200723SRPBEIGNETS

As part of a recent takeout order from Sugar River Pizza Co. in Verona, Gazette restaurant reviewer Aaron R. Conklin ordered these bite-size, fried and lightly-sugared beignets for dessert.

VERONA

You’ve got to appreciate the planning and foresight that went into dropping a Sugar River Pizza Co. location more or less equidistant between Verona, Fitchburg and Oregon—a stone’s throw from a couple of budding industrial parks right off Highway 151.

It’s not at all hard to imagine waves of Epic Systems employees mobbing the tables and takeout on a break from work. That’s very likely what owner Sarah Thomas had in mind.

The pandemic has certainly put a damper on the mobs—although curbside and seated patio service for groups of six and fewer are still legitimate options—but that’s no reason not to swing by. Not only is the namesake pizza worth the trip, but there are also plenty of offerings from the deep and wide-ranging menu that are worth experiencing.

Choice is the calling card here, and the amount of it borders on the paralyzing.

Obviously, there’s no pizza joint in the world that doesn’t let you pick your toppings. But Sugar River Pizza also lets you pick several other things: seven different sauces (including curveballs such as red pepper cream), four different drizzles and a couple of specialized herb shakes.

You’ve also got not two, not three, but four different options for crust thickness, ranging from a crispy thin up to, for a whopping 50 cents extra, a thick crust option.

In the time of coronavirus, a restaurant’s online ordering system becomes more important than just about everything other than the quality of the food itself. Sugar River has thankfully hitched its fortunes to the right online vendor. The interface makes it super-easy to alter and augment both halves of either the build-your-own or specialty pizzas.

At first glance, the list of specialty pizzas makes you think Sugar River is trying to ride the clever coattails of Ian’s Pizza—many of the options, including a mac ‘n’ cheese pie and a pie topped with steak, green peppers and mushrooms look and sound an awful lot like the Ian’s offerings Madisonians have come to love and order at 1 a.m. A couple of Sugar River’s pizzas carry groan-worthy names such as “Ricotta Be Kidding Me.”

Tasting them quickly dispels that thought. The Cluckin’ Gouda, one of the strongest options, soups up the sweet with a triple punch of sugary barbecue sauce, pineapple and sweet onions. What sets it apart is the heft of the ingredients: The chicken chunks are, you know, actually chunky, while the onion slices stick up like unruly feathers nestled in piles of melted cheese. Even ordered on crispy thin crust, it all holds together deliciously.

Did someone say cheese? Sugar River’s cheese bread—part of the wide-ranging appetizer menu—is billed as “sticks of bread,” but it arrives as a massive chunk buried in herbs and cheese—or garlic and basil if you’d prefer. If the mountain of cheese on top somehow isn’t enough for your fromage-lovin’ heart, you can also order a stuffed version, which likely edges closer to “cheese cheese” rather than cheese bread.

Most of the menu runs much deeper than you’d expect for a joint that leads with its pizza. A newer item in the pasta section is an Alfredo dish with andouille sausage. The promised dusting of Cajun spices gets drowned in the creaminess of the white sauce, but there’s plenty of kick in the coins of andouille that nest in the noodles. An option to add an extra helping is welcome for $4.

Another newer item, a blueberry and bacon salad dotted with feta cheese and candied walnuts, sounded interesting as well. Our curbside order came without the salad’s signature ingredient—the sweet and pungent blueberry vinaigrette dressing—but the helpful staff were happy to drive it over on request (props for the pandemic customer service). Once applied, the dressing was a solid capping to a dense and crunchy salad experience.

By the time you’ve carb-loaded your way through the other sections of Sugar River Pizza’s menu, dessert might be the last thing on your mind (or perhaps more to the point, your stomach). Suck it up, and find room for the delicious beignets served not as the sizable chunks of fried and lightly sugar-dusted dough you remember from that trip to Café Du Monde in New Orleans a few years ago but as tiny, bite-size pieces that are impossible to resist.

Dippable in chocolate, caramel or a jammy raspberry sauce—or all three for as little as a dollar extra—these little numbers would go over big as a whoa! ... what? ... potluck item—assuming you could keep from eating them all on the way there.

Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer who writes Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette. He also pens stories about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.

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