It's your garden-variety Thursday afternoon, and the eternal question rears its weary head: What's for dinner? Takeout Thai? Another supermarket roast chicken? Or how about actually cooking something? Wait, what about pizza?
Like all bossy restaurant critics, I have a recommendation. But this particular pizza might require some planning, as in a 90-minute drive, much of it so scenic it feels yanked out of "Eat Pray Love." You'll find it near Grantsburg, Wis., at LoveTree Farmstead, where Mary and Dave Falk produce some of the country's most extraordinary cheeses, raw sheep's-milk beauties lovingly aged in dank, concrete caves.
Before you hop in the car and set your GPS, be forewarned: This is no Farm Town on Facebook. The Falks run a hard-working farm. "I keep telling people, 'We're not manicured,'" said Mary Falk. "The pizza farm in Stockholm is pretty; it's like going to a garden party. We tell people to bring their hiking boots."
She was referring to A to Z Produce & Bakery (N2956 Anker Lane, Stockholm, Wis., 1-715-448-4802), the enchanting Tuesday night pizza-on-the-farm experience about two hours southeast of the Twin Cities. "We're not that," she said with a laugh. "That will never be us."
No, probably not. Sure, both produce unique pizzas in envy-inducing wood-burning ovens on strikingly beautiful Wisconsin farms. But the similarities end there.
Bring your own everything
Pampered urbanites may be taken aback by the lack of creature comforts chez LoveTree. Saying that the experience is strictly BYOE -- bring your own everything -- isn't an exaggeration, as there are no beverages, plates, napkins or flatware. Heck, there isn't even a lawn for stretching out on a blanket, and a single table with four chairs pretty much describes the amenities, or lack thereof. In a hurry? Forget it. Pizzas are assembled and baked on a schedule that suggests more of a leisurely dinner party and less of a time-is-money enterprise.
But in the end, so what? The setup ("It's a work in progress," said Dave Falk) is not without its own picturesque allure. The honeycomb-shaped pizza oven, built using stones collected from the surrounding fields -- and what appears to be an impressive amount of sweat equity -- is set near the door to the caves, which are tucked into a sloping hillside.
Giant 200-pound bags of sheep wool insulate the cave walls from the oven's considerable heat, and the work area is sheltered by a canopy framed by rough-hewn tamarack logs salvaged from an 1890s homestead on the property. Enormous square bales of automobile tires -- 100 to a bundle and a visible example of the Falks' re-use/recycle philosophy -- are stacked up to delineate an outdoor room, and the gritty sculptural/architectural results would probably send Frank Gehry rushing to his studio.
Then there's the unabashed beauty of the land. A hefty portion of the farm's rolling landscape, dotted with ponds, a stream and thick woods, is forever preserved as a wildlife refuge, and the Falks invite their guests to explore its Walden-like beauty in all of its muddy glory. The sounds are nearly as captivating: a choral symphony of bird songs and insect communiques, the faraway bleats of the sheep, the no-nonsense barks of the farm's industrious but friendly dogs. City slickers will also get a charge out of watching the farm's 200-plus sheep march from pasture to barn, and observing Dave Falk milk the herd, a theatrical starting point for his wife's exacting cheesemaking process.
Keeping it all local
Those hand-formed cheeses, particularly the soft, barely aged varieties, were born to adorn pizzas, and they're just one reason why the Falks, assisted by sons Charlie, 20, and Andy, 17, could call their place Locavore Pizzeria. Actually, making the this-is-where-food-comes-from connection is half the fun of making the trek.
Most of the toppings -- heirloom tomatoes, arugula, onions, lemon balm, marjoram and basil -- are sourced directly from the Falks' gardens, and the farm is a hunting ground for oyster mushrooms, nettles and other foraged finds. The sausages, brats and bacon are made from organically raised pork raised at neighboring Beaver Creek Ranch.
The pizzas boast another distinction: an impressive dough. It's fashioned from a high-protein, North Dakota-made organic flour and utilizes a sourdough starter and a slow, four-day ferment, one that kicks off in the cheese caves for an added flavor jolt. The result is a pizza dough like no other; as it hits the oven's blast-furnace heat, the bottom, crusted with cornmeal, quickly bakes into a crisp, charred foundation while the edges puff and bubble into a pretty hazelnut brown and the interior remains chewy, moist and focaccia-like. It's terrific, and, like the Falks, it has personality.
There are just a handful of lavishly topped options (ranging from "Old Man Dave," done up in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style to "Cheese Please," a thin layer of herb-flecked tomato sauce covered with roasted tomatoes and three cheeses), with prices starting at $23 for a large, free-form pie that could easily feed two or three people.
A few charming wrinkles
The Falks got into pizza in an effort to flatten out the financial peaks and valleys associated with artisanal cheesemaking; making a living isn't easy even when you're producing what are easily some of the Midwest's -- if not the country's -- most remarkable cheeses. As with all start-ups, there are wrinkles, which I'm guessing should eventually smooth themselves out with practice ("It's calzone time," laughed Mary Falk, as the night's first pizza belly-flopped off the peel and tumbled into the fire). But hopefully not all the charming idiosyncrasies will be wiped clean. At LoveTree Farmstead, they're what help make the experience an experience.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757