Ian’s Pizza: Madison’s pizza communion
No trip to Madison would be complete without a stop at Ian’s Pizza. A small regional chain with locations in Chicago and Milwaukee, Ian Gurfield and friends began it in Madison in 2001 and today there are two locations in Madtown. Late night is best at the Frances Street spot, where the people-watching is excellent. On a Saturday night, you’re likely to see a handful of studious seniors, various sots, several theatergoers and maybe even a family to provide a cross-section of the whole city. You’ll also get a peek at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry, often cited as one of Madison’s best burgers (a topic best left to its own tour). If you’re still thirsty, pop into Vintage next door and try one of their craft brews made just across town.
Ian’s has had several run-ins with fame on the national level. Its pizza was Wisconsin’s entry in Food Network Magazine’s 50 States, 50 Pizzas tour, and was featured on the Cooking Channel program Pizza Outside the Box in summer 2011.
Ian’s Pizza truly reflects Madison in that it’s a mash-up of culinary styles with an emphasis on local ingredients. When we first ate at Ian’s, we thought they were just on the locavore bandwagon. But we realize now that they mean it, and they’re here to stay. In summer, nearly all their vegetables come straight from the farmers’ market and end up in harmonious combinations on pizzas and salads. Management rises through the ranks and there’s a lot of genuine passion for the work here.
The mac and cheese pizza is a carbohydrate bomb, it’s true. But the thin crust and thinly distributed noodles actually don’t overwhelm. The sauce is creme fraiche plus a blend of Wisconsin cheeses that yields just the right stretch after each crunchy bite. This pizza is a panacea for the ills of Madison: patching broken hearts, coddling sodden heads, and curing homesickness.
Ian’s always has pepperoni, sausage, cheese and their signature mac & cheese pizzas on hand. These are fine, but take advantage of their culinary creativity that varies with the season. In winter, watch for comfort food slices like chicken pot pie, eggplant Parmesan, or the St. Patty’s Day Reuben. The start of baseball season usually brings a Chicago dog slice with hot dogs, mustard, green relish and sport peppers; all summer, the best of the farmers market is featured with whatever looks good that week, from ramps and greens in spring to beets and goat cheese in fall.
Ian’s started going offering vegan options in 2011 with a new butternut squash ratatouille slice using Daiya non-soy cheese substitute, which has a saltiness and tacky texture that, when used sparingly like Ian’s does, complements their thin crust quite well. Future plans for more vegan options are in the works.
Inside Tip: Pizza for the masses
Madison is known for its politically liberal viewpoint. In 2011 when newly elected conservatives proposed a budget bill to pare back social services as well as reduce the power of Wisconsin government employee unions (including teachers’ unions), a large protest movement swept Madison for over 100 days, eventually reaching a one-day zenith of nearly 100,000 people. Shortly after the protests began, Ian’s Pizza answered the call of far off supporters who wished to turn cash contributions into tasty pies of solidarity. The response generated from national media picking up this story led to over 75 countries and all 50 states phoning in orders for delicious pizza to be run up to Capitol Square and handed out for free.