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Grassway Organics Pizza Review

Grassway Organics Pizza Review

There are lots of pizza places in this area. There are many more places that also serve pizza. The pizza places have checkered tablecloths made of plastic, and most have memorabilia on the walls. They are all different but they are all the same. When I’ve visited these places I’ve found the pizza framework to be similar as well. Some make their own crust, others buy from the back of a truck. Each pizza tastes good enough, with the only nuance being how crispy the crust is, how soft the vegetables are, how lively the sauce is, or isn’t, and how much fennel they decided to dump into their sausage. Pizza, most times and most places, is pizza.

While on my strictly carb diet, I heard from friends and clients about a place in East Troy. It’s a farm, they’d say. They make wood fired pizza. It’s only on weekend evenings, only in summer, only this and only that. It sounded exclusive. Like one of those basement restaurants in Portland that people can only get into after tussling with Antifa. Not only did it sound unique, it sounded good. Fresh ingredients, local everything. Wood fired, farm, local, pizza? I was intrigued. That’s why my wife and I picked our son up from lifeguarding duty and drove in his new-to-him-car to East Troy, carefully avoiding the Phish people along the way. After a twenty minute drive (from Williams Bay), we pulled into the farm.

That’s what this is, after all, a farm. It’s a working farm with a farm store where they sell everything from pasture raised pork to local wheat, milled into a whole wheat flour. The farm produces milk that is turned into cheese. It’s that sort of operation, and I’m glad that it’s here in Walworth County. We drove in slowly, past the farmhouse and around the corner to a gravel and grass makeshift parking lot where we joined 20 or so other cars who had beaten us to the Saturday evening pizza party. We could hear the live music as we followed the smell of wood smoke up to the location of the kitchen. Perhaps fifty or sixty people milled about, hiding under small umbrellas from the intense summer sun. A few kids ran in a sprinkler. The guy played his guitar (the music was too loud), the man at the pizza oven shoveled pizzas into and out of the smoky inferno, and two girls waited at a small folding table to take our order. It was a scene, but I was still formulating my feelings about it all.

The sign next to the pizza station was inspiring. Fresh mozzarella, organic pork, organic vegetables, wheat flour from Pfeiffer Farms in Delavan. This was a truly local operation, and I was proud to see my community delivering such fine ingredients to this pizza. When I approached the ordering table, I was given a few options. A Classic pizza was $25, with some basic ingredients. For $30, I could get their Specialty pizza, with four options. I chose the Pork in The Woods, with onions, Crimini mushrooms and pork sausage. The play on Hen Of the Woods was not lost on me. I would have opted for the Carnivore, but the inclusion of “beef wieners” did not interest me. I want my hot dogs on a bun, not a crust. At $30 this was the most expensive pizza I had ever ordered. I paid the ransom and we retreated to a small picnic table and waited.

It was hot out there. There was very little shade to be had, and while I appreciate the bootstrapped nature of the scene and the operation, I would have preferred to wait for my pizza in the shade. The website warns visitors that they might want to bring their own shade and tables, chairs, etc, but I wasn’t interested in a camping experience, just a pizza. If this were my business I’d take a bit of effort in preparing the scene. A dozen uniform picnic tables and a large tent, or series of smaller tents, would be a nice touch. In fact, it’s nearly a necessity. We waited for the pizza and I gazed off into the sunset, wondering how much better my life on that Saturday night would have been if only for a dose of shade and an indoor lunchroom table that wasn’t delaminating before my eyes. The musician pumped out his loud music, which included a Weezer cover, so things were looking up for at least the duration of that song.

We waited around 30 minutes for the pizza. That’s a fine wait given the circumstance. When the girl brought our pizza out, I immediately noticed the large cut slices of white onion scattered about, and the exceptionally heavy dose of cheese. This was not a wood fired pizza like you’ll find anywhere else. This is not like the wood fired pizzas that I make at home. Not like the pizzas that a wood fired pizza truck would make. Not like the pizzas that Oak Fire spins. This was a large (maybe 16″) pie, heavy on crudely chopped toppings, heavy on pizza, and sporting a flat crust with no raise whatsoever. Rustic is the best work to describe this pie. Rustic. Like the scene.

I would normally hold up the first slice to test its flop, but this pizza would have none of it. This was not a pizza that you could hold up. In fact, when I tried to fold the crust to eat it, thinking this may be more of a New York slice, the crust broke in half. Gluten? Not much of it here. I would have expected this crust to be one that was made several days in advance, to allow the flavor to develop, but I tasted no such development. The wheat is local, an ancient grain, according to the placard. Perhaps the crust’s soft condition was due to this local grain, and if that’s the case, then so be it. But I come to eat a wood fired pizza and I expect a crunch. Some chew. Here I found only a soft crust with no crisp, and a gummy interior that would have left me exceptionally disappointed had it come out of my home oven.

The cheese was nice and salty, but it was heavy and it burdened the soft crust. Those big half rings of white onion were crunchy, nearly raw. I dislike that. The pork sausage was good, and I felt better eating it, knowing it had come from well cared for, pastured animals. The tomato sauce was salty, not sweet, featuring large chunks of diced tomatoes. Not my style, but not bad. We ate half of our pizza, sweating profusely in the afternoon heat, and boxed up the rest before driving home.

I love that Grassway Organics exists. I love the idea of visiting their farm store and buying some of the good things that were on my pizza. In fact, I plan to do so this week. Their products deserve your attention and interest. But I won’t go back for the pizza itself. It just wasn’t good. It gets high marks for effort and care, but at the end of this day and every day that follows I will write a review on the taste of a food item, not a review on the intentions of those who created it. This pizza was too soft, too cheesy, too soggy, too rustic for me. I like the use of organic, local wheat, but maybe cut that with some bread flour and knead it longer to help develop the gluten? I want some crunch with my crust, I really do. If you’d like to try it yourself, I would encourage you to do so and let me know what you think.

Grassway Organics

W2716 Friemoth Road, East Troy

3.6/10

$30 for the Pork In The Woods Pizza

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

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

West Wind Diner Fish Fry Review

West Wind Diner Fish Fry Review

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have a thing for restaurants that offer Tater Tots as a side.  When a choice of potato is offered, it’s usually baked or fried. The baked potato is a thing of the past, even though Big Baked Potato works hard to convince you of their imaginary relevance. French Fries will always be a thing, always near and dear to me, but there’s no surprise here. It’s the Tater Tot that’s unique in today’s world of potato, and that’s why the West Wind Diner in Darien has a leg up on its competition, even before the rest of the menu is considered and a dinner is ordered.

The West Wind Diner is at the intersection of Highway 14 and Interstate 43, just outside of Darien.  The restaurant looks like something from Steinbach, Manitoba. If you’ve never been, trust me, this is what the restaurants look like. I’ve been. The parking lot is huge, mostly gravel, made that way on purpose to entice hungry truckers. It’s a truck stop, really, but it’s clean and it’s modern and there’s a case with  pies in it right next to the Please Wait To Be Seated sign.

A super friendly waitress sat us at a booth near the window. There’s no view here to consider, just the front grills of the vehicles in the parking lot.  We hadn’t intended to eat here, mind you.  We drove this direction to eat at the Duck Inn, farther to the North. That supper club staple was slammed at 5:40, with a 30-45 minute wait, so we drove back towards home and I remembered some fine diner meals I’ve had over the years at West Wind. That’s why we were there, and that’s why we listened intently to the fish fry offerings.

Baked or fried cod, fried is all-you-can-eat. There’s a perch offering, too, but when pressed the waitress revealed her affinity for the cod. The baked variety is offered plain, lemon-peppered, or blackened.  The choice of potato was as I earlier mentioned, and while I longed for the Tots, I stuck to my guns and ordered the potato pancakes. A choice of soup or salad was nice. My daughter went for the dumpling soup, my wife and I ate salad, appropriately drenched in ranch dressing.  The croutons were oily and misshapen, which at first seemed a bit difficult but was, in fact, a sign of their housemade origins.

I opted for fried and baked (lemon pepper, apparently, though I don’t remember ordering it that way). My wife went with the blackened cod and fries.  The baked pieces were large, rectangular. They were pretty good, though my wife thought the consistency was a bit chewy. They were a touch dry, and mine lacked salt. The seasoning additions were fine, but nothing memorable. I munched on some bread, because that’s what I do. The rolls were wrapped in plastic, like we were in seats 31 E and F, traveling from Newark to Tampa. There was no butter, foiled or otherwise, in sight. For shame.

My fried pieces were extra crispy, uniquely shaped, and sadly, dry. The tartar sauce helped a bit, but alas, they were beyond redemption. The potato pancakes looked the part, but they, too, were off. The texture was spongy, rubbery,  perhaps over-beaten to such a degree that the starch was too wound and bound. The applesauce was smooth, but at least it was served in a small metal tub (as was the tartar sauce).  At the end of our meal we were given the option of a few different sorts of ice cream, which were served in old-timey sunday glasses. The ice cream was meh but the touch was appreciated and charming.

When the dust settled, I was stuffed. The meal was perhaps a bit below average, but the waitress was sweet and there was obvious care put into the menu and the preparation. Sadly, this is not a congeniality contest. For the Lake Geneva Set, I can’t recommend driving this far out of your way for this fish fry.  While I appreciate the West Wind Diner, I think next time I’ll visit in the morning hours, and order an omelet with a side of tots.

 

West Wind Diner 5/10

620 North Walworth Street (highway 14) Darien, WI

All you can eat fried cod, or baked cod dinner (one or two pieces), typical sides plus tater tots.

South Shore Bar Fish Fry Review

South Shore Bar Fish Fry Review

I was born in Elkhorn. Raised in Williams Bay. Then I lived in Linn Township, Geneva Township, Delavan Township, Fontana, and now Walworth Township. I am the embodiment of local. The word was made for me. If I’m not a local here, no one is a local anywhere. I was in France last week, being a non-local. If not for my strapping American frame and my obvious American nature, I might, after some lengthy period of time, be considered, at least by some, as a local.  This business of localness typically requires significant effort and significant time.  Last Friday night I walked in to the South Shore Bar and Grill on Delavan’s southern shore, feeling very much not like a local.

I’ve been to this bar before, or I should say, at least once before. I went with a friend for pizza on a night when our wives weren’t looking. On that night, I generally enjoyed the pizza, which is tavern style. But on this night, I was there for the fish fry, and the parking lot sign proclaimed that I was indeed at the right place. I should say that I didn’t intend to visit the South Shore Bar that night. I first went to the Rushing Waters Trout House restaurant in Delavan. The restaurant there is very large, and when we walked in we were delighted to see open tables and no one waiting. The hostess told us there would be a 20-30 minute wait. But there were open tables, I replied, incredulous in my tone. She said there weren’t enough servers. And so we left. This is embarrassing for the Trout House, and if I were in any position of authority there I’d quickly right my ship before all of this excess water sinks it.

The South Shore Bar and Grill is a bar. There’s a large bar in the main room, with a small dining room off to the West side. When we arrived the parking lot was full and so was the restaurant. We were told the wait would be maybe 10 minutes, so we stood by the door, sticking out like very sore thumbs. Eyes glanced our direction. At least one man at the bar whispered something to another man at the bar. It might have been about my powder blue shorts, but I couldn’t be certain. A man on the other side of the bar drank from a tall can of Busch Light. His wife nursed a cocktail.  Everyone knew each other, no one knew us. If it weren’t for the Wisconsin law, I’m guessing 40% of the bar would have been pulling on a heater.

A polite but somewhat harried hostess led us to our booth. The booth cushion on the one side was torn open in many spots, so I opted for the other side. But the other side had very little breathing room, and the table was affixed to the wall, a condition I only realized after pushing and tugging at it for a while. I switched with my son and sat on the torn side. I reviewed my fishy options.

All you can eat fried cod, $11.50. Baked cod dinner, $11.50. Pan Fried Walleye, $15.95. Fried Walleye, $15.95. Fried Perch Dinner, $15.95. These are fine options. Impressive really, for a small bar on the way to no-where, just around the corner from Nothing. The menu reflected a general understanding of the Wisconsin Fish Fry. All items were served with a  side of potato and access to the small salad bar that resided in between the bar and the dining room. I asked the waitress what she recommended. The fried walleye was a bit bland for her taste. She loved the perch. I opted for the fried cod, with a piece of baked cod for good measure.

The salad bar was modest. A few bowls of mayonnaise based salad of some variety, along with some lettuce, chopped onion and tomato, and shredded cheese. I could have used a few more accoutrements, but seeing as how I was at a bar for fish fry, I didn’t mind. If you wanted a salad bar, you should have gone to a salad restaurant. This was a fried food restaurant with a side of pizza, and I was content to nibble a bit of salad and wait for my fish. After a week  of French food,  my stomach was hankering for some classic Wisconsin fish fry.

And the South Shore Bar didn’t disappoint. The fried cod came out, two pieces with my initial order, and it was delightful. The batter was well seasoned, and the fish was moist, sweet, and salty. I really loved it. The baked was a bit dry, but it was served with a small plastic tub of drawn butter, and that made everything better. There was a single slice of rye bread on my plate, which was awful as expected but it was buttered so how terrible could it really be? Give me liberty or give me death, but if you’re going to give me rye bread you should at least butter it for me.

The two potato pancakes were nicely fried to a golden brown, and while they were a touch dry, they met the expectation of an average pancake.  I quickly ate all of my food and asked for a few more pieces of fried cod, not because I was hungry but because I refuse to walk away from an all-you-can-eat dinner offering without ordering seconds. The cod was again delightful, even if my second piece was thicker and ended up being slightly undercooked.  My wife said the tartar sauce was okay, and I found the applesauce to be delicious. It was served ice cold, and had immense flavor. It was, perhaps, my favorite applesauce to date.

I enjoyed my dinner at the South Shore Bar and Grill.  The waitress was sweet and attentive, the food above average for this tour. The fried cod was a real treat, as the seasoned batter elevated otherwise bland cod to a higher level. I’d add the South Shore Bar to your Fish Fry rotation, especially if your preferred joint is slammed this summer.  I left feeling satisfied in my dinner, and had it not been for those powder blue shorts and my wife’s white jeans, we might have fit right in.

 

South Shore Bar and Grill 7/10

W6763 South Shore Drive, Delavan, WI

$11.50 All You Can Eat Fried Cod

 

Lake Lawn Lodge Fish Fry Review

Lake Lawn Lodge Fish Fry Review

We pulled into the Village Supper Club parking lot at 6:20 pm. Everyone else had pulled in at least a few minutes before that. The large lot that sends cars across Delavan’s South Shore Drive was full.  I called the restaurant to find out if there was a wait. There was. 30 minutes. My commitment to the fish fry does not allow for such a wait, not when there are dozens of other restaurants that beg my attention (or beg to remain anonymous).  We drove North, then West, then through the entrance to Lake Lawn Lodge.  The Christmas lights were still up, still twinkling.

Lake Lawn Lodge has had a tumultuous last decade, and I’ll admit to you now that I’ve avoided the resort like the plague.  I don’t really golf so much anymore, so the golf course no longer draws. I have loads of dining options closer to Geneva Lake, so I won’t be running over to Lake Lawn to grab a bite. And I’ve always said that if you ever see me swimming in Delavan Lake I implore you to check the rope and cinder blocks around my feet, because I’m not in the lake on my own accord.  We followed the parking lot arrows towards “RESTAURANTS” and walked into the first of a series of interconnected buildings.

There are detailed building maps inside Lake Lawn Lodge. Illuminated maps. You Are Here.  At first glance you’d wonder why so much attention is paid to these maps, but after wandering down the maze of hallways that connect this sprawling resort, you’ll soon appreciate the guidance.  My family used to eat at Lake Lawn on Friday nights many many years ago, so I’m no stranger to the general location of the restaurant. We followed the hallways, past the gift shop, past an ice cream shop, past an arcade, and found the restaurant. In the foyer of the restaurant space the smell of perfume overwhelmed me. It was as if my dead grandmother and her dead sisters got together one last time to have a contest to see who could douse themselves in the most Chanel No 5. There are no winners in such a contest, and I wondered why a restaurant would employ such powerful, artificial odors. Is the Fish Fry that bad?

The restaurant was large and somewhat fancy. I thought, aside from the overpowering air fresheners, that it might be a nice place to eat.  I asked the hostess if there was a fish fry available. There wasn’t, she explained, but the restaurant farther down the maze of hallways serves a fish fry. We left the perfume strafed area and forged ahead. Past this and past that. Outside, a fireplace was lit. No one stood near it, because remember this isn’t Colorado and we have our wits about us? After some time of wandering we found the Lookout Bar. It’s at the far southern end of the particular building we were in, close to the lake.  I imagined the view would be decent in the summer, but it was winter and it was dark and so we took our seats.

The restaurant is just a small area with a low ceiling and perhaps 25-35 tables, along with a lakeside bar. The Lookout Bar, presumably.  The bar area looked more interesting and inviting, but the room we were in was rather awful. It felt like an out of the way room in an old hotel, which is exactly what it is. The table had a neat old timey map of Delavan Lake on it, and when I remarked to my wife that Delavan Lake looked like a whale, she didn’t agree. The walls had old prints of the lodge and of old men with stringers of fish, indiscriminate varieties including walleye and pike. Old timers always look so proud of themselves in those photos. Our waitress was quickly table side and explained the fish fry.

Fried cod, two or three pieces, with a side of potato.  No broiled cod. No substitutes. No all you can eat. At first I was disenchanted. If I’m going to eat fried fish, I want to eat so much of it that I wonder what’s wrong with me. With no such option, I ordered three pieces. I asked that the potato be served as one potato pancake and a scant inclusion of french fries, which the waitress said were delicious. I asked if any appetizers were particularly important and she stressed the cheese curds. Never one to pass on the insistence of a convincing waitress, I ordered as she instructed.

Within five minutes our cheese curds were brought out, served in a metal fryer style basket. I should say I’m not a huge cheese curd fan, as an order of curds is usually small and expensive and I am proudly large and cheap. These curds, however, were amazing. I’ll tell you now that they were the best curds I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve had them all over the world. They were fried perfectly, soft and tender inside, crisp and light outside. They were battered, not breaded, which is an important distinction with cheese curds. Culver breads theirs, which makes them less than. These curds were delightful and the serving size was huge. We didn’t eat the entire basket, which doesn’t sound out of the ordinary to many people but is, as a point of fact, a rare occurrence at my table.

The fish followed, and my three piece order with a mix of potatoes was served as a two piece order with two potato pancakes. This was a regrettable error, but I’ll let it slide. Applesauce, coleslaw, tartar sauce and bread accompanied the fried platter. The applesauce was bland and smooth, a miss. The coleslaw was dry, and my wife said it was blah. The tartar sauce she said was delicious, perhaps as good as the Waterfront’s from the Friday before. The bread was pumpernickel, with is basically rye bread in disguise. Nice try, rye. The butter for this sacrilegious bread was served cold, in a small rectangular foil wrapper. This is unacceptable, and I’d encourage Lake Lawn to fix the error of their bread and butter ways.

The fish, on the other hand, was absolutely delightful. The batter was crunchy and light, the fish tender and well seasoned. It was the best fried fish I’ve eaten. The two pieces proved to be more than enough, even without touching the devil’s bread. The potato pancakes were very interesting. They were thick, well crisped on the top and bottom, and creamy on the interior. They tasted heavily of leeks, or perhaps just green onions, and for a while I couldn’t decide if I liked them. After some contemplation, I concluded that indeed, these were mighty fine pancakes. Different, but good. It was a risk to serve a different style potato pancake, but the risk paid off. The combination of wonderful fish and unique potato pancake elevated these two staples to the top of the leaderboard. Lake Lawn, you’ve done well.

But it isn’t all perfectly fried cod. The bread and butter cannot be forgiven. The clumsy restaurant space is not something easily forgotten.  Both of our water glasses went dry, without any offer for a refill. I ordered three pieces of cod and only received two, and the potato switcheroo. These things unfortunately offset the delicious fish dinner. Still, I’m impressed with the effort, and encourage you to visit Lake Lawn’s Lookout restaurant. Maybe it’s much better in the summer when you can sit outside.  Maybe it’s better if you sit in the bar room. Either way, it was a delicious dinner and that means more to me than anything else.  I’m pleased to place Lake Lawn in a tie for first.

 

Lake Lawn Lodge Lookout Restaurant 9/10

Two Piece Fried Cod $12.50, Three Piece $14

2400 East Geneva Street, Delavan, WI 53115

 

 

The Abbey Waterfront Fish Fry Review

The Abbey Waterfront Fish Fry Review

We intended to arrive as a party of seven sometime around 6 pm. Having been rebuffed in my dinner attempt on the prior Friday, I called ahead to make a reservation. It felt unnecessary, a dinner reservation on a snowy night in February, but I didn’t want to face the difficulty of a 30 minute wait. The hotel operator answered and asked how many in my party. Seven, I replied. She informed me that reservations are only taken for tables of eight or more.  Seven is trivial, eight is everything. And so we went to the restaurant and hoped there would be a table. There was.

The Waterfront restaurant sits on the lower level of the Abbey hotel in Fontana, closest to the harbor. The hotel has undergone some significant improvements over recent years, but some of it still feels sad and old. This is the plague of an old hotel with low ceilings. You can gild the walls and diamond encrust the ceilings but when the last stone is set you’ll just be left with an ornate coffin.  The restaurant is broken into two distinct dining areas separated by a bar. The initial space is comfortable, with a lower ceiling,  while the lakeside room opens up to a soaring ceiling with ample glass to take in the views. The hostess quickly sat us at a high-top in the lakeside room overlooking the icy harbor. Outside, twinkly lights lit a makeshift skating rink, nearby an outdoor fire. If this were Colorado, dozens of people would have been gathered, toasting to the mountain gods and reveling in the dry cold. But this is Wisconsin, so we all sat inside and wondered what insanity would  compel someone to stand outside, fire or not.

Our waiter was a bit nervous, perhaps on account of the large group.  We ordered a round of waters, and my friend asked for a half order of ribs for a warm up. The fish fry featured a choice of broiled or fried cod or walleye, and to my surprise, the walleye and cod were both just $13, all you can eat. The side offerings include potato pancakes, fries, and sweet potato fries- the first restaurant to offer the additional potato. I ordered the fish, one piece walleye and one piece cod, both fried, with the potato pancakes.  The rest of the table ordered various bits and fishy things.

The Waterfront boasts a menu with several smoked items, much in the way that Harpoon Willies has added a smoker and the accompanying meats to their menu. The ribs arrived quickly, slathered in sauce, smoked to tender. The half rack was small, as if taken from a tiny pet cow at a petting zoo on the outskirts of some small Midwestern town. The ribs came with a side order, which we filled with sweet potato fries. The fries were robust wedges of sweet potato, cooked perfectly. I’ve had these fries before and sometimes they tend to be a bit undercooked, so I was pleased to find the outside crispy and the inside soft. The ribs were quite good, and given their miniature size, we ate them without pause.  The only complaint I had on the ribs was the dry rub, presumably the rub they are smoked with prior to saucing, still tasted a bit too grainy. Perhaps the ribs are smoked and then tossed in some additional dry run before saucing. If that’s the case, I’d recommend they skip that step.

The fish was brought within 20 minutes of ordering which felt like the right timing. The plates were large, filled with fried things and served with ample sides of applesauce, tartar sauce, and coleslaw. The apple sauce was deliciously chunky.  I skipped the tartar sauce as usual, but my tablemates proclaimed the tartar sauce to the best ever. High praise from women who eat only to stay nourished. In the Midwest, Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewery is a pretty important beer. Imagine then the delight of Waterfront patrons when they learn that their fish fry batter is a Spotted Cow batter.  The fish was nicely battered and fried to a perfect golden brown. The pieces were well sized, thick enough to hold moisture, and filet shaped.  The square cuts of fish that have plagued some of our reviewed restaurants were thankfully absent.

Both the walleye and cod received glowing reviews from our table, though I found the walleye to be better than the cod. I am not a walleye aficionado. I do not eat walleye shore lunches with the Chicago businessmen who fly to remote locations in Ontario to impress gullible walleye with their awful angling skills.  Still, the walleye was tender and so was the cod, though each could have used a touch more salt. This evening was shaping up to be the evening where Anthony’s was dethroned. The applesauce, chunky. The fish, tasty. The batter, crunchy. Nothing could derail the Waterfront now.  Nothing, except the potato pancake. It wasn’t as bad as Gordy’s Sawdust Cake, but it was close. It looked good and had a nicely crusted exterior, but inside, the cake was a bit dry. If you’re going to impress me, you cannot serve me a dry pancake. No amount of delicious tartar sauce or chunky applesauce can mask this fatal mistake.

Even though I should find a way to eat less bread, I was nonetheless displeased with the Waterfront’s lack of table bread. No roll, no loaf, no slices. At least they didn’t try to serve me Rye, I suppose. But no bread meant no butter, which means a key component of the fish fry review was rendered untested. Once I had eaten my fish and choked through the potato pancake and recovered from the breadless disappointment, I ordered my second helping of fish. This time broiled, one piece cod and one piece walleye.  During this wait I nibbled at the hushpuppies that come with each order. They were fine, though a bit drier than I would have liked. I appreciated the inclusion and the effort.

Our timid, but polite, waiter brought the fish out, one piece to one plate. The filets both looked remarkably similar. Both skinny and long, one indistinguishable from the other. If you know what a walleye looks like and you know what a cod looks like, I suppose they could have the same dimensions, though I found this highly unlikely. I just hope I wasn’t eating Florida golf course tilapia. The broiled pieces were far inferior to their fried counterparts. That rub that felt misplaced on the ribs was present again, or at least the paprika component, and the filets were liberally covered in this spice. I didn’t like it. The walleye was served skin on, which is fine, but since the fish was broiled and not first tossed in flour and quickly pan fried (sautéed, like the Gordy’s perch), the skin became slippery and slimy. I didn’t care for it.  Far worse, my son found two bones in his single piece of broiled walleye, which is the first bone anyone has found at any  of the restaurants we’ve visited.  For shame.

Another Friday night, another near miss. The fish was good, likely the best fried fish I’ve had on this tour. The broiled fish was a miss. The potato pancake was a miss. The bone-in filet was a huge miss.  The lack of bread was a miss. But the restaurant was reasonably busy on this cold night and the finishes in the space are stylish.  The service was attentive and polite, and the timing of the food deliveries was appropriate. I just wish they hadn’t screw up the potato pancake, and I left wondering if my wife would take offense to me stopping at Sentry on the way hope to buy some bread and butter. Try the Abbey’s Waterfront for fish fry. It’s quite good. Order the walleye, get it fried not broiled, and let’s hope your potato pancake is better than mine.

 

The Waterfront Restaurant at the Abbey Hotel  7/10

269 Fontana Boulevard, Fontana, WI

$13 All you can eat cod or walleye

 

Fish Fry photo courtesy the Abbey Resort and Waterfront Restaurant

 

The Big Foot Inn Fish Fry

The Big Foot Inn Fish Fry

There is risk in trying a new restaurant. When given the menu choice between discovering something new and retreating to the familiar, I opt for the familiar. The familiar doesn’t let you down. New choices can lead to wonderful discovery, but more often they lead to huge embarrassing disappointment. This is the basis of dinner envy, or order error, of coveting thy neighbor’s plate.  It’s out of this same fear that I’ve never found my way to the Big Foot Inn, located just south of Walworth. Technically it’s in Illinois, but that’s only technicality. This is a Wisconsin supper club, whether it wants to be or not.

The restaurant sits a solid throw off of Highway 14, just south of State Line Road. You can leave the Fontana lakefront and be to the Big Foot Inn in less than 7 minutes. If you drive by during the day, you’d be forgiven for thinking it might be closed. A relic of another era, you’d think. Too bad it didn’t make it, you’d say. But it did make it and it is open, and on Friday night I pulled in the driveway to find a busy parking lot and a warmly lit entrance. This evening I was joined by my wife and daughter while my son toiled away at another Friday night basketball practice. We arrived at 5:35 pm. The foyer was classic supper club, reminiscent of Anthony’s, with a drawing of whom I presumed to be Chief Big Foot on the south wall.  The bar is to the left, the dining rooms to the right. I looked longingly into the bar as we were led past it, not because I was thirsty but because it looked the part. Vintage furniture, softly lit, a handful of patrons at the bar and a scattering at tables. Nice.

The dining room wasn’t at all like the bar.  The website says the restaurant received a thorough renovation in 1987, and this was indeed the style of the dining rooms.   The furniture wasn’t new enough to be nice and it wasn’t old enough to be cool. It was trapped in the middle. Not vintage, not shiny. Just dated. Our oak dining table was in the far corner of the front dining room, which was nearly full with diners. Aside from one table near ours, we were the youngest people in the building.  While the bar was softly lit, the dining area was bright. Too bright, my wife and I agreed. Soon after,  as if having noticed our squinting, a waitress turned down the lights to an acceptable dim.

The fish fry is all you can eat cod, but only if you’re ordering the fried cod. Broiled cod is single serving. My wife ordered the broiled and my daughter and I ordered the fried. The table quickly filled with accoutrements. A basket of dinner rolls, a bowl each of applesauce, coleslaw, tartar sauce, and potato salad.  The dinner rolls were small and shiny, torpedo shaped, and absolutely delicious. Warm with a crunchy exterior, it was hard not to eat the entire basket. And I might have if not for the butter situation. The butter was served not in a dish or a bowl, but in small single serve containers, like a gas station might offer next to their hotdog rolling machine. It was a tremendous disappointment.

The potato salad was German style, but different than any I’ve ever had. Most salad of this style would be heavy on vinegar, but this was basically chopped up boiled potatoes with some bacon and deeply caramelized onions in a sauce of butter. The sauce was sweet, but there was no discernible vinegar present. I thought the dish to be different, and I couldn’t tell if I really like the difference, but I ate it anyway because it was quite good.  Shortly after ordering the fish arrived, a single plate for my wife and family style dishes for my daughter and me to share.  The potato pancakes  were super crunchy, super greasy, and super good.   My daughter ordered the fries, which were pale and looked like every french fry any diner has ever served. My wife’s broiled fish came with a side of vegetables, which were obviously from a frozen bag. And not the gourmet frozen bag, but the frozen bag that goes on sale Four For a Dollar.

My fried fish sections were lightly battered and appropriately golden brown.  When you buy cod in the frozen section of a grocery store, they come in long rectangle shaped bricks. Our fish was similar, except that the fried pieces were cut into 2 x 2 squares.  They were crunchy, adequately salted, and properly cooked. I liked them. But the shape was a distraction, and combined with the glimpse of my wife’s small cut up vegetables and the oak table with paper place settings I couldn’t help but feel like I was in the dining hall of a well cared for nursing home. I tasted a piece of my wife’s broiled cod and it was fine, although she mentioned that the tartar sauce was a bland and had let her down.

In the end, the tab with tip was $50.00. No drinks, no appetizers, no dessert. The portions were large, and I left feeling contented without ordering a second helping of anything. This may have been on account of the additional roll intake, but nonetheless, no seconds were ordered.   The waitress did ask us if we wanted more, which was nice, and she was pleasant and attentive even if our water glasses did get a bit dry midway through dinner. We weaved back through the two dining rooms, past the bar that still looked neat and inviting, and to our car. The night was a success,  and I was glad to visit a new to me restaurant.

I enjoyed my dinner. The price was in line, the service was sweet, and the food plentiful.  Nothing was bad, and the dinner rolls were terrific. But nothing left me feeling as thought I needed to go back. I wasn’t overly impressed with any aspect of the evening.  I liked my fish, but did I love it?  I liked the Big Foot logo work, but did that overcome the paper place settings?  I liked that it was just a handful of miles from my home, but will that make me come back? I think the answer to each is an easy no. Not a forceful no, because things were fine, but I don’t find that I’ll need to add the Big Foot Inn to my standard fish fry rotation. I’d ask that you try it, and maybe the dinner rolls and potato salad will bring you back. Maybe you’ll get a seat in the bar and it will affect your opinion, just as the back dining room affected mine.

Big Foot Inn  6.5/10

All You Can Eat Fried Cod $13 (I think, because I can’t seem to find my receipt and the website doesn’t list the price)

11508 Highway 14, Harvard, IL 

 

Pier 290 Friday Fish Fry

Pier 290 Friday Fish Fry

There are many things that set Lake Geneva apart from its so-called competition. The water quality, the housing stock, the liquidity; all are important aspects of our superiority. But perhaps chief on the minds of residents and would-be residents is the plentiful existence of places to dine or imbibe that are accessible via boat. Lots of lakes have a place to eat on the water. Like one place. Maybe two, but probably one. When living on Geneva, there are loads of restaurants reachable via water chariot, and among those restaurants there are bars like Chucks, casual joints like Gordy’s, and the king of waterfront dining: Pier 290. When Pier 290 opened several years ago it immediately became a shining lakefront beacon, drawing residents and day trippers to this lakefront scene. The fanfare was and is deserved.

Friday night called for an early dinner.  My daughter was skiing and my son had basketball practice, so my wife and I put on our going to dinner clothes (in a twist, these are also my going to work clothes and going to Walmart clothes) and arrived at Pier 290 at 5:25 pm. It was dark, cold, and we were pleased to find a parking space near the front door. The hostess led us to an ideal table for two, in the far southeast corner of the main dining room, near the lakeside window and fireplace. It was a wonderful spot in a beautiful room. The firewood was stacked neatly near the fireplace, our table so close I could have tended the fire if I wished. And I did wish. The fireplace was absent of fire on this 14 degree January evening. Why is there a fireplace here if not for an evening such as this? Suddenly my fireside table felt out of the way and meaningless.

The waiter was soon table side and took our order. He was both polite and well spoken.  Two waters and an appetizer of deviled eggs. I’ve had these deviled eggs before, and though they were previously a bit overly mustardy, they were always delicious with a splash of Tobasco. The  plate, two eggs cut in half ($8) arrived quickly. The deviled eggs were good, though not at all as I remembered. The white of the egg was firm, perhaps too firm. In a twist, it seemed to me that the yolk filling also contained chunks of the egg white, which I found to be interesting at first and then annoying.   Bread and butter were served, and I was delighted in the softened butter. I will always delight in softened butter.  The bread was warm, though barely. It could have used another minute in the oven, but was a nice bread, airy and chewy, an ideal accompaniment to the soft butter.

When the waiter returned, we ordered the fish fry. On the menu, it’s listed as an All You Can Eat fish fry with two options: Cod or Bluegill.  Neither option had a listed price, which I thought strange, but perhaps the market price of frozen cod fluctuates wildly and the menu pricing is best left blank. The waiter recommended the bluegill,  so I succumbed and ordered bluegill, it only comes fried. I also ordered one piece of cod fried and one piece of cod broiled. Potato pancakes as the side. Pier 290 offers house made potato chips as a side, and I would suggest you not order those. If you’re going to eat potato, you might as well eat it in the proper dinner form.

In the entirety of the front dining room, just one other table was occupied, so when our fish arrived quickly after ordering I was pleased but not surprised. The plate was large, the serving size ample. Two potato pancakes, one piece of broiled cod, one piece of fried, and perhaps five small bluegill filets. The fried items were not golden fried, as you’d expect with a fish fry, but were rather lightly fried, as if the fish was tossed only in flour or cornstarch before frying.  Maybe dredged, not battered.  That’s fine, but I found the exterior to lack crispiness and necessary crunch.  The potato pancakes were flavorful, hot, and generally delicious. There was more to this mix than is typical, lending a creaminess to the interior that I enjoyed.

The bluegill, with that pale breading, was served skin-on. It was overcooked and had a dull flavor not at all like the bluegill filets I grew up eating.  We would always filet our fish and remove the skin entirely before breading with an egg bath and instant mashed potato mix on the exterior. If you’ve never done this, I suggest you do. I’d also suggest Pier 290 consider it, because the bluegill dinner wasn’t something I’d ever order again. The cod was better, though breaded in that same light crust.  The broiled piece was fine, if small and square, like a Williams Bay 1986 cafeteria serving. Still, it was well salted and not overcooked like the bluegill.  I ordered a second piece of broiled, to make good on that All You Can Eat offer, and was quickly presented with two more squares of cod. These came with a lemon wedge, something the initial plate didn’t include. These are the sort of odd inconsistencies that are common here.

The waiter remained attentive to our water glasses and quickly asked if we wanted any seconds. We declined, and asked for the check. The cod dinner was $13, which comes in just below Anthony’s price. The bluegill dinner cost me $18.95, which came as a surprise only because it wasn’t priced on the menu. I wouldn’t consider ordering that bluegill again, no matter the price. Our total dinner tab for two (no drinks) was $51.15 including tip. In line with expectations, and in line with a typical Wisconsin fish fry.

If you go to Anthony’s, you go to celebrate the big plate of fried fish, and to tolerate the rest, even if the rest is quaintly charming. At Pier 290, you go to celebrate the scene, to celebrate the design of the restaurant and the way the space feels. You tolerate the fish. Will I go back to Pier 290? Of course I will. I’ll always go to Pier 290 because it’s so darn pretty. But the food remains a mystery, and a Friday Fish Fry that should seemingly be the easiest to master because it never, ever changes, was still a slight miss.  Visit Pier 290 because you can. Because it’s accessible by boat, and you can dine outdoors in the summer with your toes in the sand. Visit because it’s our most beautiful area restaurant. But when you go, don’t order the bluegill.

 

Rating 5/10

Pier 290  

1 Leichty Drive, Williams Bay, WI

Friday Fish Fry $13 (Bluegill $18.95)

All You Can Eat

 

Friday Fish Fry

Friday Fish Fry

The problem with restaurant reviews is that they’re generally written by people who wish not to offend the restaurant. If we were in a large city, and I were Jonathan Gold or Steve Dolinsky, I would write about a restaurant without any fear of calling out their shortcomings. So long as I praised their successes, no one would mind the negatives. But in small town America, restraurant reviews are written in bulk in the back of seasonal guide magazines, or only after a restaurant opens. The reviews often, always, glow. They glow because they must, because small town America does not wish to see small town America fail. Ah, but fail we do, and so it’s time that someone wrote proper reviews of Lake Geneva area restaurants. I volunteer.

I’ve often written that most area restaurants are not all terrible.  They do one thing well, or a few things well, and equal things, or more things bad. A good dish here and there does not make a restaurant. Consistency across the menu, throughout the experience, that’s what makes a restaurant. And sadly, those are the things that often fail local, small town restaurants.  Because of these inconsistencies it is necessary to judge each restaurant on the same dish. The same night. The same idea. In Wisconsin, thanking the Catholics for their tradition, we have Friday Fish Fry. It’s revered in this state, as it should be, and it’s a staple on every menu across this great state.

That’s why this weekly review is going to pinpoint the Friday Fish Fry, FFF from here on out. I’m going to choose one local restaurant each Friday for the next 12 or more Fridays, and on Monday you’re going to read about it. To keep things fair, I’m going to review based on the experience, the price, the service, the food. For the food, it’s going to be the FFF, and the FFF only. If an appetizer is bought, you’ll know. And unlike other reviews that have proceeded mine, I’m actually going to tell you the truth. If the restaurant’s offering is terrible, I’m going to tell you it’s terrible. If it’s delightful, you’ll know. Since I come to this review with some existing bias, I’ll start where the bias is most poignant: Anthony’s Steak House.

I first visited Anthony’s as a child, perhaps in the fifth or sixth grade. My parents took me and some older relatives. The decor was dated, the interior dark. The circle turn around with covered portico reminiscent of a funeral home. That was likely almost 30 years ago. Friday night,  fresh off a Faith Christian School basketball victory in Hebron, where they’ll never stop talking about that ancient state basketball championship (for good reason, I must admit), I pulled into the dark parking lot (ample, and easy to find a spot in no matter how jammed the restaurant) and walked into the darker restaurant. The iconic roadside sign remains the thing that shines brightest at Anthony’s.

We were joining friends, making the table a party of nine.  After a few minutes to arrange a table (we didn’t make reservations), we were escorted to the back room of the restaurant. There is a large bar on the East end, a large fireplace that long ago burned its last fire on the North, and this banquet room to the far West. It felt like a room in the basement of an older hotel where a low budget wedding reception might take place. The ceiling hangs low in this restaurant. But the space is clean, and the waitstaff was friendly, and avoided calling anyone at the table dear, honey, sweetie, or darling.  The room was warm on that bitterly cold evening. We ordered waters, because I am my father’s son, and were presented with bread and butter. The bread was warm, if lacking any density. Sort of airy, like a Wonder Bread thrown into the oven for a moment to toast the top. The round orb of butter attracted my attention, as butter tends to do, and I tore off a small hunk of white bread and attempted to slather on some butter.

The bread was warm, but the butter was ice cold. Spreading cold butter on warm, airy bread doesn’t work so well. But alas, I had decided to order a bowl of French Onion Soup, labeled “Charley O’s”. I worked at Charley O’s in the very early 90s, and everyone has always known of the special soup that Charley featured. With Charley playing front of house host at Anthony’s, he brought his soup with him, and it was as delicious as I remember. The trip to Anthony’s may be worth while if only for the soup, $5.99 for the bowl. Thick and rich with beef stock and onions, capped with broiled gruyere cheese, this isn’t like that watery fancy-pants-french-restaurant-soup. This is cold hearty, stewy, like it should be, like it was always meant to be. The soup was delicious, the bread light and warmed, the butter ice cold.

The FFF is $13.99 for adults, and it’s all you can eat.  When we ordered, there was some confusion as to whether or not there was a child’s version of this dinner that wouldn’t be $13.99, but no one, including the waitstaff knew if the kid’s version was all you can eat, or not. It didn’t matter. I ordered- half fried and half broiled cod, potato pancakes.  Anthony’s does offer a perch dinner, but it’s not all you can eat and perch tastes like cod, so why not order the cod?  While we waited for dinner, small bowls of tartar sauce, coleslaw, and apple sauce were brought out. Our bread was refreshed without our asking, which was nice. The butter was still nearly as cold as the night air.

We waited around 30 minutes for the fish to arrive. That’s too long, especially considering the restaurant was not yet operating under full capacity, given our early arrival (6 pm).  Whenever a wait is that long  I worry that the food has been sitting on the counter, under warming bulbs, while the waitress takes a smoke break.  When the food arrived it was hot, wiping away my concerns over tepid fish. The potato pancakes were delicious, flavorful patties crisped wonderfully. They were oily, which my healthy friend commented on, but the oil is what makes them taste good. If you want baked potato pancakes, you best stay south of the state line. My fried cod was breaded lightly with a beer-style batter, crispy, hot, and well salted. Fried fish can often lack salt, but these two pieces were ideal.

The broiled cod at Anthony’s features a spice rub of some variety, salt, pepper, oregano and perhaps paprika. It’s a nice rub, though at times it can be overpowering. If you order a full order of broiled, you’ll get a big, thick, handsome filet. But if you order a half order, you’ll generally get the wimpy tail piece of the filet, which is thin and overcooks easily, and is also overpowered by the seasoning. Still, the fish was tender, well salted, and tasty. Given that this is an all-you-can-eat joint, I ordered one extra piece of broiled fish, just to feel like I had gotten my money’s worth. The fish that came out was a skinny piece of tail section, less than ideal.  I don’t eat tartar sauce or coleslaw, so you’ll have to judge those for yourself.

There’s a restaurant in the Driftless that serves a Wednesday night all-you-can-eat shrimp dinner. We went there once and ordered the shrimp. After the first plate was brought to our table, the waiter disappeared for what felt like days. When he finally surfaced we had lost our enthusiasm to re-order seconds, which we had rightfully intended to do. That’s a common trick in the all-you-can-eat business, if you don’t make yourself available to take the order, the patron cannot eat all he can eat. At Anthony’s, we were asked by the waitress if we wanted any more to eat, which is nice, and far better than the shrimp bar out West.

The dinner tab,  for five (two adults, three kids), with a bowl of soup and tip came to $94. That’s not particularly cheap, considering no beverages were ordered, but it should prove to be in line with most area FFF.  The scene at Anthony’s won’t give you any design ideas. You won’t be tempted to take many pictures. It’s just an old, dimly lit restaurant in the model of a Supper Club, charming in the easy way of old establishments,  and you go for the generous portions of hot cod. This cod will set the standard that the other restaurants must be judged against.  If you’re in town on a Friday night, you’d be wise to make your way to Anthony’s for their Friday Fish Fry. Order the soup and be sure to order seconds.   Rating 9/10. 

 

Anthony’s Steak House – 3354 State Road 50, Lake Geneva, WI (about a mile West of downtown Lake Geneva)