I'm going in for seconds at Salvatore's Tomato Pies in Sun Prairie, which in this line of work isn't always a good thing. It may mean the first visit left something to be desired - which it did. But it also means a clean slate, and in that regard, Salvatore's ended well.
Salvatore's specializes in using local ingredients in hand-shaped tomato pies. It's an inverted pizza of sorts - crust first, then cheese, toppings and sauce - that hails from Trenton, N.J., where Salvatore's owner, Patrick DePula, grew up.
My first go was a busy Friday night. The server was maternal and friendly, but as the room filled, our dirty plates continued to pile and stayed on the table through the entire meal. The salad was large as promised, but scant on the "chef's choice" of toppings, the cheese forgotten. The kalamatas in the antipasto were my favorite; the charcuterie didn't pull me either way.
The tops of the pies were consistent with the promises of a little blister and char, but the undersides were pale and underdone, slouching with toppings that sounded dazzling on paper but lacked personality on the pizza. The cabernet-poached fig pizza with Gorgonzola, bacon and balsamic-red wine reduction screamed mostly of Gorgonzola. The bacon was soft and pink and mistaken for shallots by a friend. The figs tasted waterlogged, as opposed to plumped with winy goodness. The balsamic-red wine was detectable from the swash of color on the crust, but was otherwise muted, a strange thing to say about a component that usually contributes welcome brassiness.
For as much sauce as there was on the pizza with Italian sausage, caramelized shallots, roasted red peppers and goat cheese, it tasted bland. That was a surprise since the sauce is reportedly made in-house from a 100-year-old family recipe using Stanislaus tomatoes and fresh herbs. It begged for salt, at the very least, as did the house Italian sausage, perhaps the biggest disappointment of the night. It tasted grainy and dry - characteristic of a broken sausage, which is my best guess as to what happened. The fat gets too warm during mixing, the ingredients split, and the result is an irreparably mealy product. The goat cheese was creamy and abundantly dolloped, however.
When I looked into the cutaway to the kitchen, on the far back wall was a phrase written in Sharpie: "Best pizza in Wisconsin every time." With the overwhelmed service and underwhelming meal, I didn't get it this time. At their price point, I needed more.
However, when I stepped through the doors on a sleepy Wednesday, I saw an entirely different side of Salvatore's - the side that made me want to come back for thirds. The same waitress greeted me with a "Welcome back!" and shortly after, DePula came out, as I'm told he does: "Thanks for coming back." And yet I felt like I was at Salvatore's for the first time. There was a different vibe, and different pizza, for that matter. Nearby, I spotted a salad - chock-full of toppings and cheese - that put the Friday night salad to shame.
Salvatore's, on a good night, does simple really well. DePula's wife, Nicole, a baker at the Concourse Hotel, also makes the bread, pizza dough and weekend desserts for Salvatore's (named after the couple's 3-year-old son).
The bread plate is a must. Lightly toasted sesame and Parmesan-crusted bread is accompanied by a dipping pool of rosemary-infused olive oil hit with chopped garlic, red pepper flakes and more Parmesan cheese.
The pizza crust uses only four ingredients, and I gained appreciation for its potential, properly handled. I watched DePula, seemingly more in a trance than a kitchen dance, methodically smoothing the surface of the dough evenly throughout. Next, a squeeze of olive oil at 12 o'clock, the smoothing motion continued. Then handfuls of cheese. For a burly guy from Jersey, he made pizza-making look gentle, sensual even, and my pizza was better for it.
Although Salvatore's offers several specialty pies (none of them vegetarian), the basic tomato pie is my pick of the menu. It's unfettered with excess toppings, and the purity of the ingredients shines. Made with care, it tastes as good as it looks: just whole-milk mozzarella, provolone, fresh basil and a spiral of sauce. The second visit, the sauce was different too: fruit-forward and sweet with tomato but rounded out with balanced seasoning. Just enough salt to balance the sweet, and a faint background of herbs that kept the tomato front and center. The crust, too, offered a rewarding sensation as my teeth sank through a soft foundation beneath the cheese to the crisp, browned, structurally sound bottom.
Now that was something worth traveling to Sun Prairie to enjoy. Whether or not Friday was a fluke, one thing is for sure: If DePula is baking your pie, it won't disappoint.