Arena, Mazo: unusual, good rural dining

Two rural and south-central Wisconsin businesses, eight miles apart, cater to customers in unconventional ways.

A mile or two west of Arena, population 685, sits the Church of the Cinnamon Roll. Friends and strangers turn up on Sunday mornings for Bob McQuade’s warm, sugary communion and reflect upon life as they know it.

The Iowa County ritual is informal and happens on U.S. 14, inside an ordinary-looking building with weathered signage that is easy to miss. Herbs, Spices and More/The Shoppe also keeps unusual hours and does not invest in a website or advertising.

“Our marketing sucks,” says Kate McQuade, Bob’s wife, “but we know that what people say matter. They come and then tell someone else. I don’t worry about it.”

Vehicles crowd their parking lot on Tuesday nights, when the couple – plus son Mike and other helpers – serve 60 to 80 pizzas from 4-8 p.m. The light-dough pies are prepared in The Shoppe’s commercial kitchen, then moved onto long-handled paddles and fed two or three at a time into a 900-degree outdoor brick oven to puff, brown and bake for a quick four minutes.

“Theoretically, we’re closed on Tuesdays,” says Bob, who also pretends he is retired. Soon he turns 80 years old; he has outlived some of the places that he worked as executive chef, before starting a wholesale herb and spice business for restaurants in 1990.

Since 2000, life and work are simpler, catering more to the knowing consumer – and others who happen to stumble upon The Shoppe’s surprising mix of fine art, gourmet gear and spice blends (the top seller, “Exotica,” ends upon meats to scrambled eggs).

Covering walls are paintings by Effi Casey of Germany and Spring Green’s Taliesin; most sold within a week of arriving. In stock is kitchen equipment for the professional chef.

This is the McQuades’ second year of weekly and seasonal pizza making, which concludes Oct. 18.

Pie width is 12 inches, more or less, the cost is $10 and toppings include the unusual (pulled pork barbecue with bell peppers) and seasonal (sliced pears, with walnuts and gorgonzola). The Holy Smoke – not offered every week – arrives with hot Italian sausage and jalapenos; “if that’s not hot enough, we have crushed red peppers and Tabasco to add,” Bob says.

Veggies come from a neighborhood farm; sausage is from the House of Fontanini in Chicago (“we sampled it at a food show and it’s far superior than anything else we’ve tasted,” Kate says).

During warm weather, customers ignore indoor seating and lounge outdoors, at picnic and patio tables. Ed Wohl and Ann Wolfe of Ridgeway, 10 miles south, bring their own bowl of salad, canned pickles and alcohol.

They are here because of the food, the laid-back ambiance and their friendship with the McQuades. Indoors, Ed’s bird’s-eye maple cutting boards are for sale; he is a master woodworker ( whose works sell worldwide.

Herbs, Spices and More/The Shoppe, 7352 Hwy. 14, Arena, is open Thursday through Sunday. For more: 608-753-9000. Proceeds from a Sunday pizza sale on Oct. 16 will defray a local doctor’s costs for conducting cleft lip and palate surgeries in Mexico.

The last Tuesday pizza night is Oct. 18, but Bob’s artisan breads are a year-round reason to stop when hungry. Stop on Fridays for the best selection. He conducts occasional cooking classes during winter.

In Mazomanie, population 1,485 and on U.S. 14 in Dane County, Bay Five Diner calls itself “your home away from home.” The former service station bay seats 20; customers also linger or guide their children to couches that face a big, flat-screen TV.

The menu is deliberately small; customers tend to order the special of the day, from-scratch pizza or a sandwich (you can count the choices on one hand). The “large mini burger” weighs a bit less than four ounces, comes topped with cheese and costs $5, including fries.

Missing from tabletops are sugar packets, but each has a container of Holzman Honey, a local product. A burger with bacon and mushrooms likely means Nueske’s and portabella.

Operators Phil and Ann Grant opened one year ago, after years of not-for-profit catering for church functions and other good causes. “We love entertaining people, cooking for our friends and making new ones,” Ann says.

They smoke St. Louis ribs and brisket – with their own blend of rubs – for Barbecue Wednesdays, which also include pulled pork tacos. Tex Mex Tuesdays involve tacos, refried beans and house-made salsa. “Italian Thursday” might mean chicken alfredo, lasagne or five kinds of entrees – depending upon the cooks’ time, inventory and mood.

They don’t serve alcohol, and it’s not unusual during Fish Fry Fridays for Ann to call customers at a nearby tavern, to announce their table is ready. Icelandic cod is dipped into a beer batter that she says took 10 years to perfect.

Under glass when I visit is one apple pie, but Ann also mentions a stash of chocolate chip cookies. In demand, usually on Friday, is her Urban Legend Carrot Cake.

It’s truly a family operation. Ann wears jeans, a sleeveless top and apron, her hair pulled into a ponytail as she takes orders and buses tables. Phil commandeers the kitchen but pops out, briefly, to pick up son Tristan from football practice.

“When we’re real busy, our customers will answer the phone, wipe a table or get somebody a soda,” Ann says.

I wonder about an entrée-sized salad that appears but is not a menu choice. Shamus Terry of Blue Mounds says he and his wife arranged for a lobster dinner, a couple of days before their wedding anniversary.

So the Grants are amenable to menu deviations. “You won’t meet nicer people – they treat you like family,” Shamus says. “It’s family priced, especially for the portions you get – you usually go home with something in a box.”

It’s that way for me, too, as I head home with a $24, thin-crust pizza, built with traditional toppings and a chewy blend of five cheeses.

Bay Five Diner is at 129 W. Commercial St., Mazomanie. For more: 608-401-1155. The business is closed on Mondays, after noon on Sundays and between 1-5 p.m. on other days. The owners accept reservations but not credit cards.

“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.