“What is easiest to see is often overlooked” -Milton H. Erickson
Hitting a new pizza spot when traveling is a must. With daddy duties and work, I’ve been pretty stationary lately, so when I do travel I’ve got to make my slices count.
I’m fortunate Tess always plays along nicely, just last weekend obliging my pizza escapades on her birthday weekender to Door County’s annual Fall Fest in Sister Bay.
While a Door County trip is always filled with epic sunsets, sightseeing, apple cider donuts, and supper clubs it doesn’t have that much pizza.
Actually, when most think of Door County and pizza, I’d bet they either draw a blank or imagine the winding lines and lengthy waits that come with the infamous Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza. While Wild Tomato is delicious and the obvious choice for most pizza craving tourists, I had to wonder what else is out there…
Maybe, something a little thinner, a little crispier and cut a little more rectangular?
For the last three years, Joe Jo’s Pizza in Sister Bay has been on my to-do list with their super-thin tavern-style pizza, but with only so many mealtimes in a day and vacation itineraries to max capacity, they’ve always taken a back seat to Wild Tomato.
This year though I opted to follow the road less traveled to the pizza less eaten and finally made it Joe Jo’s (despite their insanely early closing hours, 8:30pm!)
Toppings under the cheese, yes, please.
Joe Jo’ had a delicate and almost brittle outer crust that was speckled with spices—that dusting across the cheese gave the pizza a unique oregano forward flavor, which I quite enjoyed.
In common tavern-style fashion, they tuck their housemade hand-pinched sausage and pepperonis underneath the cheese and let that mozzarella toast up to a golden brown on top. It’s finished off with a party-cut.
Joe Jo’s was a welcome change of pace from Wild Tomato.
There’s no doubt that Wild Tomato is the Door County staple for pizza, but Joe Jo’s had many perks of its own, for starters, you can skip the 1-2 hour long wait times that can accompany Wild Tomato during dinner time and you get a unique spin on a tavern-style pie (plus there’s gelato).
Joe Jo’s made me realize that to continuously expand my pizza prowess, I’ve got to break the norm and look beyond the most popular places, even though their reputations may make them the obvious places to hit.
The hippest and trendiest restaurants, with the rave reviews and lines around the block, will always have a place, but there’s beauty in discovering those mom and pop joints off the beaten path.
What pizza taught me:
Perhaps in the shadows of the things we put on pedestals, there’s something that suits us even better.
What I’m eating: Joe Jo’s half pepperoni and sausage
What I’m reading: Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance –Alex Hutchinson
“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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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
“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself” -Marcus Aurelius
In Madison, we are fortunate enough to have a pizza for every occasion; slices the size-of-our-heads after late nights out, thin crust party-cuts for family-time on Fridays and even pizza that’s a little more elevated in composition, more sophisticated—worthy of a romantic date night out.
A trip across town.
Recently Tess and I checked a notch off the 2018 pizza goal list and ventured to the east side of Madison to Grampa’s Pizzeria. In the Willie Street and Atwood neighborhoods, you can expect to get the boundaries of your palette pushed a little further with forward-thinking restaurants like Pig In a Fur Coat and Mint Mark, but where does the pizza fit in?
Grampa’s Pizzeria plants it’s flag as the place to sit down and enjoy an elevated pizza experience and is no exception to the farm-to-table rule of thumb. Grampa’s and it’s on-site herb garden are very much what you would expect from an establishment on the east side; a youthful, carefree, modern scene where art, music, and DIY enterprising coalesce; punk rock ethos infuse the food, fashion and all things craft.
The progressive side of pizza.
Inside Grampa’s, it’s cozy, like I imagine the idealized hipster version of what a grandparents home would look like: a dimly lit dining room, strewn about tattered books and old photos—melon coly dream-pop pulsing in the background.
Tess and I were faced with a food enthusiast’s first-world pain—everything on the menu looked good. From the small plates and salads to the pizza, as usual, we couldn’t make up our minds, so we decided on a little bit of everything. We started with the Mozzarella small plate (they make those delicious balls fresh every day) and the Beet salad.
There are nine pizzas on the menu, which are composed of a handful of simple yet quite experimental ingredients. There’s a pizza with pork confit on it, a pizza with a Korean fermented condiment called gochujang sauce and one of their most popular pies called the Barberini which showcases ricotta, calabrian chiles, watercress, and honey.
To join the party we went with the Brassacre! which consisted of Brussel sprouts, bacon, fresh mozzarella, olive oil, garlic, and grana. Brussel sprouts and bacon are a great combo so I knew the Brassacre! could do no wrong. Crispy, thick, asymmetrical chunks of bacon, (more of the pork belly persuasion) were sprinkled throughout, which provided a salty, fatty contrast to the Brussel sprouts. The olive oil and garlic base was a decadent match to the cheese.
We also opted for a traditional pie; pepperoni and sausage to provide us a baseline to measure their fundamental pizza components; cheese, sauce, and crust. The pizzas are very thin and cut in squares which is my preference.
The pepperoni had more of an artisanal flare and depth of flavor than the average pepperoni, they were slightly thicker and had a light smokiness. The sausage was a highlight for me, it was rich and fennel forward, with a nice spicy balance.
There’s a pizza out there for everyone.
Grampa’s Pizzeria and it’s varieties of pizza parallel the wide-ranging and often avante-garde culture of those east side neighborhoods. These days with our lives so intricately integrated through technology, it’s more important than ever to practice tolerance and hold ourselves to a higher standard. It doesn’t matter what your opinion is, just be nice about it.
Deepak Chopra says “You don’t want to stand rigid like a tall oak that cracks and collapses in the storm. Instead, you want to be flexible, like a reed that bends and survives the storm.”
What pizza taught me:
A night out in the enlightened part of town is a nice reminder that we should keep our minds and taste buds open and not only respect other folks pizza preferences but their ideas and lifestyles as well.
What I’m eating: Grampa’s Pizzeria; Brassacre! Brussel sprouts, bacon, fresh mozzarella, olive oil, garlic, and grana. Pepperoni, half sausage pizza. Mozzarella small plate and Beet salad.
What I’m reading: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking -Malcolm Gladwell
“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!).
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
“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.
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).
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?
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.
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).
Simplicity 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’.
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).
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.
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