When you ask people in Madison for pizza recommendations, the same names tend to come up over and over again. But there are worthy pies coming from outlying communities that shouldn't be forgotten. If you're craving good pizza and are willing to go out of town for it, there are names in Cottage Grove, Waunakee and Monona that you need to know. These little pizzerias are doing right by their pies.
Say you're east of Madison, maybe on I-94. You just don't feel like driving anymore. Papa Jimmy's Pizza in Cottage Grove is there for you. After 15 years at the same little location, owner Jim Spalding moved his pizzeria down the road a block or so, and in summer 2010 turned a self-serve car wash into a comfortable modern pizza joint with some retro parlor touches.
A small selection of arcade games, a wide array of Chocolate Shoppe ice creams, and multiple TVs - tuned recently to the Brewers games - make Papa Jimmy's a good place to take the family. Order a taco pizza to keep any teenagers happy; it's topped with a Big Grab's worth of nacho cheese Doritos. Even if you like your taco pizza a little less junk-food extreme, its savory refried bean base will still satisfy the craving.
The thin crust is crisp but not overly crispy; there's a little chew there. But the Bellybuster pizza fulfills its true potential when served deep-dish style. The high walls of the crust are buttery and browned, while a blanket of gooey cheese covers the toppings more familiarly called deluxe or supreme. The modestly seasoned garlic bread is half of a small loaf, sliced lengthwise; it could come with a little extra tomato sauce on the side.
Perhaps you're taking a country highway back from Devil's Lake State Park, and you're not looking forward to cooking when you get home. Zoe's Pizza of Waunakee offers dine-in and takeout - including take-and-bake-as well as delivery to north Middleton and environs. Since Zoe's opened in September 2010 (in the former Cimino's), owners Chris and Michele Meyer have been turning out a self-described New York-style pizza, in addition to lunch combos and pastas.
Listen: This isn't New York. I'm not going to try to defend the New York claim. What I can tell you is that this is the best crust I've eaten in Madison outside of Ian's. If you like a good, chewy crust with a simple, classic topping, look no further than a hand-tossed Crazy Pepperoni. Specialty pies get as loopy as you'd imagine: chicken and bacon on the Ranch pizza, or a spaghetti and meatball pie only available in large.
But if you appreciate Wisconsin-style pizza, you'll order Zoe's cracker-thin crust. It may not be the thinnest around, but the structure is complex like puff pastry, with a water cracker crunch. It's a remarkable sensory experience and stands up well to high-moisture toppings like the tomato, spinach and olive oil on the excellent Florentine white pie. Order the buttery - and ample - garlic bread with this pizza, and you have a perfect pizzeria experience.
Or maybe you're coming home from a commute to the east or south, and the most you can manage for dinner is a phone call. Even with its slightly idiosyncratic hours, Rossi's, in the heart of Monona, can answer that call. (If you choose takeout over delivery, make sure you know where you're going; Rossi's has moved a short distance from its old space to a former Klinke's location nearby and is set to reopen Oct. 19.)
The menu at Rossi's is impossibly diverse for a restaurant with no dine-in space. Also, it's too hard to break away from the pizza to try barbecue ribs, fried cod or a meatball sub. But they're there, should you need them. I hit the Bosco sticks - mozzarella inside buttery breadsticks - and I generally can go no farther.
Anyway, who could resist the Greek pie, with tzatziki and strips of gyro meat, or the Oak Court, topped with bacon and wickedly hot jalapeÃos? That's to say nothing of the basic excellence of the Supreme - all done best on the cracker-thin crust, though hand-tossed is also an option. (The crust gets a little floppy during delivery, but it's still delicious.) The loaf of garlic bread comes with cheese by default. It's like they know me.
When I order pizza, I want pizza - and okay, maybe some garlic bread. So I've ignored, perhaps unfairly, the other items like sandwiches, salads and pastas on all of these pizzerias' menus. But if you put your name on your pizza, that pizza alone better be worth the trip. Eat all the way to the edges, Madison - there's good stuff out there.