Daniel Zemans, our man in Chicago, checks in with another piece of intel from the road, this time in Madison, Wisconsin. —The Mgmt.
Rocky Rococo Party Pizzeria
1753 Thierer Road, Madison, WI 53704 (map); (608) 241-8001; rockysmadison.com or rockyrococo.com
Pizza Style: Pan
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: For a low-cost chain, a good pizza, but be sure to order a whole pie or at least a fresh slice or prepare for disappointment
Price: Slices start at $2.99; Medium pies (serve 3 to 4) start at $12.49
Founded in Madison, Wisconsin in 1974, the Rocky Rococo pizza chain has undergone some significant expansions and contractions over the years while satisfying the pizza cravings of people all over Wisconsin and in a few select areas around the country. Today, there are 40 locations, all in except for one each in Minnesota and Washington.
It's not clear how many of the restaurants are franchises in total, but the company is on an ongoing mission to find more franchisees. All of the Madison locations are owned by one corporate franchisee that was spun off from the parent company in 1987. Two of the Madison locations are actually souped up versions called Rocky Rococo Party Pizzeria. I stopped at one of the Party Pizzerias on my way out of Madison this weekend.
Diners at Rocky Rococo can order pizza by the slice or by the pan. I wanted to try a couple of styles of pizza, so I went with two slices. All slices are an inch thick and almost weigh half a pound. Up first was a regular slice with sausage and mushroom. The meat itself was very good for a place that fights for customers with the Pizza Huts and Papa John's of the world. The sausage came in big chunks of chewy pork that were well-seasoned and lightly dotted with fennel seeds. The mushrooms were fresh, which was nice to see. The cheese, a secret blend, was fine, but the thick pasty overseasoned sauce was a disappointment.
For my second slice, I went with the "Super Slice of the Day," the Pepperoni Motherlode. Super Slices are $3.99 and weigh in at three-quarters of a pound. That order violated my rule of never eating cheap pepperoni, but it was worth it to get a sample of the crust filled with smoked mozzarella, a cheese that I'd love to see utilized more on pizza. The Hormel-type pepperoni was nice and crispy, but still had the unfortunate characteristic of tasting too much like a salt lick.
The biggest problem with my two slices was the crust: it was off in taste and texture. It's what I imagine a crust would be like if someone took three slices of budget, corn syrup-infused white bread and squeezed them together a little bit to add some density. The sweet crust would have been tolerable if not for the the soggy texture. The photo above is actually not of either of my slices, but rather a freshly made veggie slice. That crust, on the other hand, had a nice outer layer of crispness. It made a huge difference and wasn't bad, if still a little sweet.
The reason for the sponge-like nature of my crusts is an easily solved mystery.
To sell pieces by the slice, the folks in the kitchen take hot slices and put them in little cardboard boxes. The boxes leave no space for the steam coming off the pizza so it condenses and gets absorbed back into the pizza through the crust. It's truly baffling why they decided to serve the slices that way, particularly for slices ordered for eating inside the restaurant.
Bottom line: Nobody is going to confuse Rocky Rococo with gourmet pizza, but at the price point they're selling pies, making that comparison would be unfair and pointless. The slices in the little boxes are a bad way to go, but if the choice is between Rocky Rococo and any national low-cost pizza chain, the decision to go with Wisconsin's biggest pizza company is an easy one.
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