Ian’s Pizza fans inspire loyalty, slice by slice: One friend has to get the Chicken Penne Alfredo every time, another swears by the Smokey the Bandit. A colleague’s go-to is the Philly Cheese Steak.
The options available are endlessly imaginative and even funny (tortilla chips on a pizza?), with typically 15 or more varieties ready to be warmed and crisped in the oven for college students, downtown workers and families.
In the last month, Ian’s Pizza by the Slice, seeking a larger space and financially boosted by the thousands of pizzas sold to support hungry protesters, moved across State Street. It’s still loud and the popular booths are gone, but the new building is more spacious and better organized than its previous location. There’s a larger salad bar, an open kitchen and a space for setting the slices as they come out of the oven, a positive change from the previous location’s cramped and awkward area where one waited for food. One wall is dedicated to large-scale artwork; Ian’s will award that space and a $500 scholarship to one UW art student every six months. Well-timed for summer is a large area for outdoor seating, a prime spot for people watching in the shadow of the Capitol.
The restaurant offers 25-30 pizza “bases,” according to marketing director Adam May, plus 15-20 varieties for its monthly slices, and an additional weekly special that is usually a new creation.
Its pizza slices are hefty and easily fill the paper plate they're served on. The crust works as a perfect handle on its outer edge and is a good balance between chewy and crisp.
Looking for a change from my Ian’s staple of anything with pesto on it, I was drawn to the fresh corn decorating the Braised Beef Chipotle BBQ ($3.50 for all specialty slices), which started as a weekly slice and was popular enough to be offered monthly. The tender meat was soaked in a sweet and spicy chiptole barbecue sauce with a pleasant kick. I was surprised by how much I liked it.
I sampled my son’s Mac n’ Cheese slice, Ian’s best-seller, and while decent, it was too bland for my taste. For those who like pasta on their pizza, the Chicken Penne Alfredo has a better combination of flavors and includes some good protein.
Smokey the Bandit was a saucy indulgence with chicken, cheddar cheese, bacon, sweet barbecue sauce and ranch. Redeem yourself with the healthier and more traditional Florentine with spinach, tomato and feta.
On another visit, I tried the weekly special, the Root Veggie Gratin, described as a mix of root vegetables from the farmers’ market baked in a cheesy cream sauce, then topped with chives. Though I liked the sauce, and the zip from the chives and carmelized parsnips, I had a hard time detecting the other veggies — turnips and rutabaga.
It’s rare that I order a salad when I go out for pizza, but when I go to Ian’s, I always do. First, I love the setup. It feels much more sanitary to have the gloved Ian’s staff mix the greens, toppings and dressing for you. In communal salad bars, stray peas and glops of blue cheese always tend to drift into the buckets of ingredients.
Signature salads ($6) include the Spring Salad with red onions, walnuts, cranberries and Gorgonzola; it was a hit dressed with Ian’s standard balsamic vinaigrette. A Caesar Salad featured a nice touch — local, organic hard-boiled eggs, but anchovies were not offered as an option, a minor disappointment for the one anchovy fan in our party.
On a large chalkboard, Ian’s keeps a running list of the local ingredients it uses. This month’s featured salad, the Farmers’ Market salad, topped mixed greens with local radishes, mushrooms, carrots, freshly grated Hook’s cheddar and Green Goddess dressing. The sharp cheese was a nice contrast to the creamy, mild dressing and the veggies added a good crunch.
On another visit, I built-my-own small mixed green salad ($2.50, plus 50 cents-$1 for mix-ins) and tried the superb house-made Champagne mustard vinaigrette. Small salads here are large salads elsewhere; the portions are generous and the dressing evenly applied, so each lettuce leaf has a little zing. It was fresh and satisfying, an excellent complement to the carb-heavy side of the menu.
There’s no better way to end a meal at Ian’s than with the new, local Calliope ice cream ($6 for a pint). We tried three flavors — Graham Cracker, Mexican Hot Chocolate and Lemon Lavender. With a little heat from the chipotle and white pepper, plus cinnamon and cardamom, the chocolate was my favorite, but Lemon Lavender is the most refreshing way to finish. The creamy citrus flavor reminded me a little of a Dreamsicle.
Ian’s reminds people to reduce, reuse and recycle its pizza boxes and has clear areas for recycling, so its reliance on paper plates is puzzling. Salads are served in standard dishes.
May said to switch would require more space and dishwashing capacity that the restaurant doesn’t have; instead, it offers an incentive (a double punch on a pizza card) to customers who bring in their own plates or containers. The restaurant is also a part of Sustain Dane’s Mpower program, which works with local businesses to go green. Ian’s green efforts include installing high efficiency appliances and lighting in the new building. May said Ian’s is also working with other downtown businesses to explore composting, which could include composting paper plates.
It’s encouraging to see the innovative spirit at work in Ian’s slices extends to other areas of its business.