Archive for the ‘Pizza’ Category
Sherman, set the wayback machine for 1974, destination LaCrosse, Wisconsin. My first job out of college, I was selling radio advertising for a local AM radio station, WIZM. One of my clients was a small group of convenience stores called “Kwik Trip”, which I believe was part of Gateway Foods Distributors at the time, but subsequently became privately owned by two of the executives.
One of them was named John Hanson, and he and a colleague, Paul Stover I think his name was, sat in a small room in the back of one of the early stores, on Highway 61 heading south out of LaCrosse. I think Paul told me at the time that their goal was to get each customer to spend $1.15 or some such on each visit. I’m sure that number has changed.
Working with John and Paul, we did a lot of off-the-wall radio ads which I hope contributed to their growth; at least Hanson and Stover liked them, as they kept ordering new ones. It was a time in the history of radio advertising where “creativity sold”, so we did whacky things like interviews with sandwiches. It was great fun to help create the spots, and work with the Kwik Trip and WIZM guys to bring them to life.
There weren’t that many stores back then, a few in LaCrosse and a few in Eau Claire, WI. Today there are over 400, with 10,000 employees, and the company is still privately held, and very generous with their employees, in regards to doling out profits and even some equity.
What’s remarkable about Kwik Trip is its vertical integration, which has done so well for the company that even the big guys have started to copy it. What vertical integration means is that you see a lot of Kwik Trip branded products in the store, across all segments, snacks, hot and cold food, dairy, frozen. Marketing this way enables a company to control quality, costs, and offer product at a lower margin than competitors.
Anyway, I’ve written about Kwik Trip a bit before, as I am fond of their truck stop in Tomah, Wi. They came to my attention today because they have announced they are building a half dozen new stores in my home town of Duluth-Superior.
They’ll be going up against the usual competitors, and some guys I went to prep school with who own a mini chain called Little Stores, but I am sure they will capture the hearts of Northlanders like they do everywhere they open.
Kwik Trip Convenience Stores
On Belknap (“bell-nap”), one of the main drags in Superior, WI, two blocks west of the other main drag, Tower Avenue, you’ll run into one of the area’s largest liquor stores, the Keyport, which has an attached bar and grill of the same name. If you’re driving around looking for it, it’s in the outlot of Super One Grocery.
They frequently have live entertainment, daily specials, karaoke, and a gaggle of big screen TVs for sporting events.
The Minnesota Burger Bureau Chief was following one of his local favorite music acts, Todd Ekhart, and stopped in the other night, sampling the “Siracha Burger” from the full menu, which includes ciabatta sandwiches, wraps, salads, Mexican favorites, and pizza. The hand-formed char crust burger patty was painted with a siracha / bbq sauce mixture, topped with bacon, cheese, and onion rings. He reported that it was a fine effort, other than he and the chef had different opinions on what levels of doneness meant. (Food photo credit Kawikamedia.com; exterior shot from Google Maps).
Keyport Lounge Review
Jon Stewart, the witty host of TV’s “The Daily Show” took off on Chicago pizza last week, as a postscript to a story about the new World Trade Center being named the tallest building in America. Seems Mr. Stewart’s opinion of the 2nd city is less than favorable, and his pizza rant took up quite a long segment. If you missed it, I’ve included it here.
Mind you, I don’t DISlike deep dish (Chicago style), it’s just I prefer pizza for the toppings and cheese, and less for a heavy crust.
Gino’s East is one of the more renown deep dish makers in the city, with about a dozen locations, and like many successful pizza restaurants, they have a frozen line that closely parallels the restaurant pizza.
They are widely available in grocery stores, weigh in at two full pounds, and cost considerably less than at the restaurant, of course.
The Gino’s East version of the Chicago pie starts with a thick butter flavored crust in a two inch pie pan, followed by a layer of cheese, a layer of sausage, more cheese, and thick and chunky tomato sauce on the top. (That order was part of the source of Stewart’s consternation – “sauce on the top!”).
While it takes nearly forty minutes to bake at home, the result is worth it, a flavorful pie, with quality ingredients. If I was in charge, I would make a few small changes, I’d go with a single patty of sausage spanning the pie (as some places do), and more cheese. Gino’s East frozen uses sausage crumbles. I can imagine that these are pre-cooked, resulting in a less greasy pie, which is understandable and a good thing.
The pies are made by a contract manufacturer in the tiny town of Waupaca, Wisconsin; Chef Fresh is the name of the outfit, and I found an old news story about them.
Ginos East Frozen Pizza Review
I don’t get it. Frozen pizzas from Europe kick the ass out of the US made ones. With the exception of Vito and Nicks II, out of Chicago, I have seldom (OK, never) run into a frozen US pizza that compares in taste or texture to those made in Europe. Trader Joe’s has some excellent ones that I have previously written about, like their Wild Mushroom, Margherita, and the Olympiad brand ones.
Today I tested Mama Cozzi’s Stone Baked Caprese Pizza, which are made in Germany for the US discount grocery chain Aldi. Curiously, or not, Aldi and Trader Joe’s share a corporate parent.
This pie, boasts three cheeses, cherry tomatoes, and marinated semi-dried tomatoes. An even 16 ounces. Baked at 400 for 12 minutes or so. ”Italian style crust” the box says, along with “100 % real cheese.”
I’m not usually one for ‘plain’ cheese pizzas, preferring those that are piled high with as many processed pork products one can fit on the pie.
This is good. Crispy crust, a little thicker than what most consider “thin crusts”, good tasting cheese with ‘pull’, flavorful herbs and sauce. Taste and texture very similar to a local pizzeria in Europe, and as these are sold at Aldi’s, they are ‘value priced’ as well.
So, US manufacturers – Tombstone, DiGiorno, CPK, Red Baron, Palermo, and all the rest? What’s the deal? Why can’t you make a pie that at LEAST equals this, if not the Trader Joe’s offerings? A number of brands are now owned by Swiss based Nestle, maybe they can transition a few to excellence. Hope so!
Aldi Frozen Pizza Review
The other day, I wrote about how one can contribute to good service by pleasant interactions with the wait staff; last night, I observed how an outstanding server can be responsible for the entire evening experience being a good one.
Having driven most every Interstate and their predecessors, the US Highways in this country, I’m always impressed with the number of bars and eateries dotting the landscape of the Upper Midwestern states, particularly Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. You can find some real gems out in the middle of nowhere, and while you wonder where the population is to support these establishments away from city centers, somehow they survive and thrive, some for generations.
Nestled up in the “lake area” of the border of Wisconsin and Illinois, Upper Crust Pizza and bar is parked on County Road H, halfway between Genoa City, the first town over the Wisconsin state line, and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin’s playground for locals and wandering Chicagoans.
With enough seating for a horde, this is a great place to take the family or the fishing expedition, opening at 11 A daily, except closed Monday and Tuesday. Starting in Chicago over 50 years ago, the business relocated to Wisconsin in 1974, and occupies a modern roadside facility, where your children can be kept occupied for hours examining the collection of memoriabilia of all ilks that decorate the walls and ceilings. Pick one item and have your little shavers count how many of that type of item they find on the ceilings.
Upper Crust serves a variety of specialty thin crust pizza, some pastas, Italian beef sandwiches, and wings. The pizza is “Chicago-style” thin (yes, thin crust IS popular in Chicago!), with a crust that starts crispy around the rim and works into chewy towards the center. Red sauce is mild with a slight influence of herbs, and the toppings are fresh and ample. Sausage is hand pulled chunks of flavorful pork. The “genuine Wisconsin cheese” is very generous, and has a nice “pull” to it as your bite progresses through each (square cut) slice.
But the main selling point is Heather, mom by day, server by night, with a personality and service ethic to make your experience truly enjoyable. Doting, without being overbearing, Heather is a great example of a person who understands the primary premise of the hospitality industry.
Thanks, Heather, for ensuring my first stop at the Upper Crust won’t be my last. And I was kidding about the black olives.
You won’t find much about this joint online, and some references point to a website of a similar named shop in Boston. I tried to correct that by posting to all the usual review sites, and here is their menu, as well.
Sherman? Set the wayback machine for the early 1960s, north central Wisconsin, the town of Medford, the Tombstone Tap bar. That’s where brothers Joseph and Ronald Simek created what would become a giant in the frozen pizza industry. Much of the credit goes to brother Joseph (“Pep”) who devised the recipe to satisfy hungry bar patrons while he was laid up with a broken leg. Word spread, and other bars asked the boys if they could sell the pizzas, too, and that’s how it was originally done, Tombstone delivered frozen pies to bars and taverns, and furnished them with a shelf-top oven to bake the pies.
That was my first introduction to the concept, in a Minnesota bar, at about age 15; the pies were inexpensive, as I recall, $2 – $3.
The boys expanded, and eventually sold out to Kraft, maker of many other frozen pizzas; Kraft, in turn, decided to sell the division to Nestle one day, and there it sits today.
Apparently at some point, the (I imagine) non-compete ran out, and brother Pep started a new pizza company, branded with his own name. I have tried one of those.
As for Tombstone? Your basic frozen pie, with a rather distinctive sauce, slightly thicker than what I would define as thin crust, ultimately no better nor worse than most frozen pies. Not crazy that their pepperoni is a blend product which includes poultry. Best consumed when thoroughly intoxicated.
Often in Chicago, I have a preference for the local brands, there, and have done comparisons in the past. The front runner for me at current is Vito and Nick’s II, which is the closest I have experienced to actual pizza shop taste/texture. It’s goooooooooooooood.
Tombstone Pizza Review
It’s been over a year since I have ordered from Papa John’s; the last one I had was before I was 86ed from Portland, it was one of my ‘go-to’ delivery choices, though I discovered late in my tenure there that my fave local pizza was from an obscure corner market called Uncle John’s. (No relation to Papa). That was a massive New York, fold-able style pie.
Papa John’s, based in Louisville, is the 4th largest pizza chain, with over 4000 locations worldwide. In addition to pizza, they offer some variations on pizza, like cheese bread, and pizza-shaped cookies. Chicken wings and boneless chicken are also available. They feature Pepsi beverages.
I decided to try Papa John’s today because they have an early week special which is cheap, and I wanted to try their “Chkn Poppers”, white meat tenders, lightly breaded, oven-baked, says the website description. Sometimes I worry about food that has a somewhat funky spelling, but maybe vowels were extra. (FYI – “Chicken” is spelled out on the packaging).
Papa John’s online ordering is easy to navigate and gives you a wide variety of choices for customization. I’m also a sucker for those little tubs of garlic sauce that they peddle, and loaded up on them with this order.
I went for the all meat thin crust, and delivery arrived after about a hour. I figured it would take awhile, the shop is about 5 miles away, kind of surprised they even drive that far. Natch, the food wasn’t that hot.
The Chkn Poppers are little smaller and similar in texture to McNuggets. They are not seasoned, but you receive a choice of dipping sauces with the order. I like “buffalo” sauce, though I can’t recall the first time I had it, because I’m not a wing nut (in either way). So I probably didn’t experience it until restaurants started using it on other types of food. I do enjoy it with blue dress dressing on a burger on occasion.
Having shot my sauce sides wad on the garlic sauce, I pulled some buffalo and blue cheese out of the frig. I like Frank’s Original for Buffalo, and Litehouse for blue dress dressing. The entire line of Litehouse foods, from Idaho, are top notch. (And they often have coupons on their site).
The chicken is ok. Like any oven-baked breaded product, the breading isn’t crispy. I’m often puzzled as to why the food industry hasn’t figured out how to get a crisp crust without frying.
The pie? OK, also. Far down the list of local choices, being as the Chicago area is pizza heaven, but Papa John’s is far ahead of Pizza Hut and Domino’s for my personal taste.
I have a minor beef with the relatively new practice of delivery places charging for delivery, but saying in their disclaimers that it’s not a “tip”. I think the delivery fee should go to the driver.
Papa Johns Review
Friday evenings were “movie night” at the BurgerDogBoy household in Iowa, back in the day. Me, Burgerdogdaughter, and her mother would congregate in the basement of our house, in front of my silly extravagance of a 72″ Sony, pop in a rented VHS, welcome our friends Barry, Maureen, and baby boy, who was the same age as our daughter, watch a flick and have some pizza.
Generally, the pizza was from Little Caesars, which, at the time, was in serious growth mode and promoting their “Pizza! Pizza” concept, of two pizzas for the price of the competitor’s single, and packaged in an extra long box that accommodated both pies.
Burgerdogdaughter is now creeping up on 30, and it’s been almost that long since I imbibed in a Little Caesar’s pizza. The chain has had their ups and downs, since being started in 1959 Detroit by husband and wife team Mike and Marian Ilitch. Fortunes have mostly been on the upside, as the parent company Ilitch Enterprises, owns, in addition to the pizza company, the Detroit Red Wings, the Detroit Tigers, a casino and a host of other businesses.
The pizza outfit has kept evolving, and based on a special limited time offer five years ago, of having a single topping pizza “hot and ready” all the time, for five bucks, has made that the cornerstone of their business these days. Any hour of the day, you can walk in and get a large pepperoni for a fin, on the spot. At some locations, they offer other choices, as well, and at some locations, they have a relatively new offering, the one I tried, a two-fer double deep dish pepperoni for $8.
The pies are square, and cut in such a manner that every piece is an edge. Apparently people like that in pizzas as well as brownies.
How’s the pie? It’s ok, and a good value at $8. Better tasting, to my palate, that similarly priced products from national chains. It’s a lot of bread, this crust, which usually I don’t care for, but this was passable for me. The “all edge” concept produces some crispy crusts, which is graced with a buttery flavor. The sauce is slightly sweet, cheese is adequate, pepperoni is flavorful.
Would I buy it again? It’s a good ‘road-trip’ or picnic pizza, comforting to know you can grab something like this to go. Of course you can still order a custom-built pie at Little Caesar’s by calling in (no online ordering). These also offer oven baked wings with a variety of dipping sauces, and cheese bread. Pepsi products are on hand.
A locator is on their website.
Little Caesars Deep Dish Review
Suzy Applebaum introduced me to the Green Mill; we were both employed at KSTP in Minneapolis- St. Paul, and I had asked her to go to lunch. She suggested the Green Mill. At the time, it was a small bar on Hamline Avenue in St. Paul that specialized in deep dish pizza. It had opened in the 30s as a soda fountain at the same location.
I had a monster crush on Suzy, who hailed from a local grocery store dynasty family; if I knew then I was going to spend the rest of my life obsessed with food, well, I might have wised up and pursued Suzy with vigor, but I knew I was outclassed from the get-go.
The legend of the local bar with great pizza grew, and today, there are 27 locations across the Midwest, serving a full menu in addition to their pizza.
There was one other significant event in my life that took place at a Green Mill, the rehearsal dinner for my wedding. It was at the Uptown location on South Hennepin in Minneapolis, and no, it wasn’t my selfish love of pizza that made that event happen there, but was rather my mother’s choice. My mother loved to go with me to places that were “on the wrong side of the tracks”, and it was “our thing” to explore someplace new every time she came to the Twin Cities when I was living there.
As with most successful pizzerias, Green Mill has launched a frozen pizza line, and they are being made and distributed by a Minnesota pizza manufacturer, Bernatellos. Minnesota somehow became the frozen pizza capital of the US, with a gaggle of brands being made across the state: Jeno’s, Totino’s, Roma, Red Baron, Freschetta, Tony’s, Giovannis, Kettle River….I’m sure I’m forgetting many, but you get the idea.
I purchased the “Thin and Crispy” style with three meats, sausage, pepperoni and bacon. It’s a 15 ounce affair and was priced at 2 / $11 or .73 per ounce, and that’s steep for a frozen pie.
The three pix below represent the box, note the “authentic restaurant-style flavors” (boy, that’s as vague as can be, isn’t it?); the unbaked pie is kind of a misrepresentation, I pushed all the included pepperoni to one side of the pie. The last picture represents the baked pie, 10 minutes at 425.
The picture of the cooked pizza kind of tells the whole story, when you note the “glistening” on the surface. This is a fairly greasy pizza, and the ‘cupping’ and slight char on the pepperoni indicates a high fat content (which would explain some of the oil). The pork sausage is realtively unseasoned. It’s a crispy crust, pleasant enough, nice herb treatment, including fennel. Tomato sauce on the sweet side.
The ingredients list doesn’t include a whole lot of preservatives, these are pretty pure ingredients. The flavor is simply not to my taste, but it might be perfect for you!
Frozen Pizza Review
On their home page, Moretti’s poses the question: “Are we a sit-down restaurant? Pizza joint? Sports bar? Banquet Hall?” And I came away asking myself the same questions. The site further sez: “Something for everyone” is kind of cliché, but we can’t help ourselves.” Which reminds me of another cliche, “jack of all trades, master of none.” (Incidentally, to add one more “option”, late nights this location turns into a dance club, open until 4AM).
Part of the massive Ala Carte Entertainment group, I am sure the company rakes in millions, and this large suburban location certainly helps fill the coffers.
It’s Friday nite, and eschewing the usual Chicagoland dining out choice of heading for a fish fry, I check out the LITH location of Moretti’s, hadn’t been there before, had a choice of four different pizza places at that street intersection alone, and Moretti’s – luck of the draw.
It’s huge, and you arrive in the front door, are greeted (hopefully) by a host/hostess, to the right is a large bar with dozens of television screens blaring with sports, and ahead are several dining rooms including outdoor spaces overlooking scenic Randall Road.
The massive menu offers everything from appetizers to pizza, hamburgers, sandwiches, wraps, Italian entree dinners, soups, salads, steaks, chicken, fish, desserts, and ‘family style dinners.’ (one from column A, two from column B). I imagine most people take some time with the menu.
Our server wasn’t present. Oh, she was physically there, but she was “phoning it in” that night, just not really paying attention to her guests. Tracking her down became one of the games of the night – not easy in the cavernous establishment. What always interests me is why people go into the “hospitality” business if they don’t find being “hospitable” easy and natural. Our server had all the assets to have a great tip night, personable, great smile; but she just wasn’t interested in engaging or taking care of her parties – even the larger tables which should generate a nice tip.
We started with the onion rings, “thick, hand cut coconut breaded with sweet coconut and served with sweet chili sauce.” $6.99 for six rings. The rings were pretty ok, thick as advertised, a panko-like coating. For me, the sweet sauce isn’t the best choice for an accompaniement, a savory version might be more interesting.
The Apple Pecan salad is a chef’s dream turned into a nightmare. Creative, yes. Does it work? No. Baby spinach, candied pecans, bacon, artichoke hearts, marinated apple slices, roasted peppers, raisins, provolone and honey balsamic vinagrette. What were they thinking? What was I thinking? Ok, I wasn’t, somebody else ordered it, and I’m glad it didn’t come around to my side of the table. This might have worked with fewer and higher quality, fresher ingredients, but as it was/is served, it’s just a mess. A ten dollar mess.
Pizza? My personal ‘joke’ has always been there is “no such thing as a bad pizza.” I’ll stick to that here, but I learned there are pizzas I certainly don’t care for. Despite an appearance to please, Moretti’s pizza is food for the masses, designed and constructed to offend no one, and as such, has no flavor in the indidivual ingredients, nor when they come together.
Corn meal. A ‘trick’ in the pizza business to make a crispier crust, a faster bake….this dough prep overdoes it on corn meal, and it doesn’t make for a pleasurable experience. It does make a crispy cracker-like crust, but the corn taste comes through the wheat flour as well as spills off the bottom. Ick. Toppings are from any average pizzeria supplier, little bits of sausage and canned olives. And north of $20.
Regular readers know my personal test for quality pizza is how it tastes the next morning (now). Answer? No better or worse. I just had one slice. Unusual for me, I’m tossing the rest.
- Massive facility with zero ambience
- Service near to non-existent
- Mediocre food
Sounds like a recipe for success on the American restaurant scene. But if you’re OK with this type of food, at a check for over $50 for a pizza, salad, appy and one beer, you’d be far better off to out a couple of times at any of the fast casual chains offering two dinners for $20 or whatever the current promotion is.
It would seem, to me, that the Ala Carte Entertainment group is primarily in the bar business, and serves food as a sideline. They should think about giving up the sideline.
I try to stay on the positive side in my reviews, and generally find something redeeming about any stop; sorry to say I was S-O-L in doing that here.
(Eds note: I never read other reviews before I publish mine, but on occasion, look at some after the fact. It would appear my feelings about this joint are not all that unique. It would appear that the organization needs to work on training and motivation).