In the front row: Really, it's not all about the food
Broasted chicken and ribs at the Speakeasy Saloon outside Neillsville.
Oyster po-boy and crawfish etouffee at Buzzard Billy's in La Crosse.
A Fat Uncle Tony's at Salvatore's Tomato Pies in Madison.
These are just some of the dishes I've eaten in the past nine months traveling around the state covering the accomplishments of River Falls and Hudson student-athletes.
The late great former UW-River Falls coach and athletic director Don Page taught me to appreciate a road trip. Pull off the main highway every once in awhile, check out the local cuisine (never at a chain restaurant), and just enjoy where you are and who you're with.
If it weren't for Page, I never would have discovered the turtle soup at the Dorf Haus in Roxbury.
I never made it to state as a high school athlete. I played soccer in the fall, ran indoor track in the winter (on the recommendation of the basketball coach), and played baseball in the spring. I was an average athlete at best, although my baseball coach once said they should name the playground next to the field after me because all it had in it were three swings and a bench.
That's why I love it when one of the local teams makes it to state. I live a little vicariously watching them enjoy the experience and I get to keep the spirit of Don Page alive with a road trip.
My first road trip of the school year was to state cross country in Wisconsin Rapids last November, and that meant a stop at the Speakeasy Saloon just west of Neillsville on U.S. Hwy. 10, right next to the historic Silverdome Ballroom.
I've known the owner, Frank, since his oldest daughter was an all-state and all-American high jumper at River Falls High School and UW-River Falls around the turn of the century. A former iron worker, he followed his true calling into the kitchen and has turned this former Al Capone-era hideout into a hidden gem.
Usually when I'm there I just ask Frank to give me whatever the special is, and I've never been disappointed. On this Saturday night it was his famous broasted chicken and ribs. I may never order anything else.
The end of the winter sports season meant state hockey in Madison. Anybody who knows me well knows I've been on a 30-year mission to find pizza in the Midwest that can at least come close to the stuff I grew up with in New Jersey. A friend of mine who lives in Madison said he'd been wanting to try this new pizza place on East Johnson Street called Salvatore's Tomato Pies. Apparently the guy who opened it is from Jersey so my friend thought we should give it a shot.
My friend's nickname is House, and he's what we would call back in Jersey, a "big guy." So when I looked at the menu I immediately knew what we had to order-- The Fat Uncle Tony's. Pepperoni, Italian sausage and bacon.
Now I've been disappointed numerous times in the last 30 years by the pizza people recommend to me, but this was the real deal. Apparently House agreed because all I could hear from across the table were sounds usually reserved for lovemaking.
Next up was state track in La Crosse, where I met up with two more friends who I originally got to know when they were high school athletes. I picked a place I had been going to for years-- Buzzard Billy's Flying Carp Cafe-- and they had already gotten a table when arrived.
Technically, Buzzard Billy's might be considered a chain because there are three more in the U.S.-- in Des Moines, Iowa; Lincoln, Neb.; and Waco, Texas. But I don't think Don Page would mind since there's no other place in Wisconsin where you can eat authentic crawfish etouffee, oyster po-boys, armadillo eggs (bacon wrapped chicken tenders stuffed with jalapeno and pepper jack cheese), gumbo, jambalaya and other Cajun goodies in an old hotel with mounted carp circling above you on the ceiling fan.
Now I may have eventually discovered these places on my own. But my job, along with Don Page's inspiration, definitely helped. I love covering the local teams, and when they have success I get to fill that little void left in me by all the unfilled dreams I once had as an athlete. And I get to know the people, develop relationships, and travel a little.
And oh yeah, I get to have a good meal with some old friends once in awhile.