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5. THE BARBERINI
The original name owners Gil Altschul and Marissa Johnson thought up for their pizzeria’s signature pie, with its oh-wow mix of Calabrian peppers, ricotta, watercress and drizzled honey, was the Bees’ Knees, in a pop-cult nod to Jack Black and School of Rock.
“I also thought the name was super-lame,” Altschul quips. The fix came when a pal mentioned that the Barberini, an ambitious family of seventeenth-century Italian nobles, happened to have three honeybees on their family crest. History for a history-making slice.
’Cause it really is just that good. The pizza’s spice meets its match in the honey drizzle, and the perfectly crisp crust closes the deal.
Altschul and his staff try to take advantage of the fact that the evening crowds at Grampa’s often have to wait for their tables in full sight of the kitchen … and the honey drizzling.
“I guarantee if people watch us make it, they’ll sit down and order one,” says Altschul. Just avoid asking for subsitutions. “It makes me sad when people order it without the peppers.”
6. THE CHILI CHEESE FRY PIE
Glass Nickel Pizza Co.
Glass Nickel has tons of deliciously unusual choices on its menu (Fetalicious, anyone?). But for our money, it’s the special monthly pizzas the Nickel’s four Madison-area locations offer in two-month cycles that deserve your pizza-loving attention.
Part of it is the clever names the employees come up with—Rocket Rita, Hawaii Pie-O, the Boaris Karloff. The bulk of it is the creativity and the mouth-watering taste, exemplified in the current offering, the Chili Cheese Fry Pie, a slice bedrocked by meaty, semi-spicy chili and yellow onions, then doused in thick-cut French fries and a special blend of cheddar cheese. It tastes as decadent and comforting as it sounds.
“We get some strong reactions when we take the special pizzas off the menu,” says Noel Johnson, one of three co-owners at Glass Nickel’s University Avenue shop, where the monthly special phenomenon first began. “People are like, ‘Where did it go? Can you still make it for me?’”
Katie Bracey, co-owner number two, has your answer: “If it’s still on the website and if we still have the ingredients on hand, we’ll make it.”
7. THE WINTER BIANCA
Lombardino’s co-owners Patrick O’Halloran and Michael Banas don’t mind copping to being a little, well, egg-centric. “We have a huge thing for eggs,” smiles Banas. “We’ll put an egg on anything.”
That “anything” includes one of the restaurant’s most delicious and popular seasonal pizzas—the Winter Bianca, a white-sauced pie decked out with Fraboni’s sausage, onions, cheese and thinly sliced, rosemary-roasted Yukon gold potatoes. And of course, an organic egg, right in the center.
“It’s almost a complete breakfast pizza,” says O’Halloran, who also handles chef duties. “The egg yolk goes up and underneath the crust, just like it would if you were eating it with a piece of toast.”
According to O’Halloran, the Bianca’s genesis traces back to a Northern Italian pie named for legendary Prussian statesman Otto Von Bismarck, a gent who favored eggs on his pizza. Don’t count the Bianca as a pizza of the nobility, though. Au contraire, says O’Halloran: “This pizza keeps us in the realm of ‘Hey, I can eat here,’” says Banas.
8. THE ISCHIA
There are several Italian phrases scrawled on the walls at Naples 15. One of the most beautiful translates to, “The way the music goes, that’s how we dance.” It exemplifies the approach Salvatore Di Scala, Naples 15’s talented and gregarious owner and pizza chef, approaches his craft.
Di Scala’s a disciple of Gaetano Fazio, master pizza chef of the international Neapolitan Pizza Association, so there’s no question you’re tasting history when you bite into a pizza like the Ischia, a pizza Di Scala created to honor the Italian island where his father was born and where he spent much of his childhood. It’s a simple affair with a shockingly powerful taste, with mozzarella and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano cheese engaged in a flavor tango with fresh arugula. Think of it as a rocket salad pizza. And think of it as absolutely fantastic.
“If somebody wants a vegetarian pizza, this is the pizza they’ll pick,” says Di Scala, standing next to his gorgeous, glass-tiled wood oven and the fork mixer that perfects his pizza dough. “Neapolitan pizza really is the eighth wonder of the world.”
Photo by Nicole Peaslee.
9. THE RACKET
The employees are the reason this white-sauced slice is on the menu. In Luigi’s early days as the anchor restaurant at Sequoya Commons on Midvale Avenue, the pizza makers kept asking to add sausage to a pie called the Truffle. After finally making it as a menu staple, it quickly shot to the top of the popularity chart. It’s a breeze to understand why: The blend of fontina and mozzarella cheeses plus roasted mushrooms and truffle oil tastes like the smoothest piece of garlic bread you’ve ever had, and the house-made sausage gives it an additional meaty heft.
Jon Hill, Luigi’s kitchen manager, kicked around different types of food for eighteen years before finding his niche in pizza—and his inspiration in this slice. “It’s pretty simple,” he notes. “It’s all about the balance between the ingredients—the tangy white sauce just goes with the sausage perfectly.”
In a lot of ways, the Racket’s also a perfect complement to Luigi’s low-key, loopy ambience. This is a place, after all, with a disco-ball booth, crayons at every table and paper mustaches plastered on the pens and the wall.
10. THE HOT-WA-II
Roman Candle Pizzeria
This slice is sweet but brings the heat. It also brings a gorgeous color palette: A startling red pineapple-chipotle drizzle creates a spiral spiderweb of sizzle across a slice that includes the other elements you’d expect on a Hawaiian pizza—the Canadian bacon, onions and peppers—and one you probably don’t. That would be the Candle’s Fireworks sauce, kicked up a temperature notch with a little bit of chipotle. The sauce and drizzle strike a great balance.
“We’ve always needed a Hawaiian pizza,” says James Ember, director of operations for Roman Candle’s Williamson Street location, of the recent addition to the menu. “We’ve never been scared to do spicy, strong flavors. This is just an example of taking something that already existed and taking it way out of the box.”
Like a lot of the items on Roman Candle’s menu, the Hot-Wa-ii is the result of a collaboration of staff members, in this case at the Candle’s Willy Street spot, although the pie’s available at the Fitchburg and Middleton shops, too. In addition to the fact that it’s tasty and staff-generated, Ember thinks customers love it because the ingredients are fresh and largely local.
“The pineapple drizzle could be done with canned pineapple, but we won’t,” he says. “[Using fresh pineapple] makes a one-hundred-percent difference.”