The Slice Is Always Cheesier on the Other Side of the Box

“The way forward is sometimes the way back” -The Wiseman (Labyrinth)

In Wisconsin when the first feel of Spring hits, my immediate response is to get my car windows down.  It may only be 50 degrees, but I can’t wait to get that fresh crisp air across my face—I want the aromatherapy of the thawing, damp, greenish-brown grass that exhales from beneath the accumulated salt and sand on the ground.

With Winter and my windows winding down, I’m always brought back to one of my fondest memories: I was seventeen and basking in the freedom of my first job.  I was driving around my small hometown, blasting music, chasing girls and earning my pizza scratch all while delivering sandwiches for Jimmy Johns.

Though I didn’t deliver pizzas during that time (I always preferred to be on the opposite side of that transaction), recently it was a  pizza delivery driver that evoked those same youthful feelings as he dropped off my Friday night fix.

A rat-a-tat-tat on the door signaled that my AJ’s pizza had arrived.

My delivery driver couldn’t have been more than 16 years old—pimple faced, mop-headed and timid—blaring music echoed from the cracked windows of his car on the street.  Suddenly, I was in his shoes and I couldn’t help but imagine the excitement his night held.

Dashing around from door to door with his adrenaline pumping—the pulsing sound of whatever punk teenagers listen to these days charting his course from house to house.  All the while not knowing what each knock or doorbell ring would bring.

It was Friday night, the busiest night of the week, so he’d be autonomous—quick in and out of the pizza shop re-upping on deliveries and then back out on the road.  He’d be making some quick cash and then in few short hours off with his buddies to do all the fun things punk teenagers do these days. No responsibility and his whole life ahead of him.  I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous.

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AJ’s Pizza in Verona

I always cross my fingers when I order AJ’s Pizza in Verona because I don’t think I’m technically in their delivery area, but somehow they keep coming to me.

I imagine it’s because no one that works there is over 18—from the person answering the phone to that shaggy kid who comes to the door—it’s like the lost boys opened up a pizza shop in downtown Verona and could care less about who orders from where.  They’ll take the business and chance to get out on the road.

I appreciate their disregard for delivery zones.

AJ’s is one of the few places in my vicinity that delivers the kind of hole-in-the-wall pizza I crave all the time.  The pizza is thin and typically comes piled with extra cheese without even requesting it (I once ordered extra, and I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but it was overboard).

They cut the pies in triangles, I usually request squares to get it a little closer to my beloved mid-western tavern style. Also, I swear the larger the pizza you order the thinner the crust is, so I always go for at least a large even if my appetite calls for medium.

They also have killer cheesy breadsticks and their ranch is extra tangy and on the thin side; reminiscent of Rosa’s in Whitewater (extra nostalgia points).

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Wanting what I can’t have.  

The emerging Springtime and the youthfulness of that AJ’s delivery driver gave me feelings of my youth that were fun to romanticize and for a fleeting moment made me want to go back to my beloved first job, but would I want to be that AJ’s driver working on a Friday night?

Heck no, I want sweatpants, a couch, HBO and to be eating the pizza not delivering it.  It was a classic case of the grass is always greener, the old proverb in which we feel the circumstances and conditions of others are better than your own, even when that’s not the case.

What pizza taught me:

It’s tempting to be envious of other people and other pizzas, but it’s more fulfilling when we can learn to appreciate what we have.  I always joke that when I retire I’m going to go back to my favorite job of delivery driving, but I think I’ll stick with the memories.

What I’m eating:  AJ’s Pizzeria large pepperoni-cut in squares, small cheese sticks.

What I’m reading: Jack Kornfield The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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.

pizza hut little league

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