A renaissance of the (Rocky) Rococo style

Madison's got some pretty decent pizza. It may not be New York or Chicago, but as a pizza buff, I'm happy. But in a town with Roman Candle, Ian's, Glass Nickel, and even Topper's--to say nothing of Neapolitan joints Cafe Porta Alba and Pizza Brutta--Rocky Rococo falls solidly into the "afterthought" category for me. It's as impactful on my everyday life as the style of art whose name it borrows.

This lunch would be immensely more pleasurable with a sheet of mushy, pizza-esque cake.Circumstances, however, have conspired to raise my awareness of that hoary old white-suited, bespectacled stereotype of a mascot. Madison A to Z landed on Rocky's Party Pizzeria back in May, and posted in early July--that was inevitable. But then, not a week later, another hit. Slice, the pizza-centric offshoot of Serious Eats, posted a review of Rocky Rococo as the best budget pizza of Madison, if not the upper Midwest.

"About as good as budget pizza can get," they said. "If the choice is between Rocky Rococo and any national low-cost pizza chain, the decision to go with Wisconsin's biggest pizza company is an easy one," they said. What's going on here? Little Caesar's offers a whole pizza for $5, while Rocky's slices start at $3. Are they really that much better than the venerable old Hot 'n' Readys?

Sean Weitner and James Norton at Heavy Table certainly seem to think so. Last week, they penned a love letter of sorts, singing the relative merits of "so bad it's good" Rocky's.

"If I had to evaluate pizzas based on any single topping, I’d choose sausage, and Rocky’s sausage is heavenly," Sean writes. "Rocky’s," James replies, "at least does what it does festively." Heavenly? Festively? Are we still talking about pizza, or the Feast of the Assumption?

I decided that I needed to re-evaluate Rocky Rococo pizza in light of all this attention. A midday trip into town over my lunch break provided the perfect opportunity to visit the Regent location of Rocky's without forcing my wife--not a fan, we'll say--to accompany me.

Back in my young and poorer days, Rocky Rococo was a regular lunch spot when I worked somewhere else: the mall. I do recall the sausage being pretty good, so I stuck with both my memory and the specific suggestions of Slice and Heavy Table. A slice of sausage and mushroom pizza came with four big chunks of sausage, well-caramelized on top but juicy underneath. Certainly tasty.

I know the slice had mushrooms on it because that's what the menu said--but I'll be damned if they made any impression on me. The cheese, lauded by Heavy Table as "thick and gooey" and full of "cheesy savor." Must be a hit-or-miss deal; though my slice was piping-hot, the cheese was semi-congealed and sludgy. Better that less is said of the crust and sauce.

So sure, the sausage is really quite nice. But is the caloric intake of all that greasy crust, mushy cheese, and bizarrely-seasoned sauce earn a pass as a vehicle for Italian sausage delivery? And is it distinguishable from, say, Kwik Trip Cheese Mountain pizza? If you put Rocky's sausage on Kwik Trip's pizza, I suspect not. In fact, I'd probably prefer the result of that exchange.

Bully on Rocky Rococo--a Madison original--for making a recognizable, signature product. Better to be distinctly odd than indistinctly mediocre (see Dominos/Pizza Hut/Papa John's), I say. But I think this passage from James at Heavy Table sums up why some folks yen to Rocky's so much:

And yet, it’s got that guilty pleasure thing going on for me. ... [I]t’s sort of like Proust’s madeleine… one bite, and I’m chilling on State Street in 1993, chowing down on slices with my friends, having some kind of overly earnest and ultimately misinformed conversation about girls.

There's no way to argue with that.