Madison's Pizza Evolution
How the city's pizza offerings went from simple to snazzy over the last fifty years
By Dan Curd
Growing up in Madison in the late ’50s, I remember only a handful of restaurants—Paisan’s, the Varsity Bar and Jimmy Schiavo’s—where I went to eat pizza, plus Pizza Pit that delivered. I’m sure there were others, but wherever I went it was all pretty much the same: a thin crust topped with tomato sauce, sausage or pepperoni and, of course, mozzarella. With the passage of time more places began serving pizza—that same kind of pizza—until Rocky Rococo opened in 1974 and introduced the sort long favored in nearby Chicago, the deep-dish, thick-crust kind.
The next decade saw a revolution in American taste, instigated by advances in transportation and communication and the subsequent globalization of food. In 1976, a new kind of restaurant came to town, L’Etoile. It was styled as classically French at first, but Odessa Piper, who had long been interested in organic food, soon took advantage of the farmers’ market right outside her door. She found herself at the forefront of a movement for more urbane cuisine that was locally sourced as well.
In 1987, Nancy Christy and Andrea Craig opened the Wilson Street Grill, with specialties that were always fresh, and often local and that appealed to newly sophisticated palates. On the menu were intriguing individual pizzas topped with combinations of ingredients heretofore not found in Madison.
By 1997, when Glass Nickel opened, even delivered pizza was no longer boxed in by a choice of thick or thin crust and traditional Italian-inspired toppings. Instead, fanciful creations like the Thai Pie with peanut sauce, veggies and chicken; the Chicken Cordon Bleu with honey-mustard sauce, chicken, ham and Swiss; and a breakfast pizza with scrambled eggs and sausage found new fans. Ian’s has gone on to build upon the success of unorthodoxy with the likes of what is now its best seller, mac ’n’ cheese pizza.
Even pizza at the Italian restaurant got a makeover with Patrick O’Halloran and Marcia Castro’s reincarnation of Lombardino’s. The place was as old as the Tuscan Hills and so was the food, but modern Italian cooking—including imaginative pizzas that didn’t rely on tomato sauce and globs of gooey cheese—transformed it into one of Madison’s most venerated dining destinations.
Of course, many pizzerias continue to make the perennially popular traditional-style pie, but the market now demands variety and quality. Even dough is scrutinized—how it’s made, shaped and baked. At the Greenbush Bar, Anna Alberici concocts a classic thin-crust pizza that’s baked in a brick oven and as good as any of its genre.
Today, Madison restaurants dispense virtually every cuisine under the sun. At some, chefs use their creativity in an effort to keep up with the public’s seemingly insatiable desire for something new and different—pizza included. Where’s the good pizza in Madison today? Everywhere! And, however you like your crust, whatever you like on top, and whether you are timid or adventurous, your options are now infinite.
Read a longer version of this story in Dan Curd's Small Dishes blog here.