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Saturday, April 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Fair


Perfect pies
Monroe Street's Pizza Brutta is superb

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Reviewing is always a subjective thing, but reviewing pizza is especially dicey, since it's a dish we all grow up eating, and we all feel passionate about. So I figured it was best to take a democratic approach in approaching Pizza Brutta.

Democracy, though, can lead to its own kind of oligarchy (witness the plethora of supposedly independent websites hijacked by business owners, avidly recommending slop-bucket restaurants and Bleak House B&Bs), so I actually vetted the voters, choosing a group of independent thinkers who know their food, and who share a sense of social responsibility.

Who else would willingly give up a Saturday night to taste test seven different pizzas? Well, admittedly just about anybody. But still, a big thanks to Zsenija, Tia, Sarita, Ricardo, Marcia, Brian and the irrepressible T.P. McGhee, who had the following things to say about Pizza Brutta's pies:

"I like the way they don't overdo the sauce." - Sarita

"The crust is the best I have had in Wisconsin." - Zsenija

"The onion and sausage is fantastic, because the onion is perfectly caramelized and sweet." - Tia

Okay. Enough with democracy. I couldn't agree more with my opinionated guests, who frankly didn't leave a scrap behind. In fact, Pizza Brutta is producing my favorite pizza in town right now, something that dawned on me slowly, because these are not big, thumping, showboat pies that do luxe things with foie gras or suckling pig, or reinvent the crust.

What they represent, instead, is a passionate commitment to doing the right thing by a venerable culinary tradition. That starts with the big brick wood-fired oven, based on the Neapolitan classic and fed here with oak logs, that anchors Pizza Brutta's dining room.

The crust that comes out of that oven is perfect: light, pillowy around the edges, and almost airy in the center, with just enough delicate chew. (You do have to eat it, as intended, straight from the smoking oven, or things will go limp. Owner Derek Lee suggests heating the pie for three minutes at 500 degrees when you get home, if you take a pie to go.)

The other things that elevate Pizza Brutta's pies are the sauces and what may seem, at first, like a minimalist approach. Brutta doesn't douse its pies with dripping, clumped, acidic tomato sauce, and it doesn't load up the cheese so the pie sinks under the weight of a bubbling fondue. If sweet, freshly peeled tomatoes are used as a base, they are used sparingly - though a large number of Brutta's pies are white, which means they are merely crowned with a virgin olive oil that sets off the refined flavor of the kitchen's toppings.

And this is where Brutta's purist dedication really comes clear. Forget the standard pile-up of gamy luncheon meats and chalky mozzarella. Brutta's fresh mozzarella is hand-stretched in the restaurant, and smoked in the kitchen's oven. Its artisanal, hormone-free prosciutto comes from Iowa's vaunted La Quercia, the Wisconsin-made sausage is roused by fennel, and even the salt sprinkled over the pies is patrician sea salt.

The result is a pizza that actually tastes like something, and those subtle tastes are perfectly balanced. In addition to the supernal sausage pizza, other top pies are the salami e funghi (tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, Genoa salami, kalamata olives and mushrooms), the Caprino (olive oil, prosciutto, red onion, goat cheese and arugula), and the Greco (tomato sauce, eggplant, red onion, kalamata olives and oregano).

You can eat all this in the serviceable dining room - a long space made sort of cozy by that brick oven, ochre-painted walls, dark wood booths, and photos of Naples and its pizza ovens. But this isn't a table-service restaurant, and when the line ordering at the counter grows long and noisy on weekends, the idea of taking your pizza to go is more attractive. Just make sure you follow Lee's three-minute heat-up rule.

And if you stay, take a seat near the window, scan the street and enjoy a taste of real democracy. Somehow fending off the chains, Monroe Street has finally become the dining hub it always should have been, and its lineup of fine, fiercely independent restaurants and gourmet shops offer some of the surest food in town.

Work your way slowly down that line - starting with Maurie's milk chocolate turtles, a rich, chewy antidote to all those precious chili pepper chocolates that catch in the back of your throat, and then proceeding to Barriques, Dardanelles, Brasserie V, Taste of India - and you'll never really have to leave the neighborhood again.

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