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Ten Slices You Gotta Try
Hot, fresh, delicious and full of flavor. Here are the pizzas around town you should be eating.
By Aaron R. Conklin
Photos by Chris Hynes
Hey, how about some pizza?
Who says no to that siren’s call? Certainly no one in Madison, where Italy’s ubiquitous culinary export has been raised beyond college diet staple to its own art form. For every chef and restaurant that honors the hallowed tradition of the classic, wood-fired Neapolitan approach to the dish, there’s another that’s coming up with a way to showcase an ingredient combo nobody’s ever seen on a pizza before. The result is a range of absolutely delicious options for almost every mood, spice and taste.
That’s a very good—and sometimes overwhelming—thing. It can be a pizza jungle out there on the mozzarella-drenched streets of Madison, so we’ve sliced through the dough to offer up ten don’t-miss pieces of ’za to expand your own favorites list. Whether you like your pizza spicy, vegetarian, traditional, meaty, organic or wild, you’ll find something amazing to sink your teeth into here. Just save a slice for us, okay?
1. THE MAC & CHEESE
It’s just so quintessentially Wisconsin.
It’s also so quintessentially Ian’s, a restaurant that fronted its original biz plan on the notion of expanding our idea of what pizza is, and ended up expanding its pizza reach across our city and beyond. In this delicious and creamy case, it’s a slice topped with pasta in a homemade cream sauce, given an additional covering of mozzarella and other Wisconsin-made cheeses. It’s a surprise to exactly no one who’s savored its smooth, cheesy taste that the Mac & Cheese is Ian’s all-time top-seller since it debuted on Ian’s original menu in 2001.
And for those who haven’t taken that walk on the wild side?
“We still get a lot of ‘What?’ and ‘Does that work?’ from customers who haven’t tried it yet,” says Adam May, Ian’s marketing director. “It’s the combination of two comfort foods. It just works.”
Madisonians concur, and so does the Food Network, which tabbed the slice as one of the best in America two years ago. It still is.
2. THE GIARDINO
Paisan’s ported its fifty-plus years of pizza history with it when it relocated from the now-demolished University Square to its current cozy location at the base of Wilson Street. It also ported the Giardino, a pie that was among the original offerings when the restaurant opened in 1950.
“We were searching for a vegetable version of something beautiful,” explains co-owner Wally Boroski, who began working at Paisan’s in 1975, of the Giardino’s genesis. “We knew it should be beautiful and eye-appealing.”
And it is. A layer of fresh-cut tomato slices supports a bed of thin strings of sweet onion, punched up by the strong kick of banana peppers that dot the top. The sauce is naturally sweet, offsetting the veggies.
The toppings are a masterpiece, but the real kicker comes in the crust, which must, as per one of Paisan’s unwritten rules, be crispy and firm. Boroski likes to hover near Paisan’s oversized rotating pizza oven to check for aural proof: “I want to hear that pizza crunch when we cut it,” he says. You’ll hear it when you take your first bite.
3. THE DIAVOLO
As you’ve probably deduced, the name translates to “devil,” but it doesn’t take a deep knowledge of the Italian language to appreciate the delicious spice in this slice, which features pepper flakes sprinkled in the crust, spicy salami and a healthy heap of pepperoncini mixed with mozzarella made on-site each day.
“All of my pizzas are intense,” says Derek Lee, Brutta’s affable owner. “This one’s more so than all of them. If you like it hot, this is your pizza.” We’d agree, but we’re too busy loving the burn … and guzzling our drink so we can prep for the next bite.
Lee creates his pies in what he calls “the spirit of Neapolitan pizza.” Translation: Use traditional techniques like a wood-fired oven and authentic ingredients, but get them locally, like the certified organic flour from Lonesome Mills and Sartori’s SarVecchio Parmesan cheese from Antigo. “In Italy, Neapolitan pizza is a local food—that’s why it’s amazing,” says Lee. “So if you’re making it here, why would you haul everything over from Italy?”
4. THE RUSTICA
Café Porta Alba
Café Porta Alba owner Vincenzo Pugliese is the first to admit that this pie, with its sweet, sour and salty combo of carmelized onions soaked in balsamic vinegar and full slices of pancetta, isn’t part of the classic Neapolitan pizza repertoire for which his restaurant is known and respected. That doesn’t mean it’s not absolutely delicious—or a dark-horse customer favorite.
“People like it a lot because the ingredients are together in harmony,” says Pugliese. “They’re opposites, but they work well with each other.”
An absence of tomato sauce and a delicate balance of flavors—“you don’t have half a pound of onions on it,” notes Pugliese—mean that the succulent taste of the fresh mozzarella cheese is front and center.
“Perfect” is the word most people use to describe it. “It’s interesting,” says Pugliese. “Nobody asks to add cheese or pepper to this pizza.”