Perfect pies: Who makes the best pizza in Wisconsin?

margheritaFennel-spiked sausage. Whole-milk mozzarella. A dozen spices in the sauce. A kiss of barley in the crust. One recipe, perfected over 10 years.

The carefully customized nature of pizza at Georgio’s in downtown Milton, population 5,500 in Rock County, wowed me. The cozy setting, with seating for just 44, charmed me.

The site’s racy history, as the 1980s “pizza connection” for Mafia drug dealing, intrigued me. The tight business hours – 5-9 p.m. – exasperated me (especially when arriving without reservations at 7:30 and leaving hungry).

And now the mysterious closing of Georgio’s befuddles me.

The business was quirky and appetizing enough to earn my 2010 recommendation in a USA Today nationwide round-up of excellent pizzerias. Owners Cheryl Ryan and George Rakidzich had operated Georgio’s 13 years by then and said subsequent business tripled.

“The doors closed on Dec. 26, and we don’t know why,” says Dani Stivarius of the Milton Chamber of Commerce. The owners’ home phone appears disconnected, and their building is on the market for $129,000, which includes business equipment, furnishings, an upstairs apartment and adjacent lot.

It all reminds me that nothing lasts forever and makes me want to find a new pizza kingpin for Wisconsin. Why? Pizza is such an affordable meal, especially for families on a budget, and I get rankled when seeing others settle for the cardboard-tough crusts and tame toppings of mass-produced pies.

The ancient notion of making a meal out of baked, flattened bread dates is traced to the Middle East. The addition in Naples, Italy, of tomatoes (brought from Peru to Europe in 1522) was not automatic, since the fruit was considered poisonous.

My favorite pizza memory of Italy is watching the locals in a Venice neighborhood café casually roll each wedge into a cylinder before taking their first big bite. The crust was that thin, and the sparse addition of toppings was a “less is more” kind of delicious.

What looks simple sometimes gets quite complex. A pizza maker who earns Verace Pizza Napoletana certification makes authentic Neapolitan pies, just like masters of the art in Naples. Toppings are specific types of raw tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and olive oil. Each step requires an exact method of preparation. pizzanapoletana.org

Only four Wisconsin pizzerias (Naples 15 and Café Porta Alba, both in Madison, and Harry’s Prohibition Bistro and Il Ritrovo, both in Sheboygan) are members of this elite, nonprofit association. naples15.com, 608-250-6330; cafeportaalba.com, 608-441-0202; harrysprohibitionbistro.com, 920-451-9100; ilritrovopizza.com, 920-803-7516

Elsewhere, we combine all types of crusts, sauces and toppings – then call it pizza. Consider Ian’s Pizza in Madison, which gained international attention during 2011 protests at the State Capitol. “Delivering Moral Support in a Steady Stream of Pizzas” was the New York Times headline. At first, the owners of Ian’s donated a few pies to hungry protestors. Then word got around and union supporters from other states and at least 20 countries called in donations to keep the pizzas coming.

We’re not talking about only sausage or pepperoni. Ian’s is known for many wild pizza choices: Think smoked brisket and tater tots, penne pasta or chipotle sweet potato. A longtime favorite among college students is mac and cheese pizza. What began in Madison has expanded to Milwaukee, Denver and Seattle. ianspizza.com, 608-257-9248

Ike Sewell of Pizzeria Uno made history in 1943 when he introduced deep dish pizza to Chicago. The original restaurant remains in business at 29 E. Ohio St., but now Pizzeria Uno has 130-plus locations that are as far away as South Korea and as close as Wausau, Eau Claire, Green Bay, Oshkosh, Sheboygan, La Crosse, Madison and Milwaukee. unos.com

In Milwaukee, one-hour factory tours at Palermo’s Pizza end with a slice and happen on most weekdays. The cost is $10, at most, and reservations are necessary. Occasional hands-on pizza-making classes cost $20. palermospizza.com, 414-455-0383

Another way to turn pizza into more than a meal in Wisconsin is to take a road trip to a farm that serves pizza outdoors at least weekly during warmer weather. The farmers and other pizza makers typically use locally grown ingredients and products from neighbors and bake pizzas in high-heat outdoor ovens.

These adventures often are in pretty settings and provide an opportunity to get acquainted with farm life. Waits might be lengthy, but nobody cares because having pizza on a farm is not a fast-food deal. Bring lawn chairs and linger.

Stay tuned to these locations:

A to Z Produce and Bakery, near Stockholm in Pepin County: atozproduceandbakery.com

Borner Farm Project, near Prescott in Pierce County: bornerfarmproject.com

Oasis Eatery at Nesbitt’s Nursery, near Prescott in Pierce County: nesbittsnursery.com/about, 715-792-2676

Sawmill Pizza, near Clear Lake in Polk County: facebook.com/sawmillpizza

Stoney Acres Farm, near Athens in Marathon County: stoneyacresfarm.net

The Stone Barn, near Nelson in Buffalo County: nelsonstonebarn.com

Suncrest Gardens Farm, near Cochrane in Buffalo County: suncrestgardensfarm.com/pizza

Who makes the best pizza in Wisconsin, and what makes it so good? Feb. 13 is the deadline for submitting a reply to mary at roadstraveled.com. Type “best pizza” in the subject line and don’t write more than 50 words.

The top submission, as judged by an impartial panel of judges, gets two tickets for a three-hour pizza tour, donated by Milwaukee Food Tours. The value is $110. For more about this bus tour and the company’s other food tour themes, consult milwaukeefoodtours.com.