Pizza Brutta

Back of the House Winter 2016 Issue

Pizza Brutta

By Shannon Henry Kleiber | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

Since 2009, those lucky enough to live or work near Monroe Street in Madison have thought of Pizza Brutta as their neighborhood pizzeria. Walking through the stone archway, kids and adults are greeted with the smoky, earthy smell of wood-fired crusts, pungent basil and spicy salami. The sauce is light, the mozzarella homemade, and the crust thin with a crispy crunch. A huge, workhorse pizza oven is in constant use, heating up to 800 degrees for pizzas such as the Olivetto (basil, artichoke, sundried tomatoes, Kalamata olives and goat cheese) and the classic Margherita (crushed tomato, basil and mozzarella).

What people might not know is how dedicated Pizza Brutta is to local food and sustainability, making its pizza rooted and connected to its community. Owner and chef Derek Lee comes from a farming family in North Dakota, where his father invented farm equipment and his mother baked fresh bread and used organic ingredients. Before opening Pizza Brutta, Lee worked for the nonprofit Michael Fields Agricultural Institute where he milked cows, and then for Organic Valley, where his job was to sell products to restaurants and institutions. A big success there was convincing Yale to serve organic milk.

While at Organic Valley, Lee says he was inspired by the company’s mission-driven business but was itching to start something of his own. “I was young enough to take a risk and old enough to know my window might be closing,” he says. Pizza kept calling him. As a college student, Lee’s friends named him “Big Daddy” because he was always making pizza for everyone. On vacations, he’d search every city for a wood-fired pizza place. And when he liked a new girl, he’d make her a pizza.

So Lee quit his job, wrote a business plan and became a certified Pizzaiolo, authorized by the Vera Pizza Napoletana in Italy. The kind of pizza he makes, Neapolitan, is from an age-old tradition in Naples, which focuses strictly on using local ingredients, mostly from the Campania region. The crust is made only from flour, water, sea salt and yeast, the tomatoes come from Mount Vesuvio, and the extra virgin olive oil comes from a close-by olive grove. Lee’s version of Neapolitan pizza holds close to these rules but uses mostly local Wisconsin ingredients. He calls it “Neo-Neopolitan.”

“We are standing on the shoulders of a tradition but going our own way,” he says. “We’re using the spirit of Neopolitan within our local food system.” 


Try Pizza Brutta's Fig Jam recipe!

Serve with Wischego cheese by Hidden Springs Creamery or Montchevre goat cheese and prosciutto on crackers, or use it on pizza with cheese and red onion!


Lee met Berkeley, California-based Chez Panisse chef and food activist Alice Waters while he was at Organic Valley and says he often thinks “What would Alice say?” when he is making a food-related decision. Lee said Waters once asked him, “Do you know that farmer in the picture?” (about a farmer in a photograph on an Organic Valley product). When he said he knew a lot of farmers, but not that one, she said, “You should know that farmer.”

Among the local ingredients that Pizza Brutta uses are BelGioioso mozzarella cheese curd from Green Bay to create hand-pulled mozzarella, arugula from Vitruvian Farms in McFarland, and piles upon piles of fragrant basil from Viroqua-based Harmony Valley Farm. The wood that actually cooks the pizza comes from Verona. Lee goes a bit farther away for his favorite cured meats from La Quercia in Iowa and certified organic flour from North Dakota, where he still has relatives in the grain business. He values these relationships, and as Alice suggested, he knows these partners. “I know the farmers, I know the fields,” Lee says. Next up, he says, half-jokingly, is if someone could please start raising buffalo in Wisconsin to provide buffalo milk for the mozzarella.

Lee admits the tradeoffs are still there, and he motions to one: a soda machine he feels he should get rid of, but hasn’t. Still, he’s kept very close to his ideals while offering reasonably priced, good food to families and neighbors.

This year marked Pizza Brutta’s biggest move since its beginning: the opening of a second location in Middleton Hills. Lee’s wife, Darcy, is from Middleton, growing up just two blocks from the new restaurant, so it was a homecoming of sorts for them to open in that neighborhood. The pizza oven at the Monroe Street location is the heart of the restaurant, and the one in Middleton, decorated with sparkling red Italian tiles, also takes center stage as it looks like a giant, shiny tomato.

Lately, Lee has been obsessed with a pizza-related interest—baking bread. He’s particularly fascinated by sourdough boules and baguettes, which are not officially yet on the menu but are available occasionally. “I backed into bread by trying to create a great crust,” he says. There is a growing interest in local grains as part of the many-faceted locavore movement. The players in that system—the farmers, millers, bakers and restaurants, are starting to work together to create buying and selling arrangements, and creating a market for heirloom and ancient grains, as there is now for seeds. “There’s a revolution happening in baking, Lee says.

Right now, running the two Pizza Bruttas (brutta means ugly in Italian, a nod to the messiness of life and cooking and the imperfect tomato) is like raising two babies, he says. Now these two communities, Monroe Street and Middleton, can call Pizza Brutta their neighborhood pizzeria, one that is true to its locality and wants to make a difference. “I feed people; that’s utilitarian,” says Lee. “But I’m interested in the impact.”

Shannon Henry Kleiber is a Madison-based writer. Her second book, On My Honor: Real Life Lessons From America’s First Girl Scout, about Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, came out in 2012. She is a former staff writer and columnist for The Washington Post.

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