As I write this, it’s the Sunday of Fall Art Tour weekend and the peak of tourist season in the Driftless Area is winding to a close. It has been a wonderful autumn, but thoughts are now beginning to turn to the coming winter. It’s not too late, though, to plan a fall weekend trip. The weather is perfect, the trees are still beautiful, and there’s still plenty of caramel apples and cheese curds to go around.
If you’re looking for a new place to explore in the next few weeks, let me suggest Baraboo. Baraboo is a town in Sauk County, about an hour northwest of Madison. Baraboo’s claim to fame is as former home of the Al Ringling Circus and the current home of the Circus World Museum, but there’s a lot to do even if you suffer from coulrophobia.
If you do go to Baraboo, be sure to check out the International Crane Foundation just north of town (pictured above). The ICF is a 40 year old non-profit dedicated to the study and conservation of cranes from around the world (including Wisconsin’s own Whooping and Sandhill cranes). In fact, it is the only place in the world where you can see all 15 species of cranes. If you’re not particularly excited by birds, this may sound a little dry but these are special enough animals I guarantee you’ll be glad you went. If looking at animals is kind of your thing, you could also check out the little zoo in Baraboo, which is pretty much just a fence that was put up around the animals that would have been there anyway. There is also a big cat rescue nearby, but we haven’t made it out there yet.
You can’t eat the cranes though (well, I suppose you could, but I’m sure the ICF would frown on that), so you’ll have to go get something else to eat. My first recommendation (and new favorite place in the world) is Mama Mia Pizzeria. There’s no other way to describe it than to call it a pizza joint–that pretty much sums it up. They serve a traditional NY style pizza, the kind you would buy by the slice (which you can at Mama Mia). On my first visit I felt like I’d stepped back in time into Koronet Pizza, on the Upper West Side near Columbia. That lasted until the waitress was polite to me–then I knew I wasn’t in New York. Every waitress since then has been just as nice, as has the owner, who always checks to make sure we’re satisfied. And the pizza. The lovely, cheesy, greasy pizza. On the surface, it seems like a pretty simple pizza to make. But the NY slice is easy to get wrong, particularly the crust. Most places in New York still can’t manage a crust that tastes any better than the pizza box. Mama Mia’s knows what they’re doing though, and so their oh-so-chewy crust has that wonderful yeasty, malty flavor you remember from your childhood pizza parties at the arcade (if you had as good a childhood as me). The closest thing around here I can think of to compare it to is Salvatore’s Tomato Pies. Except Mama Mia’s makes simple, traditional pizzas, not the hipster monstrosities Salvatore’s sometimes comes up with (don’t get me wrong, I love Salvatore’s but I am a pizza fundamentalist).
After a slice or tw…enty, I suggest wandering down to Driftless Glen, sitting on the banks of the Baraboo River, next to the Circus World Museum. I mentioned Driftless Glen in an article I recently wrote for the Voice about new distillers in the area. All three I mentioned are interesting businesses, but Driftless Glen is the one I’m most excited about. This is first and foremost because they have good taste. The distillery, which is also a bar and restaurant, is clearly a modern building but fits in seamlessly next to the 100 year old circus warehouses surrounding it. The inside of the restaurant is just as well styled, although I wouldn’t mind the addition of some darker, cozier corners to the space.
Driftless Glen Barrels
One day you’ll be able to drink what I’m sure will be their excellent rye whisky, bourbon, and Wisconsin scotch. These barrel aged spirits are their raison d’etre. Alas, those drinks are still resting in their oak prisons, years away from the possibility of parole. For now, though, you can chose from a selection of un-aged spirits including a trio of gins. My advice is to skip the vodka (this is always my advice) and try either the Navy Strength Gin, which is like being punched in the face with a juniper tree, or the New American Gin if you prefer your gin more floral and less combative. The final gin in the lineup is WisconGin, whose flavor comes mainly from local ginger and ginseng (and little juniper), giving it a warm and floral profile very different from most gin.
Before heading home, I suggest you cut back across town to the Broadway Diner for a slice of pie and cup of black coffee. The Broadway is a 1954 Silk City model diner, which was recently relocated to Baraboo from Conneticut via Cleveland, and a great place to get a cup of mud and an eve with a lid on.
Pie and Time Machine
If, as I suspect, you’ve ended up spending much more time in Baraboo then you’d planned on, you may want to take advantage of my next suggestion. Halfway between Baraboo and Sauk Prairie (tucked behind Delaney’s Surplus) you’ll find the World of Dr. Evermor. Simply request the use of his time machine (the inimitable Forevertron) and hop back to the beginning of your trip. Don’t blow his cover though, play along with the ruse that he’s not, in fact, a Victorian time traveler, but simply a scrap metal artist.
*This was a banner we saw at the Ochsner Park & Zoo in Baraboo. It is also the finest phrase I have ever heard in my life, and the future title of my novel about small town life.
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