Blog : Lake Geneva Best Restaurants

Holi Cannoli Pizza Review

Holi Cannoli Pizza Review

During this pizza series, one place was the most consistently and aggressively recommended to me: Holi Cannoli. You know how I feel about Elkhorn. And you know how I feel about Whitewater. Imagine then, if you will, how I could feel about the space between these two towns. That’s where Holi Cannoli lives, in the space between. The only question is were these recommendations wicked lies or were these people hoping to keep me safe from the pain that is a miserable, if local, pizza.

It was Saturday night and I was tired. I had worked during the day, and then retreated to more work in the evening. The office garden needed weeding and mulching, and my wife had a party that appeared to include every woman in Walworth County. I had to go somewhere. Anywhere, and since it was Saturday and I was tired that meant I was also hungry. My son was finishing a baseball double header, and I would need some salve for my blisters and he some salve for his wounded ego. I called HC at 7 pm and was told it would be an hour wait. The place was slammed. I asked if they take reservations and they did. 8:30 was the soonest they could offer, which was fine because I had to clean up and look reasonably respectable for this, my first ever visit, to Holi Cannoli. We drove through Elkhorn, quickly, stopped at Walgreen’s for a couple of last minute Mother’s Day cards, and arrived at the restaurant at 8:30 sharp. The parking lot was jammed.

Most pizza places in Walworth County lack any type of recognizable scene. They’re just places to get pizza, and when you’re in the mood to devour pizza you care very little about the terrible decor that haunts most local pizza establishments. A good pizza erases any concern of your surroundings. But HC was happening. The interior space isn’t much to consider, it’s just a couple of dining rooms with a large bar in the middle, and the decor is typical North American Italian Restaurant Issue. Some faux paintings of wine bottles, some plastic grape vines with impressive plastic grape clusters, some paintings of Napa, or Tuscany, no one can be sure. HC might not win any design awards, but on Saturday night the crowd was lively and happy, the wine appeared to be flowing with vigor, and the various plates of food scattered about all looked equally delicious.

After the pleasant hostess sat us at our four top near the wood-fired oven, the bus-boy was quickly over to slap down a couple of waters. The sign outside says “COAL FIRED PIZZA”, which I thought interesting since “WOOD FIRED PIZZA” is the same thing, just at a different state of combustion. The oven on the back wall was clad in brick, and the busy hands of an open pizza kitchen were arranging toppings, stoking the fire, and feeding the dough through a mechanical roller. I wasn’t sure what type of pizza I’d be eating here, since a typical wood-fired pie is normally of the neapolitan variety, similar to what I had last week at Stella Barra in Lincoln Park, and similar to that which is served at Oak Fire in Lake Geneva. The mechanical roller threw me off, as any proper neapolitan dough would never be rolled like this. Never mind, the mystery would soon unravel, and we ordered a sausage pizza with mushrooms, along with an order of Calamari. Shortly after ordering, a bevy of bread and a dish of marinara was brought table side. We dipped and munched. My son summed up this part of the dinner perfectly, “it’s not very good, but it’s free bread”. Free bread indeed, son. Free bread indeed.

The calamari arrived quickly. It was lightly breaded, more pale than golden, and mostly rings. We dipped it in the cocktail sauce, which tasted a bit too tangy and not in a horseradishy sort of way. It reminded me of a Heinz cocktail sauce that you squeeze out of a bottle. Too much ketchup, maybe. We ate the plate anyway, it was fine, but not memorable. The pizza was out quickly. Frighteningly quick. Maybe eight minutes after ordering it, tops. It was impossibly flat, nicely browned, the edges charred in the tell-tale style of a wood-fired pie. It looked delicious. 16 inches of razor thin pie for $21.95 plus $1.50 for the added mushrooms. Not a terrible ransom. The first slice passed the flop test, which is rare for a neapolitan style pie.

Ah, but this isn’t a neapolitan style pie. This is a wood fired pie that is, in actuality, a tavern style pizza. The crust is mechanically rolled, which creates that super thin, remarkably uniform crust. There is no raised edge here, no soft middle. It’s a hybrid of sorts. The cheese was proper and well browned, the sausage mild but plentiful without being overwhelming. The mushrooms were mostly absent, but I would prefer that to the overload that occurred in Whitewater a week or two prior. The exterior bits of crust were crunchy and singed by the flame. It was a good pizza.

But there was a problem here, and it’s one that I can appreciate as someone who has struggled at the helm of a wood-fired oven. The top of the pizza was nicely browned, but the bottom of the crust featured no such browning. It was nearly flour white. The edges were crisped, but beyond that the crust was soft and undercooked. I know what happened here. A gas oven heats up uniformly, with the oven deck holding that heat beautifully, just as the thermostat dictates. But a wood-fired oven, after working overtime during the heated pace of a Saturday night service, tends to lose some deck heat. The chef fixes this by adding wood and stoking the fire that burns in a back corner of the oven, but while the air heats, the deck is shielded by a handful of pizza pies. The deck stays cooler than the air, which results in a pizza that shows beautifully on top but is, as a matter of undeniable fact, undercooked on the bottom. This was the fate that befell our pizza.

I liked this restaurant. It was bustling with activity, and the pizza was reasonably good. The bigger question for me is will I be back? Sadly, I believe the answer to be no. But that’s just me, and it takes some effort and time for me to leave Williams Bay and drive to that location north of Elkhorn. It’s a good pizza, don’t get me wrong, but is it as good as the best? No, on Saturday night it most certainly wasn’t.

Holi Cannoli

N7605 US Highway 12, Elkhorn, WI

6.7/10

$21.95 for a 16″ Sausage Pizza, plus $1.50 for mushrooms.

PS. I may do one more review along with a summary next week to wrap the series.

Gino’s East Pizza Review

Gino’s East Pizza Review

Monday night found me in Burlington for my son’s baseball game. Since I was in Burlington I asked a few people for their opinions as to the best pizza in their town. The opinions varied. The Waterfront, someone said. Napoli’s, others chimed. Without a clear consensus pick I decided to move on from the city of Burlington and drive to the West and South, back to Lake Geneva where I belong. Burlington may have delivered a beating to my son’s baseball team, but I did not stoop so low as to eat their pizza and pay them back with a blistering review.

Gino’s East is a pizza place in Chicago. There are several locations. It serves deep dish pizza and other sorts of pizza, salads, etc. It may be an institution of sorts, though Malnati’s claims a more audible fan base, but it has only been a part of the Lake Geneva scene for the past several years. This Lake Geneva location is attached to an old hotel, the sort with PVC patio furniture. The restaurant space is fine, with bold views of the lake and a vaulted ceiling. The tablecloths are plastic, checkered in black and white. I’ve been there before, but on Monday night, after the baseball disaster, it was time to judge this institution.

We were led to our seats only after a several minute wait, not because there was a long line, but because the hostess was missing in action. We were seated at a booth tacked to the wall that separates the dining room from the bar area, but it was a nice perch to watch a spring storm roll across the lake. The waiter wandered over a few minutes later to take our order. There was some sort of special underway, so we ordered an extra large (16″) pizza of their supreme, and were told it would be half off, or something similar. This was a nice surprise, coupled with the nice surprise that their Supreme doesn’t come with olives as a standard inclusion. Finally, some good sense being displayed.

We ordered at 6:48. By 7:05, our water glasses were dry. By 7:10, we were telling each other that the pizza had better come out in the next three or four minutes, or there will be an automatic deduction to their score, no matter how good the pizza may or may not be. The water was nowhere to be found. After we had chewed our ice cubes, our tongues began to rattle around our mouths like wooden mallets. At 7:19, the pizza arrived. I don’t need to tell you that a 31 minute wait for a thin crust pizza, on a weeknight in April, with perhaps four other tables occupied, is not ideal. Still, we lustily drank our refilled waters and tore into the pizza.

The crust was slightly misshapen and smelled of yeast, a nice touch to prove its handmade origins. But while the crust was exposed, it was not particularly raised, leaving me to wonder if this is how the crust always is or if this was a bad batch. The crust was hard, like rock hard. Teeth-shattering-hard. The exterior was laced with corn meal, an option I vastly prefer over a floured crust (Harpoon’s should switch to cornmeal). But the interior was thin and held up nicely to the flop test. The cheese was a bit whiter than I prefer, but not as white as the white-out that is the top of a Next Door Pub, medium-rare pie.

The vegetables were adequately softened, with finely diced green peppers scattered about with slices of onion and mushrooms. The sausage was bland, and not particularly well represented in this ensemble. The sauce, was it even there? I couldn’t taste it, even though I saw some red smeared on the crust. Was it bland or just applied with a touch too much restraint? Either way, it wasn’t very good. The first few pieces of this tavern cut pie had me thinking that I’d place this pizza just under the front runners, but ahead of the pack. As two pieces turned to five, I realized that this wasn’t a good pizza at all.

Should a pizza place with a Chicago pedigree be held to a higher standard than a local shop being run by a guy and his wife? I’d like to think the answer is yes. But on this night, Gino’s served me a bland pizza, the only thing memorable was the rock hard crust. I expected better, and I deserved better. Alas, with that mediocre pizza resting comfortably in my stomach, I found solace in the simple fact that I was back in Lake Geneva, and no longer in Burlington.

Gino’s East

300 Wrigley Drive, Lake Geneva

6.0/10

$27 for Gino’s Supreme (discounted on Monday to $13.50)

Harpoon Willies

Harpoon Willies

I can’t tell you that I’m a regular at Harpoon Willies. When I walk in, no one winks at me a knowing wink. No one gives me a head nod, the sort you’d give a friend when you saw him. No one really, particularly, especially cares.  But alas, Harpoons is down the road from my office, and it’s in my home town, and I am nothing if not someone who likes to eat. And so it has gone, a visit to the restaurant now and then, never consistent, never particularly rejoicing in anything in particular.

I have a friend who likes to go there, and on Fridays he goes to order the fish sandwich. It’s a delightful fish sandwich, he says.  It’s fried, like all good fish things, and it’s on a nice bun, with some nice tartar sauce. When I went with him last fall, I didn’t order the fish sandwich. I have never ordered the fish sandwich. I’ve ordered the burger, it’s okay. I’ve ordered the chicken sandwich, it’s not horrible. I ordered pizza there once, and that was pretty good. But never the fish sandwich and never the brisket, until then.

There’s a sign outside of Harpoons. It’s on the West side of the building, sort of accidental. It says SMOKEHOUSE. Or something like that, I can’t really remember. The idea is that there’s a smoker in that side shed, and they smoke meat. And so on that day I ordered the brisket sandwich. I slathered it with their barbecue sauce, sloppy and drippy and sweet. The sandwiches come with a side of chips, but I haven’t like eating lunch with chips since my mom packed my high school lunch, and so I upgrade and order the waffle fries. In case you forgot, I have previously anointed their waffle fries the finest in all the land.

The brisket sandwich was a shocking delight. It was smokey, sweet, remarkable. It was, dare I say, the finest bit of barbecue on a bun that I’ve ever had. I’m not a connoisseur of smoked meats in the way that some of the mouth breathing guys on the food channels might be, but I’ve had more than a few. This sandwich was better than those, better than all of them, the best. I delighted in my new find, and a few weeks later, I went back to order it again.

During that visit, the brisket came out as before, but one bite told me it wasn’t the same. It was tough, rough, difficult. It wasn’t the tender sandwich of earlier that fall, it was the aged version, tough and weathered, ornery. I ate it anyway, but didn’t go back for another sandwich for a more or close to two.

The third visit, the sandwich was as the first. It was divine. It was as good as before, better even. It was perfection. I was now two for three, and the four visit came a few weeks later. That sandwich, too, was delightful. Three for four. Another visit in early January- perfect. Four for five.  After that successful run, I saw fit to share my findings with friends and family. The brisket sandwich had proven worthy.

Three weeks ago I went back, and I brought a client. I told him the sandwich was the best in all of the land. In that competition, there wasn’t even a second place. We ordered. We ate. The sandwich was a bit tough, not perfect, somewhere between great and okay, maybe just mediocre. I pleaded with him, this was an anomaly I said. It wasn’t the way it was before. I asked for forgiveness.

Last night, after the Town of Walworth unceremoniously and wonderfully turned away Shodeen (he’ll be back, and we’ll be ready and waiting), a celebration. The war is far from over, but this battle was ours. Brisket sandwiches all around. The sandwich mixed well with the lingering taste of sweet victory. Spicy, tender, perfect. Lake Geneva has a lot of places to buy food. Most places have one thing they do really well. Harpoon Willies has the brisket sandwich and those waffle fries, and that’s enough for me.  And yes, I’m getting fat again.