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Restaurant review: Sugar River sweetens local pizza options

Restaurant review: Sugar River sweetens local pizza options

From the The year in dining series

Following in the footsteps of her parents’ two successful pizza restaurants, Sarah Thomas and her husband, Ross Thomas, opened a third location of Sugar River Pizza in March in a newly developing area of Verona.

Belleville’s and New Glarus’s secret is out. Now, people in the Madison area have easier access to Sugar River’s exceptional pizza, with a menu that spans an amazing 20 specialty pizzas, but goes far beyond its name to include more than a dozen appetizers, five pasta dishes, calzones, salads, soups and sandwiches.

The Verona restaurant is a professional and finely-tuned operation, its pizzas sure to win you over. I’m partial to the pulled pork pizza, with tender pockets of house-smoked meat on top and beneath the cheese. The menu recommends it with jalapeños and pineapple and those are worthy additions for an additional charge. (They were each $1.05 on our small, 10-inch pizza).

The crust can be thin, hand-tossed or thick (whole wheat is an option, too), and the thin, which is not all that thin, is soft and puffy. The pulled pork pizza had barbecue sauce, rather than tomato sauce, and it was applied sparingly, so it didn’t overwhelm the other ingredients.

Customers can order half of one specialty pizza with half of another, provided they have the same base sauce. This is nice in theory, but limiting once you discover that so many of the appealing options are not made with the same sauce and therefore can’t be combined.

For instance, the MacDaddy ($13.20 for a 10-inch), designed for lovers of the famous McDonald’s sandwich, is a pie with beef, pickles, onions and cheese on top of Sugar River’s “special” sauce. Other pizzas use ranch, basil pesto, Alfredo, taco sauce and hot sauce.

During a subsequent phone interview, Thomas said they are now combining any specialty pizzas customers want. “We bend the rules on that a lot,” she said, laughing. “We just tell people that the sauces will run together. Some of our sauces aren’t bad when they run together.”

In Verona, many people are new to the restaurant and want to try as many pizzas as possible, Thomas said.

On my first visit in early May, our server had us studying the menu to figure out what could be paired. We came up with the Tropics ($13.45 for a 10-inch) and the Bella River ($12.95 for a 10-inch) because both have a tomato sauce base.

The former, with Canadian bacon, pineapple, green pepper, red onion and Cheddar, proved an excellent combination, while the latter was more mundane. It’s touted as a “guilt-free” pizza because it’s light on sauce and cheese, and topped with spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, green peppers and onions.

None of the appetizers at Sugar River could be described as “guilt-free.” They are more on the guilty pleasure spectrum. The spinach artichoke dip ($7.95) is worth the indulgence, though. It’s creamier and more liquid than most, beautifully browned, and topped with tomato slices. It’s also more artichoke than spinach. It came with plenty of homemade tortilla chips.

Thomas, who worked at Epic Systems for 12 years before she opened the restaurant, said the dish was her go-to recipe for every party or gathering she attended.

Our waitress recommended the pepitas ($6.45), nuggets of fried dough topped with cheese and crumbled bacon. Marinara came on the side. It was a generous portion, but a bit over the top. Our party of four mainly focused on the spinach artichoke dip.

Two children at my table enjoyed their pasta: ravioli ($9.99) for one, lasagna ($10.99) for the other. The ravioli were giant, and the lasagna saucy and filled with Italian sausage and ground beef. Both came with an enormous triangular cheese bread.

My daughter’s favorite restaurant was the recently-departed Bunky’s. She loved it for its ravioli, and deemed this ravioli just as good.

Unlike so many places, Sugar River doesn’t gouge you on drinks. The kids ordered milk and soda, and both came in pint glasses for $1.95, which is hard to beat. On one visit, two of us had coffee, served in glass mugs (also $1.95). The beer list is extensive and offers lots of great local options with most priced at $5 a pint.

The atmosphere at Sugar River-Verona is rather bland. It doesn’t have the character found in some Madison restaurant buildings, but is certainly comfortable, spacious and clean.

You go to Sugar River for the pizza, and I have a feeling people are going to go and go and go.


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