We’re far, far from the sunny climes of Napoli, Roma and Palermo, but the incredibly infectious and nearly universally loved culture of Italo-America and especially its food has had the same resounding impact here in Wisconsin as anywhere in the U.S. (exempting Boston and New York, let’s be fair here). Although the Greenbush district of Madison bears only the vestiges of visual evidence testifying to the Sicilian/Italian history of the area, that history is a vital thread in Madison’s civic mythology. Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha also have historic Italian neighborhoods with still-thriving food-related businesses like Glorioso’s and Sciortino’s in Milwaukee and Tenuta’s Deli in Kenosha.
It’s well-known by chefs and food enthusiasts that a central irony of how popular Italo-American food has become (has always been, really, since the massive wave of immigration of Southern Italian citizens into the U.S between 1880-1920) is that the very things that make it so appealing—fresh, vibrant flavors and straightforward presentations that are contingent on nothing so much as perfectly ripened and harvested fresh produce—have been either masked or lost entirely in the modern, mass-market versions of it. Just this past weekend, the New York Times ran a front-page article on the huge sales revival a prominent pizza chain experienced when they increased the amount of cheese on their pies by 40 percent. Syrupy, sweet tomato sauces that drown a bowl of pasta, lasagna glued to the plate by mozzarella, “extra large” anything—all these are fundamental contradictions of the best in Italian food, no matter how well they may sell. I once worked for an excellent Calabrian chef who told me that the most important thing to him in designing a dish was that his customers could identify and remember the flavors on their palate—preferably no greater than three central flavors, like roast chicken, thyme and lemon. This, to me, was a poignant summation of the Italian cooking ethos. Get it as fresh as you can, handle it with good judgment and restraint, keep the flavors clean and clear. Cheese was used as a seasoning, like salt or pepper—not as the center of the dish.
Living in the Upper Midwest, it can be a challenge to access the ingredients you need to hit these notes, except for a glorious window of time from July through September. The cold part of the year finds many of us relying on canned tomatoes—of which there are some excellent varieties, they aren’t necessarily a liability—for some signature Italian dishes, and the other warm-climate “green” flavors get pretty scarce. Recently, the Kitchen on Main St. took over production of the 14” pizzas that had been produced in the margins of time in the Willy East Deli and we wanted to find a way to use as much Wisconsin product in these items as we could. Last fall, as you may remember, we launched a program to buy into the local tomato harvest and freeze as much as we could for overwinter use—about an even ton last year. There are several applications that we can’t use tomatoes stored this way for, due to the fact that the cell structure is pretty well decimated by the freezing process and the fruit has no structure to speak of when thawed. But sauces work great! The tomatoes we froze last year, all from Kevin Lucey of Happy Valley, lasted us well into July and the vast majority of sauces and soups were made using these. This year, we bought again from Kevin and also from Drumlin Community Farm. All our pizzas are made using tomatoes from these two local producers for the sauce. The color of the sauce alone tells you what the flavor difference is going to be—when you puree a canned tomato from a big producer, the sauce sometimes turns pink because of the stage of ripeness at harvest—our sauces stay a vivid red when blended, having been harvested at full ripeness. The flavor, too, has none of the chemical brineyness that I find even in high quality canned tomatoes. It’s full and fresh, and we augment minimally with basil, oregano, salt and pepper.
All our pizza dough, as has always been the case, is made in our Bakery using organic flour and extra virgin olive oil. Our mozzarella is rBGH-free, produced in Wisconsin. We are currently using Applegate pepperoni, but are working on a Wisconsin product that will act as a feasible replacement. We would like to introduce a sausage pizza using Willow Creek Italian sausage as well; look for it in the upcoming months.
We will also be instituting new packaging that is fully compostable (Madison City recycling does not recycle pizza boxes from standard pizza stores due to the grease remaining on the boxes) and allows for home-finish baking in the tray, simply by removing the lid and finishing in your home oven. By 2011, we feel confident in saying we’ll offer the greenest and most locally sourced take-and-bake pizza choice in the city. Mangia e custodire!