Ian’s Pizza turned eight years old on Halloween. That means in less than a decade, Ian’s has established its reputation as a Madison institution and an essential culinary experience for students on campus.
OK, so you’re probably thinking, I’ve eaten at Ian’s a million times. I was born and raised eating mac ‘n’ cheese pizza. I chose my favorite Ian’s slice before I even moved to Madison. How could The Badger Herald possibly tell me something I don’t already know about my favorite 2 a.m. indulgence?
Well, we sat down with Cindy Gross, head chef and food mastermind at Ian’s Pizza, to find out more about this popular eatery and late-night hotspot. With Simple Plan and Britney Spears blaring — the usual soundtrack, whether it’s 11 a.m. or bartime — we discussed the inspiration behind seasonal slices, the importance of fresh and local ingredients and Ian’s Pizza’s reputation as the place for students to top off a night on the town.
“What we like to do is use our dough as a canvas and create what we think is going to be great,” Gross said. “It doesn’t have to be traditional, it just has to be good.”
As the head chef at Ian’s, Gross is the brains behind the seasonal specials.
“I go out to eat a lot, I travel a lot and see what’s out there and see what I feel like I can reconstruct and put on a pizza,” Gross said of her creative process. “I just take flavors from all over and do things that I really like.”
Gross added much of her inspiration comes from southern food and peasant food.
“Because I like the southern food, the Kitchen Sink has been one of my favorites,” Gross said. “It’s mac ‘n’ cheese, collards and barbecue brisket.”
The seasonal specials are always evolving, but some of the core pizzas at Ian’s have been around since before the beginning. The mac ‘n’ cheese pizza, Ian’s best-selling and probably most famous pie of all time, was born when Ian himself was working at a pizzeria in Massachusetts. Yes, Ian is a real person, in case you were wondering.
“It’s changed since it’s come over here,” Gross said. “We make our own cr?me fraiche base, because we make everything in-house and use a different cheddar obviously, because they’re on the East Coast and we’re here in Wisconsin where the cheddar is yellow.”
Gross said one of the cooks came up with the Smokey the Bandit pizza, which includes barbecue chicken, bacon, ranch, barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese, because he thought the flavors would taste good together — and he was right.
Ian’s features heartier, more filling slices during the winter months. In November, the specials are based on Thanksgiving dinner. Gross said she hasn’t hammered out the December specials yet, but she’s got a few ideas.
“Some really good homestyle slices that when it’s really cold out, it’s going to sound really, really good,” she said. “Ian sent me one where he was really wanting some collards and baked beans, so we might do collards and baked beans with a cornbread topping.”
These special slices are pretty sophisticated for a crowd that is often just looking to satisfy its late-night cravings. But as the saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. At its Frances Street location, Ian’s has embraced its reputation as the perfect choice for bar crawlers who’ve got the munchies — without sacrificing quality.
“It is drunk food, and that’s fine, but it’s still really, really good food,” Gross said.
“You want something that’s maybe not so greasy, but still really good and satisfying and kind of soaks up everything.” When you choose Ian’s after the bars, Gross said, “You’re not eating garbage.”
Despite its reputation as the place for party people, when it comes to ingredients, Ian’s doesn’t mess around.
“We do make everything in-house. We don’t get pre-sliced anything. We don’t get pre-roasted red peppers, we get raw red peppers and we roast them ourselves every single morning,” Gross said. “Everything really is made by us. Our sauces, our ranch, all our dressings — everything. We don’t buy anything pre-made.” Gross estimated they probably make about 10 gallons of ranch dressing from scratch each week.
Many of the ingredients Ian’s uses are local, as well. Right now, Gross said, about 30 percent of the ingredients Ian’s uses are locally grown or raised. She hopes to increase local buying by 10 percent each year.
Local farms supply beef and pork to Ian’s, and while Ian’s uses more chicken than a local farmer could supply, according to Gross, the chicken that Ian’s does use is hormone-free and ethically raised.
Gross also tries to incorporate seasonal vegetables into specials whenever possible, like fresh tomatoes in the summer and different kinds of squash in the fall. And, of course, the only cheese worth putting on a pizza is Wisconsin cheese.
“It is the dairy state, after all,” Gross said.
Ian’s fresh ingredients and commitment to buying locally are what set it apart from other local food options.
“You can feel pretty good about eating here,” Gross said. “It’s not an open-a-bag, open-a-can type of thing.”
The Frances Street location caters more to the bar crowd, but Gross said Ian’s State Street location is more family-friendly and sells more vegetarian slices. Ian’s also has a location in Chicago and plans to open more stores in the region. However, Gross said outside of Madison, the crazy slices that we’ve come to love on Frances Street just don’t sell as well. Apparently no one in Chicago is falling in love with mac ‘n’ cheese.
“When you’re introducing yourself to a new market, they have no idea what you’re doing, and it all seems really, really strange at first,” she said.
Besides being boisterous enough to warrant the use of a bouncer, the Frances Street crowd is more adventurous and understands the Ian’s concept, so more experimental pizzas usually go over well. Translation: college kids will eat just about anything, especially after a night of drinking.
But there’s another reason Ian’s Pizza is currently thriving — pizza is a comfort food that’s still affordable during a recession, Gross said.
“Everyone grows up eating pizza. It’s not a foreign concept. Not everyone is going to eat sweetbreads,” she said.
And whether you’re a freshman or you’re getting ready to graduate, here’s the part you already know: quality and freshness are important, but in the end, Ian’s just tastes good.
“This is as good as it’s going to get for pizza,” Gross said.