks to their sauces for the stix and that’s what makes them fun.  Regardless if you agree or disagree with their rapid menu changes you have to respect their ambition to continually improve.

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Meat Topper with BBQ sauce base.

What pizza taught me:

Every Friday I order pizza, so it’s nice to shake things up a bit with some Topperstix that have all the greatness of pizza but are not exactly pizza.  Never Settle is a good mantra for 2019 as when we are too attached to a particular view or way of doing things life gets stagnant.  Luckily there are places like Toppers that not only welcome pizza innovation but make it incredibly delicious.

What I’m eating: Toppers: Triple order original stix with extra cheese and Meat Topper with BBQ/pizza sauce mix as the base (referred to as MATAS by the OG’s)

What I’m reading:  Sam Walton: Made in America –Sam Walton

 

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.

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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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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

 

Presumptions

“Despair ruins some, presumption many.” -Ben Franklin

As I sat at the Cheers bar in Boston (the one of classic 80’s sitcom fame), I listened to some New Yorkers sitting next to me adamantly protesting the notion of any decent pizza in the vicinity of Boston (during a Yankee/Red Sox playoff game to boot).  As one of America’s oldest cities, Boston certainly is rich with history, from its role in the American Revolution to Fenway Park, but what about the pizza?

Though I’d expect some dynamite clam chowder or some signature baked beans, I’ve never heard much about the pizza and the opinions soaring around the bar made me wonder if these New Yorkers were biased or if Boston really has second-rate pizza.  So, with a finite amount of free time at my disposal, I set out to discover Boston’s finest.

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Step #1: Ask the locals. 

I had 24 hours to eat pizza in Boston, so every slice counted. With a limited amount of time, I wanted the best of the best—something authentic, historic and adorned by the locals—so my first move was to start by asking the natives.

For pizza advice, I usually skip the concierge and go straight to the valet—I want the voice of the people.  When you ask the average joes you skip the cookie-cutter touristy stuff and get real honest feedback and usually the best recommendations.

Step #2: Cross-reference the web.

Next, I like to fact-check against the internet.  Pizza preferences are relative to individual opinions and there’s a lot of puffery on the web, so it’s always helpful to cross-check promising pizza intel before making a commitment.  Pictures can really help validate the pizzas you have learned about from the locals.  Eater.com is my usual starting point, followed by a general Google image search.

When I end up on sites like Yelp I always avoid reading the reviews as people are fickle and I don’t want my pizza experience to be biased by someone’s crappy day and emotional meltdown.  I visit Yelp just to make sure that the pictures of the pizzas match cravings at the time.  I wanna make sure the thin is thin and that the cheese is in ample supply.

Step #3: Find the common denominator.

Then I go for the most recommended place between the two. For Boston, various top ten lists praised the likes of Ernesto, Picco, Antico Forno, and Regina Pizzeria. The common denominator between the Bostonians I questioned on the streets and the internet led me to the small Boston chain called Regina Pizzeria.

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Regina Pizzeria.

Since 1926 Regina Pizzeria has been one of the most famed pizza joints in Boston, so I ventured to its original Northend Italian neighborhood location on Thatcher St.  The tight-knit quarters of the dining room and natural wear and tear of the fading tabletops and booths gave a rich sense of the history of the restaurant, much like the cobblestone streets that disorderly zig and zag across the city.

At Regina we had the best seat in the house, we were parked directly next to the pizza cutting station.  The piping hot pizzas pulled out of the ancient looking brick oven, tossed up into a service window then pinched down onto a table designated for slicing them.  Grease would splash as rapid strokes of the pizza cutter swiped from end to end.  If pizza pictures are considered food porn, I was getting a real live striptease.

Regina Pizzeria pizza is like New York style but with a slightly thicker hand-tossed crust.  They use a brick oven that provides a nice char along the outer rim.

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Who to trust?

I’m glad I ignored the initial impressions about Boston pizza I heard at the bar.  It would have been easy to assume that the New Yorkers hailing from arguably the best pizza city in the world would know what they are talking about, but if I had taken their word I may have missed the awesomeness of Regina Pizzeria.

That’s the trouble with assumptions.  We may not only miss an opportunity if we follow the wrong guidance, but hearsay can also cloud our experiences with unnecessary stigma and lead us to a crummy time when conditions aren’t that crummy.  Opinions can be as loud as those New Yorkers at Cheers bar and the internet amplifies them even more.

Being too presumptuous can also be dangerous not only to our pizza but also to the people around us as we judge them.  Don Miguel Ruiz says in his best-seller The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom  “Don’t’ make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and express what you really want.  Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.  With just this one agreement you can completely transform your life.”

What pizza taught me:

It’s a good idea to never assume gossip is gospel and to inform ourselves from a variety of sources before taking a stance. Whether surfing the net or interviewing the locals for the next binge-worthy pizza spot, it pays to keep an open mind.

What I’m eating: Regina Pizzeria half pepperoni, half sausage

What I’m Reading:  The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom Don Miguel Ruiz

 

 

Leftovers

“There is nothing permanent except change.” -Heraclitus

Thanksgiving weekend is usually a four-day eat-a-thon and my favorite part is the leftovers.  It’s not just turkey sandwiches and stuffing either, as it turns out when Thanksgiving Thursday hits, Wednesday naturally falls in place of Friday and we get faux Friday night pizza mid-week.  So, along with my turkey-day leftovers, I’ve also got a fridge full of pizza.

As I’m lounging on the couch, feet-up, working up my next appetite I’m contemplating the cold beauty of the leftover slice.  That amalgamation of cheese and toppings twisted into a cold statue of its former self, like Han Solo frozen in carbonite.  The once contrasting textures of crispy crust, melty mozzarella, and pepperoni set into a savory pastry-esque version—a cool tomato sauce filling running beneath the surface that can rescue the mouth from the dryness of hardened cheese.

 

The paradox of leftover pizza. 

I’ve found that the quality of leftover pizza often has little correlation with how good the original pizza was.  Pizza in its piping-hot prime and a pizza a day-later can differ by a great deal.  Some pizzas just don’t reheat well and are not enjoyable cold, while others can shine in their coagulated state.

For example, my favorite pizza of all time is Gus’ Pizza in Whitewater WI; Gus’ is super-thin square cut tavern-style at its finest.  It’s a superstar fresh out of the oven, it’s crispy and greasy and cheesy, but it doesn’t hold up well the next day.  It’s sauce to cheese ratio doesn’t make for the best cold slice and when you go to reheat it the chemistry is off (I would welcome pro reheating tips if someone has figured this out).

On the other hand, simple chain pizza like Pizza Hut pan style is outstanding cold.  Tess swears by Dominos thin-crust cheese pizza leftover and will let it sit after it’s been delivered because she prefers it room-temperature or cold.  That’s the paradox of leftover pizza.  The pizza that’s the best at the pizzeria can be the worst leftover and the pizza you’d least expect like chain pizza can be the best later on.  Luckily, sorting through this is quite enjoyable.

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Tess driving to Thanksgiving with a leftover slice on her lap.

What’s the best leftover pizza?

What’s your favorite pizza? is my favorite question, therefore what’s your favorite leftover pizza? is my next favorite question. The perfect slice for breakfast will always be in the eye of the beholder but asking what’s your favorite leftover pizza? is a fun game to play and there is a lot to learn.  Ording a pizza and doing your own research is even better.

With my mind in the thankful Thanksgiving mode, I realize there is a lot to appreciate in a day old slice.  We get a second chance to experience our pizza.  We get to enjoy a different set of attributes and can prepare it in a variety of ways.  Leftover pizza is quite versatile as it’s great on the go, can be eaten hot or cold, can be enjoyed for any meal of the day or just as a snack.

What pizza taught me:

Whether you prefer your leftover pizza cold, room-temp, nuked or reheated at 350°, there is no doubt it’s the gift that keeps on giving.  This Thanksgiving weekend I’m thankful for my family, friends and my fridge full of leftover pizza.

What I’m eating:  Leftover Rosati’s-Super thin-crust, extra cheese half pepperoni, half green olive.

What I’m reading:  The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done Peter Drucker