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Oakfire Pizza Review

Oakfire Pizza Review

One year ago, I stopped writing fish fry reviews. Over the following weeks, I was often asked why I didn’t crown a winner. Why, after so much fish and so many potato pancakes, I never declared the outright victor. When I began the series, I had every intention of doing just that. Eat, score, rank, declare. That was my intended process. But after some time of visiting different restaurants and hearing commentary from the patrons who prefer certain establishments over another, I realized something. Going to fish fry isn’t about finding the best fish or the crispiest potato pancake. It’s about the idea. The concept. The practice. If your dad took you to the Village when you were growing up, you take your kids to the Village. Never mind the odd potato pancake, you love it. Friday Fish Fry in Wisconsin isn’t about finding the best fish, it’s about going where you want to go.

This lies in stark contrast to the pizza series. People don’t just go out for pizza, they want to go eat good pizza. But this is where the problem lies. People like different sorts of pizza. I might dislike the sort of pizza you like. If you like to order a pizza well done, you will love The Next Door Pub. If you know to order extra sauce on a JoJo’s pizza, you’ll love it. If you like the slightly pungent cheese that Larducci’s uses, you’ll find this to be the best pizza in the area. We’re all different, and we all have different tastes, and that’s just fine by me.

I did take some heat for this pizza review series, just as I did for the fish fry series. I had some shop owners lambast me for my honesty. This is not an area that takes kindly to objective reviews. This area is used to puff pieces, like you’ll find in local magazines or newspapers. There’s never a grade applied to an effort. Never an opinion levied. It’s just a glowing non-review that lacks any substance. I had hoped to change those generic puff pieces, but in doing so, struck a nerve. No one likes to be told their pizza (fish, burger, burrito, etc and etc) isn’t any good. No one wants that in print, and I do not blame them. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t mind being pummeled by people after I tell the world (or at least this tiny part of it) that the pizza they make, or the pizza they prefer, is no better than Meh.

With that in mind, I’m not going to wrap this series, but I am going to slow it down. There are places I have yet to visit. A new place in East Troy (wait until the Elkhorn people learn how I feel about East Troy), some other joints here and there. But that’s in the future, and the past is the only thing we can review. Which is why I went to Oakfire last night, and pregamed my Oakfire pizza with a Mod pizza. This the new fast-casual joint by Starbucks. I wanted to try this first to see if Oakfire was better, or if our local places were getting beaten by an upstart franchise. The good news is that Oakfire was better, but Mod is a nice little place if you’re in a hurry for a quick lunch or dinner, and you also want a delightful view of the Walmart parking lot.

Oakfire first came to Lake Geneva several years ago and opened in a renovated space that used to house Scuttlebutts. After they renovated, they opened, and then a couple of years later, they tore down the building and built new. The new building is modern, large, and if you want to know if I think the architecture is right for our lakefront, I’d tell you that it is not. However, on this night, with the calm lake to our south and the sun setting to the west, there was little about this scene that some reasonable person could dislike. We settled into our streetside table (here there is a large interior space and patio on the first floor, an interior space upstairs with matching open-air patio, and the streetside patio adjacent the sidewalk), and ordered.

The waiter was nice and quickly talked me into the Di Bufala Margherita as opposed to the regular Margherita. The imported cheese is worth the $2 he told me. We ordered another pizza, this the Diavola, and swapped the salami for the spicier soppressata. This is the only restaurant in this series that features a real wood-fired pizza oven. This type of cooking requires skill and knowledge, and we’d be fools if we didn’t both understand and appreciate that nuance. The pizza’s arrive table side within 15 minutes, and they were undeniably beautiful. The edges charred, the crust raised just a bit, the cheese sparse and nicely melted. This is a wood-fired pizza, all right.

The Di Bufala was good, though the cheese slid off the pizza when we tried to pick it up. A note of advice for Oakfire: serve this true Neapolitan pizza in a true Neapolitan way, with a knife and fork and not pre-sliced. The complaint about Oakfire is that the interior tends to be sloppy and wet. This is true, and this condition of Neapolitan pizza was affirmed to me by Steve Dolinsky before I began this tour. If the pizza is going to be soggy and floppy, too much so to properly pick up, then why cut it into slices? Serve it as it would be served in France, with a large knife and fork, uncut. That’s my two cents. The pizza, either way, was quite good. The sauce is made of San Marzano tomatoes, and while I would have liked it a touch sweeter and a tweak spicier, it was good. I cook my sauce longer, so this sauce has a slight raw-tomato flavor that isn’t my favorite, but it’s undeniably good anyway.

The Diavola was equally good, the crust nicely charred and chewy. It’s a nicely executed pizza, and on this night, there was nothing about Oakfire that I didn’t like. The scene was delightful, the pizza tasty, the service capable. I ate pizza at Stella Barra in Lincoln Park a few weeks ago, and while I preferred that pizza to the Oakfire pie, the scene at Oakfire was, dare I say, better? Happy patrons ate their pizza, music played, the big old lake turning shades of pink and purple as the sun faded. This is the finest of our pizza scenes, and the only place to eat a wood-fired pizza. Because of this, Oakfire deserves our praise, and if you’d like to put your fancy shoes on and enjoy a night out in our lovely town, this is your place.

Oakfire Pizza

831 Wrigley Drive, Lake Geneva

8.2/10 (this is the highest score I’ve given, but this score is based on this type of pizza, so I’m not saying this is the best overall in our market, just the best of this style (and, coincidentally, the only of this style)

$16 Margherita Di Bufala, $16 Diavola

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.

JoJo’s Pizza Review

JoJo’s Pizza Review

There’s a particular scene in Django Unchained that finds a group of men in the midst of preparing for a raid. The reason for the raid is unimportant. It’s dark, and the group of men are riding horses and wearing masks. The masks have two small eye holes cut into them and nothing else. The men are complaining. They can’t see. They can’t breathe. The complaining is colorful and intense. One man is defending his wife, who made the masks, while another man chides, “well if all I had to do was cut a hole in a bag, I coulda cut it better than this!

That’s how I feel about pizza. It’s just a crust, some sauce, cheese and random toppings. There’s not much to it, really. It should be so easy that anyone could make it. My mom makes it, but she’s a good cook. Your mom makes it, and she might not be so good. I make it, my wife makes it, my kids, if given some time, they could make a pizza, too. Someone who doesn’t understand pizza might think this way. When I started this series, I knew pizza was hard to make at home in my wood-fired ovens, but I figured that any restaurant, if given enough time to practice, could master the art of the pie. Each week I’m realizing just how wrong I was.

On Sunday afternoon, I was hungry. This was not unique to last Sunday. This is an affliction that I carry with me every day, no matter the month, the season, the year. I will bring this curse to my grave. I had finished some showings, stopped at Lowes to buy a few bits and pieces needed for my bathroom remodel project, and since I was already in Delavan I decided to round out the Delavan pizza places with JoJo’s. I called on the pizza from the parking lot of Lowes, an extra large pizza called the Favorite Five, to go. The Favorite Five did not contain any mention of olives, proving the intelligence and refined palate of JoJo’s owners. The wait would be about 30 minutes, just enough time to run into Walmart to buy some deodorant and subsequently wait for 10 minutes in Walmart Line Hell while the people in front of me navigated through the futuristic waters of the self check-out.

JoJo’s is a basic restaurant on Highway 50 in the Delavan Inlet. It’s nothing much to look at from the exterior, but pretty much every pizza place in Walworth County, excepting Oak Fire, would be accurately described in the same way. I was early to pick up my pizza, but I wanted to walk inside for the first time to see what this place was all about. I was pleased to see patrons seated at the tables, eating their pizzas. A girl stocked drinks in a glass-front cooler, and I sat down to peruse the local magazines. One such magazine talked about pizzas without actually grading the pizzas, for shame.

Exactly 30 minutes after I placed my order, the pizza was brought out from the kitchen. I appreciated the punctuality. Unlike other pizza places, their extra large pie is an 18″, rather than the typical 16″, so I was excited to have a chance to pack on some extra calories before summer. I paid the tab, $21.40 plus tax and tip (a great price for an 18″ pizza), and retreated to the safety of my car, where the lustily intoxicating smell of a fresh pizza perfumed my interior.

The first thing you notice about this pie is the pepperoni. It’s placed on top of the cheese, like a true pepperoni pizza. The other vegetables of sausage, mushroom, onion, as well as the other meat, sausage, were tucked under the cheese as is a normal tavern style preparation. The flop test was a breeze, as this crust was sturdy but thin, crunchy but soft. It was a relief after the molar cracking episode at Gino’s the week prior. The crust is more like Mama Cimino’s, crunchy but soft, very little chew. Like a Ritz cracker without the buttery sheen. I liked the crust, but it wasn’t necessarily a standout.

The first bite was good. The second bite, too. But something was amiss here. The cheese was fine, the vegetables a bit raw for my taste, but something was off. I ate a few more pieces to see if I could decipher what it was. Perplexed by the delicious looking, yet bland tasting pizza, I drove to a friend’s house for a second opinion. As I sat at a stop light, jamming as much pizza into my mouth as I could before the light turned green, it dawned on me. This pizza had no salt. Once at my friend’s house, I didn’t fill him in on my discovery, but instead asked for his opinion. He couldn’t place it. He said what I was thinking. It’s a fine pizza, but I don’t need to eat it again. A few more pieces and I told him what was missing: salt. He concurred, and with that, the pizza’s fate was sealed.

On Facebook, I made note of my JoJo’s visit, and my astute cousin told me to order the pizza with extra sauce. With that comment I lifted the cheese and toppings layer from the crust and revealed the sin. This pizza had hardly any sauce. Like four tablespoons for the entire 18″ pie. It wasn’t that it lacked salt, it was that it lacked sauce, where the salt should be. A perfectly good pizza rendered average due to nothing more than a light dollop of tomato sauce. As for ordering a pizza with extra sauce, I will not do this, just as I won’t ask the Next Door Pub to cook my pizza well-done. Nor will I ask Culvers to make sure my custard is served cold.

I wanted to like this pizza. It looked terrific. The crust was crunchy and thin, and held up quite well during the ten minute drive from JoJo’s to my friend’s house. But the lack of sauce and salt cannot be forgiven. With a proper dose of sauce and salt I could place this pizza north of 7.0, up near the epicurean leaders. But without the sauce, I must place this pizza where it belongs. Ahead of the bad pies, but below the good ones. I appreciate the effort that JoJo’s brings to their pizza game, as everything showed signs of care and expertise. Even the sauce was good, if only there had been enough of it.

JoJo’s Pizza and Pasta

308 State Highway 50, Delavan

5.3/10

$21.40 for the Five Favorite Extra Large (18″ with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, and green peppers)

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)

Vesuvio’s Pizza Review

Vesuvio’s Pizza Review

This is the tenth week in a row I’ve eaten pizza. One week, I ate pizza three times. If you think this is why my shirts are tighter than usual, I assure you that the shirts were tightening long before the string of pizzas. When I started this series, I worried that the pizza would all end up tasting the same. I worried that I’d quickly grow tired of pizza. That the area would disappoint in its pizza options and I’d lament having ever brought up the subject. But alas, ten weeks later I’ve found each pizza to be different, and each week an exciting opportunity to uncover Lake Geneva’s best pizza. Besides, one does not simply grow tired of pizza.

Vesuvius Little Italy is hidden in plain sight on Delavan’s main thoroughfare. There’s a magnificent oak tree on the corner that looms over the sign, over the building, over the entire corner. What a tree it is. On Sunday it was covered in snow, an unfortunate spring reminder that winter routinely plays outside of the lines. Late into the afternoon I realized that my Monday night was complicated, and on Tuesday I had to be in Chicago for meetings. That left Sunday, so in the snow we traveled to that hidden corner, just north of Hernandez and south of the brick road, and we picked up our pizza.

I called ahead to order, as this is a takeout and delivery restaurant, much like Larducci’s in Elkhorn. There may be a dining room here, but if there is, I didn’t see it. Perhaps owed to that large oak tree obscuring my view. As I scanned the online menu I noticed there were some immediate differences at Vesuvio’s. This seems to be mostly a pizza place, but the menu is lengthy and detailed. If you wanted a pizza and, say, some breaded cheddar cauliflower, you’re in luck, Vesuvio’s has you covered. Their large pizza isn’t a 16″ as is the area norm, instead it’s just 14″, but it is priced a bit less to offset the missing pie. The Vesuvio’s Special is their version of supreme, offering sausage, pepperoni, bacon, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and both green and black olives. I ordered the large (14″, which was a special for Sunday so it was only $16.95) and asked that the green and black peppers be thrown in the trash prior to assembly. To think a pizza place would serve so many satanic olives so close to a church.

The wait was to be 30 minutes, give or take. When we arrived, a few minutes early, there were two other diners waiting for their pizzas. My daughter told me of her plan to take a trip to California with her friends when she turns 18. I told her she was forbidden. She said I couldn’t do anything about it, since she’d be 18. I told her she will always have to do as I say, no matter her age. She told me this was a lie that I was telling myself. She’s 13 now, full of confidence, quick to reply and eager to assert some level of independence. I considered arguing this to a further detail, but the pizza was ready and we retreated through the dwindling snow and to the car. We agreed to talk about the future another time, sometime after this pizza was sampled.

The fourteen inch pizza looked small to me. Forced portion control is something that only flies in New York City and public school cafeterias, so I admit I lamented this 14 inch pizza in a world flush with 16 inchers. The crust was risen, the cheese nicely browned, hunks of sausage and diced vegetables protruding at predictable intervals. The cheese was good, normal, and as I ate this pizza I couldn’t help but wish this was the cheese that Larcucci’s would use. The pizza was cut square, tavern style, but I have a hard time considering this to be a tavern style, given that slightly raised crust. This looked more like my mother’s pizza, if less doughy, and as of yet my mother’s pizza style is unnamed.

The first bites revealed serious differences between this pizza and the others I’ve had. The crust was thick around the edges, but quite thin in the middle. It held up to the flop test. The crust wasn’t chewy, not at all, and the raised section of the edge was as crunchy throughout as a prepackaged breadstick in a supper club’s relish tray. The sausage was good, the vegetables a bit raw for my taste, and the sauce was considerably sweeter than any I’ve encountered. Was the sauce too sweet? My daughter and I couldn’t decide.

When the pizza was sufficiently sampled and I successfully fished out a wayward slice of pepperoni from the gap next to my driver’s seat, I decided that this was a fine pizza. It wasn’t remarkable, and I don’t think it belongs in the same category as the standouts. But it was better than the bad pizzas and similar to the market average. If I lived in Delavan, I’d have this pizza in my rotation. But I don’t live in Delavan, so I likely won’t make any special effort to have this pizza, in the same way that I would make an effort to order another pizza from Larducci’s. Still, I’m glad Vesuvio’s Little Italy continues to anchor that shady corner in Delavan, and I wish them continued success.

Vesuvio’s Little Italy

617 East Washington Street, Delavan

6.7/10

14″ Vesuvio’s Special $16.95

Larducci’s Pizza Review

Larducci’s Pizza Review

On Sunday night I watched a documentary about the ills of an animal based diet. Dairy products are full of puss, the pork industry ruined the state of North Carolina, and chickens, well, chickens are even worse. Processed meats are killing us faster than cigarettes, and if we eat animal products we’re all going to die. The next documentary on my screen was about the perils of grains and beans, because those, too, are killing us. Eat meat, cheese, and full fat dairy, and then you’ll live forever. Regardless, I switched off the documentaries and decided that a plant based diet was the one for me.

But what a ridiculous thought that was, because it was Tuesday night and I was hungry not for grains and carrots, but for cheese and sausage. (For my diet fiends, don’t start lecturing me now, because alcohol is as carcinogenic as sausage, so remove the plank, etcetera and etcetera). I wanted to visit a pizza place farther to the north in Elkhorn, but alas, Tuesday is the day that pizza places like to rest. Besides, my son was playing baseball in Williams Bay and the game was running long and the runs were piling up, so I did what any father with hunger would do: I drove to Larducci’s in Elkhorn to pick up a pizza. This way I could satisfy my need for a blog post, satiate my hunger, and arrive at the end of the baseball game with whatever was left of the pizza. Hero, all around.

Knowing that Larducci’s isn’t a dine-in establishment, I called the restaurant from the baseball field to place my order. Larducci isn’t just the name of the owner/chief pizza maker (presumably) and the restaurant, it’s also the name of their version of a Supreme. But unlike other Supreme concoctions, this pizza boasted pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, red onions, and a smattering of red, yellow, and green peppers. While the menu doesn’t mention it, there was also some canadian bacon thrown in for good measure. My Sunday night self would have abhorred this animal based dinner, but my Tuesday night self placed the order and drove to Elkhorn with anticipation (I called at 6:08 and was told the pizza would take 35 minutes). It should be noted, that’s the third time I’ve ever driven to Elkhorn excitedly. The first time was when I was driven in utero to be born at Lakeland Hospital. The second time was when I was driven to the DMV to take my driving test. This was the third time. Sorry Elkhorn, there have been no other times.

Larducci’s isn’t much of a restaurant space. It’s a small brick building behind Lyle’s Appliance on Some Street in Elkhorn. Open the door, and there’s just a kitchen. Some work stations, coolers, and open air conveyor ovens, the sort Quizno’s used to roast your sandwiches in, back when there were Quizno’s outside of airports. A man met me at the counter, and while he never mentioned his name or his position, I assumed he was the owner and head pizza maker. We exchanged some pleasantries about the coming storm while I eyed my pizza making its way, slowly, through the oven. I paid the tab, $23.21, scribbled in a tip, and waited. But this wait was different than my other waits.

Since there was no buffer between patron and chef, I asked the man how long the pizza needed to bake. Eight minutes, he told me. I asked how long his dough took to make, and if there was a constant starter that he kept on hand, or if each batch was from scratch. He told me that he’d love the dough to have two or three days, but it can be ready after a minimum of one day. He talked about the dough as a baker would, not as a chef who pulls a thin crust from a plastic freezer bag. In the background, a younger man dotted a pizza with hunks of sausage. He said he, too, likes making the dough. The two men were happy to be here, happy to be making my pizza. There was pride in this effort that I haven’t yet seen on this tour. That’s likely because I was essentially in this kitchen, rather than separated by the drywalled line that typically hides chef from patron, but even so. I appreciated this man’s candor, his effort, and his desire to make a perfect pizza.

After checking on the pizza twice, both times saying that it wasn’t quite ready, he pulled the pie from the oven and took it to the box. He asked if I’d like some red pepper flakes or parmesan, I declined, and instead only received a sprinkling of fresh chopped parsley. A nice touch. We talked a bit more about outdoor pizza ovens, about the dough, about the difficult but short winter we had just endured. I left with my pizza and felt content to have encountered this pizza maker.

Now, any regular old slob might have opened the pizza box right there in the parking stall in front of the restaurant. I’m not that regular slob, so I had the decency to pretend to drive away, as if I were driving home to deliver dinner, our quarry, to my waiting family. But instead of driving home, I drove to the stop sign and opened the box. This was a beautiful pizza. Easily the most beautiful of this tour. I took a bite. And then a few more. And a couple of pieces later, someone had the nerve to pull up behind me at the stop sign and suggest with a tap of their horn that I should drive forward. Elkhorn, I thought as I shook my head and licked the sauce from my fingers. Elkhorn.

The immediate difference between this pizza and every other I’ve had to date is the crust. This crust smells of yeast, and that’s the sort of smell that a dough can only find by spending a day or two developing. The interior of the pie was impossibly thin, but still gathered the strength to hold up for the flop test. The exterior was a raised crust, uneven, to prove the hand made origins. The dough wasn’t particularly airy, but it had a nice chew, again a result of that time spent proofing. The cheese was well browned and the vegetables (mushrooms from River Valley Kitchen) were adequately softened. The sausage was serious and didn’t suffer from an overdose of fennel. Thanks to the fine folks at Hometown Sausage Kitchen in East Troy for this lovely sausage. Things were looking up, and as I left Elkhorn I delighted in this new to me pizza place, and in this delicious pizza.

But as time wore on, I noticed the cheese was different. It was nuttier, almost like a gruyere, or other alpine cheese. Was that because this mix had mozzarella and provolone? Was there something else to this cheese? Either way, I would have preferred a different cheese, and if this pie had the cheese, say, of Harpoon Willies or Pino’s, I would have raised up Larducci’s as the new standard. I should have asked the chef when the pie came out of the oven what his cheese blend was. It was noticeably browner than a typical pizza, perhaps owed to this different cheese blend?

With the possible caveat of the cheese, this was a most delightful pizza. I was impressed by this chef. Impressed by the care and attention paid to this pizza. This man loves pizza, and as a fellow admirer, I greatly appreciated this encounter and his product. The fact that he sources his sausage and mushrooms from local purveyors is more proof of this passion. Next time you find yourself lost in Elkhorn, or just hungry in Williams Bay, do yourself a favor and get a Larducci’s pizza. It’s a winner. Is it better than Harpoon’s? On this night, no it was not, but it’s darn close, and that earns it a starting position in your animal based diet.

Larducci’s Pizzaria

20 South Washington Street, Elkhorn

7.9/10

$22 for The Larducci

Siemer’s Cruise In Pizza Review

Siemer’s Cruise In Pizza Review

I was already in Hebron. Hebron, the place where they won that basketball championship so many years ago. The place that’ll be damned if they’re going to let you forget it. I was there for a baseball game, and after my son’s team was dismantled by the Hebroners, as I’ve decided to call them, we knew it was time. Time for more pizza. But where? I had heard good reviews of Red’s Pizza a ways west on 173, and since I was already in Illinois, it seemed like the right decision. Red’s it would be.

But while Red’s, just a bit east of Harvard, had ample open parking in their gravel lot, the sign on the door would tell us that we were not welcome. Cash only, it said. There’s something simultaneously quaint and annoying about establishments like this. On one hand, it’s a throw back. A memory of a more simple time, when people succumbed to Polio and carried cash. On the other hand, it’s actually bothersome. It’s 2019, Square exists. Just pay the 2% to the credit card company and move on with life. Still, in our cashless position we had no choice but to move on. Back to Wisconsin, back to Walworth. Back where the pizza flows like honey. (Note, Red’s announced last week that they’re closing their doors at the end of April. Sad news for Harvard, but Harvard is likely used to sad news by now, which is also sad.)

Siemer’s Cruise In is on the main drag in Walworth, east of the square, but only by a modest stone’s throw. There are some hairdressers, another bar or two, maybe a bowling alley, and at least one real estate office nearby. I parked on the street and walked in, my son still in his baseball uniform, me in my uniform of jeans and a t-shirt. I had been to Siemer’s before, if only once, and I quite liked the lunch I had there. But this wasn’t time for lunch, this was time for pizza, and we were hungry. Thomas was hungry from his baseball game, and I was hungry from this game of life.

A large 16″ pizza would do. There was no Supreme option, no real speciality options at all, actually. Just add on toppings for a fee. We chose sausage, mushrooms and green peppers, to remain consistent in this search for Lake Geneva’s best pizza. The pizza itself was $12.75, and each vegetable topping was $2.25, each meat topping was $2.50. Our pizza, all said and done, was $19.75, or on the low end of the local price range for such a constructed pizza. Since this is a bar first, we had to order at the counter with the bartender. No matter, he was kind and polite, even though it was obvious he was subtly signaling to the other patrons that my son and I were not locals and should be watched, closely. The time was 6:52 pm, but our hunger was nearing midnight.

We sat back at our four-top table and surveyed the scene. Televisions hung from the walls, the Brewers game was on most of them. On another, an NIT game, I think. There were signs on the walls about beer and others about food. Drink Beer, one commanded. The kitchen is half exposed, with the fryers facing the bar and a large double doored cooler doing the same. But this isn’t a sexy kitchen, in the way that some kitchens want you to watch them and admire their culinary ways. This is just a kitchen, some fryers and coolers. There’s nothing here to remember, and that’s fine. The locals didn’t seem to mind, as some nursed drinks at the bar and others wolfed cheeseburgers at nearby tables. The World’s Second Best Burger, according to their website.

The pizza arrived at 7:14, right around my 20 minute preferred wait time for such a thin-crust, tavern style pie. The pizza was pretty, but unfussy. It was flecked with oven marks, the sort The Next Door Pub finds maddeningly elusive. The sausage rose from the bed of cheese, along with a few peppers and mushrooms that poked through in random intervals. The pizza was noticeably light on toppings, with some pieces lacking a hunk of sausage, and an all-around lack of typical topping overload as is common in Walworth County. I couldn’t decide, at least at first, if I liked this restraint. I decided later that I did not, and at $2.25-2.50 per topping I would have expected a heavier hand.

Still, the crust was thin and crispy, the flop test passed with efficient ease. There was nothing initially wrong with this pizza, the topping issue aside. The first bites were crunchy enough, the sauce wasn’t bitter, the cheese fine. But as time wore on and one bite turned to thirty, the crust went soggy and limp. This was likely a frozen bag crust, and it showed. Still, we persevered and finished the pizza like champs. Locals came and locals went, many arriving via a back door that I didn’t even know existed.

This was a decent pizza, but I won’t go back for it again. The crust was too soggy, the toppings too light. The scene was a classic Wisconsin neighborhood bar style, but it lacked any of the age or patina that can make these establishments memorable. This was just a Tuesday in Walworth, and this was just a pizza that I’d only eat again if I found myself as I was that night. Starving, in Walworth, out of gas, and too far west from Pino’s and too far east from Nayeli’s. Then again, I wouldn’t even eat this pizza again, I’d opt for the World’s Second Best Burger, because that sounds promising.

Siemer’s Cruise In

107 Kenosha Street, Walworth

5.4/10

$19.75 for a 16″ with cheese, mushrooms, green peppers and sausage

Harpoon Willie’s Pizza Review

Harpoon Willie’s Pizza Review

When you’re reviewing pizza in an area of rural Wisconsin that is populated, be it seasonally or annually, by people from Chicago, it’s only natural that you hear the admonitions. Why eat pizza in Lake Geneva when it’s so much better in Chicago? If I want pizza I go to Chicago. Chicago’s pizza is so much better, I can’t even stomach the local stuff. This is what they say.

With those statements swimming in my mind I looked up Steve Dolinsky’s (The Hungry Hound) top pizzas in Chicago. Number one was south of my comfort zone. Number two was in Lakeview, Pat’s on Lincoln. So I did what any Wisconsinite would do, and I drove to Pat’s to taste what a pizza should taste like. I won’t dwell on this review. I ordered pizza. I ate pizza. The crust was super thin. The toppings, fine. The cheese wasn’t right. The sauce was decent. As I sat there eating the number two pizza in that second city I couldn’t help but think that Pino’s in Walworth was better.

On the heels of that Chicago trip, my desire to eat bread slathered with sauce and meats and cheese had yet to be tamped, so I tucked in to a raised booth at Harpoon Willie’s Tuesday night and ordered a pizza. Harpoon’s is a favorite of mine, mostly due to their delicious brisket sandwich and waffle fries, but also due to the proximity to my office and to the lake. It’s a great bar, and nothing will change that. Not even a very disappointing fish fry last year could shake my commitment. But I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t think about that poor review that I gave their fish, and worry that I might have to deliver another blow to one of my favorite places.

It was 5:04 when we ordered. A large 16″ pizza. They have a Meat Lovers but not a supreme, so I eschewed the meatballs in favor of some green peppers and mushrooms. The remaining meat should suffice. The waitress was kind and polite, and refilled our water glasses two or more times while we waited for our pie. The restaurant was reasonably busy, but when the clock struck 5:35 I was beginning to think our pizza might not ever come. Then again, the wait at Pat’s in Chicago approached 50 minutes even though the restaurant was almost entirely empty. At 5:36, the waitress brought out our meatball-less pizza. Advantage Harpoons.

This was a beautiful pizza, and since no one else said it first, I had to mumble it under my breath. The cheese was dotted with battle scars from the heat of the oven. The crust was thin, crispy, ideal. Not as thin as Pat’s, mind you, but what, at this point, does that matter? The green peppers were a bit raw, which was a bit upsetting, and the sausage was relatively heavy on the fennel seed. I like my fennel seed right next to my olives, burning in fiery hell. The sauce was good, not too sweet, not at all bitter. The underside of the pizza was a bit too chalked with flour, which is a rookie pizza maker’s sin that I’ve committed many times. It didn’t bother the pizza, but I did think it to be an area that needed some improvement. The cheese was ample but not overwhelming, and it’s the cheese on our local pizzas that sets them apart from Pat’s. I’m sure the cheese all comes out of the back of a Sysco truck, but the cheese here is just better. Saltier, denser, better.

In spite of these few complaints, the pizza was superlative. It easily beats Pat’s. Easily beats every other pizza on this tour, excepting perhaps Pino’s. My son and I debated this on our drive home. On one hand, the crust here is thinner, crispier. The flop test featured not a single degree of flop. The scene here is better. The view, the style, all better. And I think on this night, the pizza was, too. And just like that, we have a new leader.

Harpoon Willie’s

8 East Geneva Street, Williams Bay

8.0/10

$22 for a 16″ Meat Lovers, sans meatballs, plus peppers and mushrooms

Wisconsin Kringle Company Pizza Review

Wisconsin Kringle Company Pizza Review

I remember when this place first opened. I had a friend considering putting a donut shop into this odd building on the corner of the Lake Geneva Club and South Lakeshore Drive, just East of Fontana. We liked the idea of a donut shop here. A really good donut shop. But alas, before we could act, Wisconsin Kingle Company moved into the space and while they do serve donuts, it’s kringle first. I stopped after they opened and ate a kringle, for research purposes. It was okay, I suppose. But I couldn’t shake the thought of a dialed in donut shop. My Kringle Kingdom for one delicious donut.

This isn’t a donut review, or a kringle review, it’s a pizza review, so when I walked in the other day I ordered one thing and one thing only. A pizza. There was no Supreme offering on the menu, just some other concoctions (The Texas Tornado?) and a build your own menu. I built my own, a 16″ thin crust (that’s their only crust, plus a gluten free option) with sausage, green peppers, and mushrooms. The nice thing about this process is that I didn’t even have to warn the waitress that I’m deathly allergic to a mere whiff of olives. Good thing, too, because this isn’t really a restaurant. It’s a take-out place, so there’s no waitress so much as there is a lady behind the counter. I placed my order, $20.25 for the designer supreme. It was 3:47 pm and the girl said the pizza would take about 10-15 minutes. Yes, I know it was early, and yes, I’m obese, and yes, I was a bit hungry.

A man wearing a chef’s outfit appeared from the back corner of the kitchen. It was his time now. Time to make the pizza. He reached into a cabinet and pulled out a crust from a clear plastic bag. This was a crust like a Tombstone pizza crust. He wasn’t busy throwing and stretching the crust, he just grabbed it from a bag. With the frozen crust on the table, he began his assembly. Some sauce, the vegetables and sausage, the cheese. It was a decent looking pizza, but I couldn’t help but feel anxious over the bagged crust. I wandered around the small space, wondering if this was all a big mistake.

If normal Lake Geneva pizza shops aren’t high on decorating, this place fell well below that low bar. It’s just a space. Some sections have food items on shelves to buy. Some beverage coolers line one of the walls. A walk-in beer cave, I think I noticed in the back. And there are Kringles, all varieties. Along with some donuts. The tops of the donuts had cracks in the icing, which is a tell tale sign that these were not the freshest of donuts. A cop walked in and bought some snacks. My mind wandered… what a shame it was that we didn’t put a donut shop here.

At 3:58 the pizza was assembled. The man said it would need seven or eight minutes in the oven. The allotted time passed, and the man pulled the pizza. As he transferred it from oven deck to cutting board he looked at it admiringly and softly, lovingly, whispered “this is beautiful” . This was the second bout of pizza-self-congratulations within a week, but I liked it, as I am nothing if not guilty of the same. The man cut the pizza with a few extra cuts in each direction, so this tavern style pizza was cut differently than others I’ve had. Each piece was small, not even two inches by two inches, but that didn’t matter now. It was into the car with my pizza, and it was sampling time.

The crust, as I saw when it was removed from the bag, was thing. Quite thin. The toppings were ample but not heavy, the cheese adequate without being a burden. The sauce was quite bland, with no real punch or sweetness. Writing this now, I cannot even remember tasting the sauce. The vegetables were properly softened. There was nothing here not to like. This was the thinnest crust of the tour, rivaling Mama Cimino’s but without the soft crunch that bothered me at Mama’s place. All in all, it was a good pizza.

But was it the best? No, it wasn’t. I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat here again. I didn’t like that the sauce was bland and I had a visual disagreement with the crust being pulled from that plastic bag. If you live on the south shore and you’re in the mood for pizza one evening, this would be a fine option. Like all corner stores, this isn’t a destination. This is a store of convenience, and this is a pizza of convenience. If you go, you’ll buy the pizza and eat the pizza and probably like the pizza. But you won’t make a note to go back, you know, unless you’re in the neighborhood.

Wisconsin Kringle Company

W4724 South LakeShore Drive, Fontana

6.7/10

$20.25 for a 16″ build your own supreme

Nayeli’s Pizza Review

Nayeli’s Pizza Review

In a well known, oft admired scene in The Great Outdoors, Buck Ripley is shooting pool at a local, Northwoods bar. His introduction to Cammie, a local, comes by way of an unfortunate placement of his pool cue. When the cue finds its awkward position, Cammie, the street tough Northwoods girl of John Hughes’ imagination, reacts with disgust, assuming young Buck placed it there intentionally. Later, Cammie is sitting outside the bar, puffing a heater, when she teases Buck, “you don’t know how local I am“.

Why am I telling you this? Well, because until a few weeks ago I didn’t know there was a pizza place in Walworth called Nayeli’s. Some local I am. Aiming to educate my Walworth ignorance, I pulled in for an early dinner at this Walworth establishment. It was Tuesday, it was melty outside, and the restaurant was empty. But it was only 4:45 pm, so the quiet nature of this basic restaurant was understood.

The interior is as the rest of them. Simple. Nothing here to remember, nothing to write down. You will not find any design ideas for your next basement remodel. It’s just a restaurant in a strip mall next to a Subway and some empty storefronts. In the distance, Mecum’s headquarters occupies the old grocery store. It’s just Walworth, and Nayeli’s is just a place to get pizza or a sandwich.

When a friend suggested I try Nayeli’s, the suggest came with a recommendation. Order the Double Dough pizza. There are several varieties of crust here: a thin crust tavern style, the double dough, a hand tossed pan style (somewhere in the middle of those two, I presume), and a Chicago Deep Dish. I would normally have only sampled the thin crust, but with the recommendation, I had to try the Double Dough. One large (14″) Double Dough Cheese pizza, and one large thin crust Supreme with pepperoni, bacon, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms, and onions. I told the waitress to mail the black olives to Satan. It was 4:49 pm.

We sipped our waters, which my son tasted “dusty”, and waited. The restaurant smelled of cleaning solution, which I find obnoxious each and every time I encounter this restaurant flaw. Locals walked in with some frequency, picking up take out orders and driving away. Business seemed relatively brisk, and I was happy for the Nayeli’s that it appears as though they are holding their own in a town ruled by Pino’s. The waitress brought plates to the table and added that she brought us the bigger plates. Game recognizes game.

At 5:07, under the 20 minute timeline that I find to be a reasonable wait for a thin crust pizza, the Supreme was brought to our table. It was beautiful. Legitimately beautiful. Ample toppings buried in and around nicely browned cheese. There wasn’t too much cheese, which was nice, and more in line with Mama Cimino’s than Pinos or the Next Door Pub, who both apply cheese with a snow shovel. The initial crust test was astounding. This pizza stood at attention with no droop or sag, easily becoming the sturdiest, crispiest thin crust that I’ve experienced on this tour. I was impressed.

But things weren’t all perfect. The vegetables were a tad too crunchy, which wasn’t a fatal flaw, but was less than ideal. The real problem here is the sauce. It was a touch bitter. There was a heavy undertone of dried oregano. It reminded me very much of the pizza sauce at the old Chicago Pizza in Lake Geneva, the space now occupied by the Flat Iron Tap. The pizza was well constructed and well executed, but the sauce let me down. Admittedly I prefer a sweeter pizza sauce, but this sauce just wasn’t to my liking.

The Double Dough pizza was brought out shortly after the Supreme. The waitress said “this is beautiful” as she admired the nicely raised and golden brown crust. The crust was brushed with some oil, or butter, and it glistened under those dining room lights. Sadly, the pizza was mostly for looks, as the crust itself was, well, doughy. There was nice oven spotting on the underside, and it had some crunch, but it was a lot of dough, and the dough was a bit gummy, and not chewy. I don’t know what I expected, since it’s literally called Double Dough, but I’ve had better doughy pizzas. My friend, who is seemingly normal and capable of discerning good pizza from bad, failed me on this particular recommendation.

The pizza at Nayeli’s is good. The crust is superior. The restraint shown when applying cheese is to be commended. But the sauce wasn’t to my liking, and that is the only thing that holds this pizza back from taking the top spot on this tour. Next time you’re up at the lake and you’ve had enough of the regular pizza joints, try Nayeli’s. You just might like it, and if nothing else, you’ll feel like a local. You know, like me.

Nayeli’s Pizza

108 Fairview Drive, Walworth

6.7/10

$17.25 for a large (14″) Supreme, and $14 for a large Double Dough Cheese

Mama Cimino’s Pizza Review

Mama Cimino’s Pizza Review

There’s a thing about making Tuesday pizza night. It’s not a night where you have to contend with lines. Crowds like the weekends. But I think weekends are for rookies, and Taco Tuesday is for those who aren’t yet aware that we’ve replaced all of that with Pizza Tuesday. And if you walk into Mama Cimino’s in Lake Geneva on Tuesday you’re in luck, it’s two for one night.

That’s what the waiter told me when I sat down in the dining room of this Lake Geneva pizza house. Buy one get one, cash only, he said. The cash part was an obstacle for me as my wife had pried from my cold hand the last of my Tuesday cash. I ordered, but I didn’t get the free pizza, because I had to pay with a credit card. I couldn’t help but feel as though this was an unlucky occurrence, that I was somehow deprived of my double pizza destiny. I ordered a 16″ Cimino Everything, which comes with sausage, pepperoni, bacon, Canadian bacon, peppers, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, and olives. I told him to cast my olives into the depths of fiery hell.

The restaurant was not full. If you’ve never been, it’s wedged in between the fast food row in Lake Geneva, just south of the main drag. The restaurant shares a common wall with a Verizon store. There’s nothing here out of place, but there’s nothing here that will uniquely bring you back. The tablecloths are white and red checked plastic. The tables wobble. There’s nothing else worth noting. But it was 6:06 on a Tuesday and I had already ordered. One other table had some patrons, one of whom leaned in towards me to whisper a hushed secret, the pizza is good here.

At 6:10 my friend joined me for dinner, a local of sorts who told me to eat here. He sat down and we waited. I stared at the ficus in the corner and flipped through the Lake Geneva Regional News to see which real estate agents still think print advertising is a good idea. At 6:25 the pizza was brought to our table. It was big, it was hot, and it looked delicious. For the first time on our tour, the outer edge of the pizza was a bit charred, which I like. It seemed as though our next door table mates might be right.

The pizza was once again tavern style, square cut, with the typical toppings under cheese routine that is common here. The cheese was thick, but not so thick that it bothered me. Both The Next Door Pub and Pino’s pile on the cheese with a heavier hand. The vegetable toppings were cut into smaller cubes, which more than once left me thinking a pale piece of tomato was actually a piece of carrot, which would have been disconcerting. The sausage was delicious and pronounced, but the rest of the meaty toppings faded into the background. Which is a good thing, because I generally find bacon to be a misplaced pizza topping.

The crust here is different. It’s thinner than any of the other pizzas on this tour. The consistency is not crunchy, instead it gives like a pie crust might. The crust behaved like it had butter in it, which I doubt it did. But still, it was thin and it was crunchy, though not like a cracker, and not with any real resistance. The first few pieces were nice, but as the pizza feast wore on, the squares failed to retain any crunch. At first it didn’t bother me, and I thought it to be a reasonable condition, but as I thought about it I found it increasingly unacceptable.

The sauce was sweet, which I liked, and the waiter brought us a small dish of marinara sauce “to dip the crust”. I appreciated that, and I found the waiter to have a friendly edge that I didn’t anticipate. It was clear this man cared about this restaurant, and wanted his diners to be happy with their experience and happy with the pizza, and I was, mostly.

But that crust, man, that crust. The consistency just wasn’t right for me. The soggy ending wasn’t right, either. At first I thought I liked the pie-crust type give to the crust, but thinking about it now, I prefer a crisper crust that takes a more significant chomp to work through. On this night, the pizza was pretty, pretty good. Was it the best Walworth County has to offer? No. But I think you should try it for yourself, and if it’s a Tuesday, bring cash.

Mama Cimino’s

131 Wells Street, Lake Geneva

7.1/10

$23 For Cimino Everything

Pino’s Pizza Review

Pino’s Pizza Review

If you went to the Next Door Pub and the Next Door Pub was in Walworth, but instead of being in a restaurant space the restaurant is in the Ben Franklin space, then you’d start to understand. If the pizza that you ordered at that restaurant in the Ben Franklin building was similar to the Lake Geneva restaurant pizza, except that the pizza was just flat out better, then you’d realize that you’re not in the Next Door Pub at all. You’re at Pino’s. And the pizza tastes good.

The night was full of confusion. I had intended to take my family with for pizza, and we had intended to go somewhere in Lake Geneva. Maybe Oakfire, maybe not. But the dog’s grooming appointment ran late due to matting and shaving, so we were left with little time between the grooming and the 7 pm Faith Christian basketball game. With that little time there was no Lake Geneva drive in the forecast, so we settled into a Walworth routine and pulled up to Pino’s at 6:15 pm.

If you’ll recall the fish fry review, Pino’s is in Walworth at the back of the strip mall that houses a library, a Chinese restaurant, a gym, a general contractor’s office, and a medical clinic. If you were looking for a theme here, there isn’t one. The Pino’s building is far in the back, and it’s not a Pino’s building at all as much as it is a Ben Franklin building, assuming you were in the Walworth area in the late 1980s and maybe even the early 1990s. The building is large, so large that it lacks any particular charm. If you want atmosphere, go somewhere else.

But we’re not looking for atmosphere, we’re looking for good pizza. When we were seated at 6:16, there were no other patrons in the dining room. Only a scant few contractor types sitting at the bar, no doubt considering, as was I, that they were sitting in the sewing section of Ben Franklin. The waitress was quickly table side and without delay we made our order. One large cheese pizza ($16.25) and one sort-of large (14″) Traditional pizza. Their traditional comes topped with onions, mushrooms, green peppers, sausage, pepperoni, ham, and olives in two tones, which we requested be mercifully left off of our pizza. The time was 6:19 pm. On the stereo, Tom Delong sang about his first date.

At 6:29 pm, Weezer came on. It was apparent that the person making the music decisions was also nearly 41, and I wondered if they, too, thought it odd that our lives have brought us to this place. At 6:39, the pizza was served. 20 minutes is a nice amount of time to wait for a pizza. It isn’t so fast that it leaves you wondering just how the pizza could cook in that short amount of time, and it isn’t so long that you start to grow impatient. The pies were large, well cooked without being burnt, and looked exactly as a tavern style pizza should look. I’ve had this pizza before, but never under the guise of grading it for the world. This time, there was more on the line.

The first slice made it obvious that we were dealing with a lot of cheese here. Loads of cheese. But this is Wisconsin, and a cheesy pizza is what the locals demand. The flop test, as evidenced above, was passed with ease. The crust was crispy, but it wasn’t cracker crispy. The crust is thin, technically, but not so thin that you could consider labeling it “thin crust” on a menu. There’s very little chew to the crust, and if you were on a search for the worlds best pizza crust you wouldn’t stop here. The vegetables and meat on the traditional were delicious, with properly softened vegetables blending nicely with the generous chunks of sausage and thin wafers of pepperoni. The sauce wasn’t too heavy, and down to the last bite the crust retained at least some crunch. This pizza dinner was a good one.

Was it perfect? No. The scene has to account for something in this series, and the scene here is very, very basic. The service was polite and prompt, our water glasses refilled as needed. The pizza is, for this style of pizza, about as good as it gets. Was the Traditional a bit heavy on the toppings? Sure. Was the Cheese a bit heavy on the cheese? Yes. Would I have preferred a crust that was either thinner and crispier or one with more rise and chew? Of course. But on this cold February night, we were happy to eat a properly prepared tavern style pizza, albeit in the woven basket section of the Ben Franklin.

Pino’s Last Call Pizza Pub and Grill

545 Kenosha Street, Walworth

7.8/10

$16.25 for a 16″ Cheese, $22.25 for a 14″ Traditional

Rosati’s Pizza Review

Rosati’s Pizza Review

More than fifty years ago, in a suburb of Chicago, a member of the Rosati family opened a pizzeria. Years later, a franchise model was born, and Rosati’s Pizza expanded throughout Illinois, the Midwest, and beyond. Today, there are nearly 200 Rosati’s locations. But that doesn’t concern me, because I didn’t even want to eat lunch at Rosati’s yesterday. Oak Fire was my aim, but Oak Fire’s website said they were open, their menu placard outside the restaurant said they were open, the guy inside walking around seemed to indicate that they might be open, but the door was locked. Improvise, adapt, overcome.

I thought of two or three other pizza places after Oak Fire and before Rosati’s, but those places would only open later in the day for dinner service. Pizza, it seems, is seen as a dinner item, which is silly. With the history of my day in place and the history of Rosati’s understood, I pulled into the parking lot and met a friend for lunch.

I had never darkened the door of Rosati’s. Not this one, not any one. The Lake Geneva location is adjacent the Sherwin Williams paint store, just a bit West of the Highway 120/50 intersection, behind the Taco Bell. The location is not ideal, but it works. The interior of the restaurant is decorated like the basement rec room of a Schaumburg tudor in 1996. Chicago Bears and Bulls memorabilia, along with a few token Packers pieces covered the walls. A life size cutout of Michael Jordan and another of a younger Brett Favre kept watch over the dining room.

Don’t confuse Rosati’s with a normal sit-down establishment. This is a fast food restaurant. The tables are covered in wood grain formica. The chairs are the sort you’d stack tall after a church service. There’s nothing here memorable, nothing that sets any sort of mood. This is a place for eating. At 12:30 pm on a Tuesday there were a scant few tables occupied when I walked up to the counter to place my order.

The large cheese pizza was 16 inches, the same size as the large at The Next Door Pub. The menu said the pizza was $16.99. The special, scribbled on a dry-erase board near the entrance, said that a Tuesday large cheese + 1 topping pizza was just $13.99. Their version of “supreme” is called Super Supreme and features opinions, peppers, mushrooms, sausage, pepperoni, and black olives. I ordered the pizza half cheese, half super supreme, minus the black olives because those are disgusting no matter what anyone says. The order-taker struggled with my order.

The way I saw it, she had a few different options for my bill. She could consider my order as the cheese special at $13.99 and add on a fee for the half that was super supreme. Or she could charge me $16.99 and add a charge for the super supreme half. Or she could charge me for the super supreme, and that would be that. The latter option seemed the wrong one, but that’s what she chose. I paid $21.49 for a Super Supreme that was half cheese. I was wounded. But I paid the tab, tipped her for her self-inflicted trouble, and sat down at a table near Brett Favre. It was 12:36.

Then I waited. And waited. And waited. I thought the wait was too long, especially for a chain restaurant that should, at this late date in their business history, have the art of quick pizza making well refined. I also thought of how I received the Next Door Pub pizza quickly, and that turned out to be fatal speed, so I waited. Thirty minutes after I ordered, the pizza was brought to the table. It was large, greasy, well browned, and cut tavern style. It looked pretty good.

And it was pretty good. The sauce wasn’t super sweet but it had nice flavor, the cheese was ample and spotted with browning from the hot oven, the crust crunchy, at least at first. The crust was thin, but it wasn’t particularly good. There was a school cafeteria vibe with the crust. It didn’t flop as terribly as the Next Door Pub rare crust, but that’s a low hurdle to clear. Toppings were applied with a heavy hand, and the cheese was thick, but not so much that it was a burden. It was good because I was hungry, but was it something unique, something worthy of praise? No, it wasn’t. Still, we ate the pizza and were satisfied.

Will I go to Rosati’s again for pizza? No, I won’t. The pizza was fine. But we’re not trying to find fine. We do fine really well here. We’re looking for outstanding. Rare. We’re searching for a winner, and in a crowd full of pizza, Rosati’s doesn’t deserve any special consideration.

Rosati’s Pizza

240 Edwards Boulevard, Lake Geneva

4.2/10

$21.49 for a half cheese/half super supreme thin crust pizza  (note: there are several styles of pizza available here- deep dish, double crust, etc)

Lake Geneva’s Best Pizza

Lake Geneva’s Best Pizza

On December 17th, I decided to try the Keto diet. The timing was complicated, so close to Christmas, a holiday revered in my family for its significance, yes, but also for the candies, the breads, the pies. In spite of the temptations, I adhered closely to this diet. No sugar, no bread, no starch. Fruits aren’t even safe on this diet, and so I steered clear. I was proud of myself for enduring the way I did, steadfastly from that day in December right up until a day during the last week of January when I realized that I am nothing if I not a bread eater. If I can’t eat bread, what’s the point of this so called life?

I like pizza. Quite a lot, but maybe not more than the average American, or European. I find it to be a comforting old friend, a safe menu choice, a small pie making for a simple appetizer, or a large pie feeding a family of four for $20 or so. Even when my wife and I traveled through France last spring, we often found our meal of choice in the shape of a circle. It wasn’t only difficult for me to avoid pizza during the six weeks I toiled under the meaty thumb of Keto, it felt wrong.

My mother made pizza on Saturdays. A homemade crust, thick and doughy, sauce, and toppings that generally steered clear of anything exotic. Sausage and pepperoni ruled. Later in my life, I had a wood fired pizza oven built at my house so I could experiment with my own pizza making, the results of which varied wildly from pizza to pizza. Later, I built a fly fishing cabin, and added a wood fired oven to that home as well. My pizza making skills evolved, but consistency still haunts me, even to this day.

Earlier this week, I posted a picture of a floppy slice of pizza on my Facebook page. It was a woeful slice, indeed. I announced the beginnings of a pizza review series, and the response was enthusiastic. In fact, when my wife logs into my account to tell the world that I’ve died, fewer comments will be left. Some warned me against local pizza. Go to New York or Chicago for pizza, they said. This place is the best, some wrote. Try this place, order the pizza well done, someone suggested. Pizza, while not a particular strong suite of the Lake Geneva area, is something that matters.

In preparation of my review series, I decided on the process. I will order one large pizza, half cheese and half supreme (or whatever the establishment calls their pizza with some vegetables and sausage). There’s a popular website where the founder travels from town to town reviewing pizza. “One bite, everybody knows the rules”.   This is what the man says before taking his bite. I know this concept to be preposterous. One bite does not tell the tale of a pizza. What if I’m exceptionally hungry that day, and that first bite is amazing not because of the pizza, but because of my near starvation? What if the first bite is good, but the next thirty-four are mediocre? This will not be a one bite review, this will be a pizza review. I’m not a coward, so I’ll eat the whole stinkin’ pizza. How else can a dish be judged?

That brings us to my first google search. “Best Pizza in Lake Geneva”. This is what I typed into my browser. Tripadviser, Yelp and others told me there was a consistent opinion in our market. The Next Door Pub received top placement on many sites, often followed or proceeded by Oak Fire. With the reviews of the people considered, I made my first decision. It was a snow day, and I was hungry, so at 5 pm sharp my son and I walked into The Next Door Pub.

This establishment on the north side of Lake Geneva is one that I know well. I’ve eaten the pizza perhaps a dozen times before, which doesn’t make me a regular by any stretch. The space is quite basic, nothing fancy. A couple of dining rooms and a bar. It’s modest. But at 5 pm on Tuesday night the place was hopping. The clientele was diverse: construction workers, families, retirees and at least one young couple on a date at the corner table, awkwardly sharing an order of wings. My son and I were seated at a four top near the front door, and then we waited.

And waited. And waited. Ten minutes later, a waitress made her way to the table and took our order. One large pizza, half cheese, the other half being their “famous garbage pizza”, that of onions, sausage, green pepper and mushrooms. We sat and listened to the conversations of the surrounding tables. No one had anything interesting to say.

Ten minutes later, the pizza arrived. It felt like it came out a bit too soon. We had waited more than ten minutes for our waters, and expected to wait another 15 or more for the pizza. But ten minutes later, there it was. A large pizza, half cheese and half garbage, cut tavern style. That style, by the way, is the common style for pizza in the Lake Geneva market. It’s a reasonably thin crust pizza with ample toppings, cut in squares, not slices. This pizza looked fine, but the cheese on top was quite white. There was no evidence of browning, no bits of char. The speed at which the pizza was brought to the table and the lack of browning on the cheese was worrisome, but I’ve had this pizza before and figured it would still be tasty, even if it didn’t look tasty.

But it wasn’t. The crust was limp, as evidenced in that damning photo above. It was soft, soggy, undercooked. When I mentioned this initially on Facebook someone said that I have to order the pizza “well done”. This is silly, and akin to ordering a Coke and asking the waiter to make sure it’s fizzy. The crust was soft and too thick to be considered proper tavern style, the sauce was a touch sweet, which I actually prefer. The cheese overwhelmed the pie, which is a condition that used to plague my mother’s pizza as well, though she never opened a restaurant. The sausage was fine, not too loaded with fennel seed, which is a vile seed that should never again be planted. The vegetables were adequate, not too crunchy, but here they are placed under the cheese and stacked high, which means great care must be made to pull a square of pizza from the plate and not have all of the toppings slide onto the table. Making matters worse, the crust couldn’t even support itself, so this pizza was less a pizza and more a soft, messy casserole.

I recognize people love The Next Door Pub. It’s a fine pub, and I’m sure many people count it as their favorite. But I’m not many people, and I have no allegiance to this, or any other restaurant in the area. I’m just hoping to eat some good pizza, and on this night, I struck out.

The Next Door Pub

411 Interchange North (Highway 120), Lake Geneva, WI

2.9/10

$19.70 for a large half cheese/ half garbage pizza