Eating at Congress Pizza

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The hardest thing about going to Congress Pizza in Ishpeming is leaving.

There’s the namesake pizza, of course, in all its flat-crust, secret-sauce, handmade cudighi glory. Cudighi? It’s a spicy sausage originating from Italy, but it’s popularity in the UP rivals the pasty. Think chorizo of the north, or maybe just the perfect pizza topping.

Then there are the three classic arcade games. Remember those? All of that button mashing glory covers abomenuut a half an hour before or after your meal. Adjust accordingly for 2-person play, because you know you won’t be able to stop at just one or two games when you’re trying to one-up your dinner date at Mrs. Pacman.

Then there’s the beer, complete with a bar lined with hardy Ishpeming residents watching a game on TV or chatting with the bartender, which is usually owner Mike Koski. Growing up across the street from the original Congress family, the Bonettis, and taking jobs with them throughout his early adulthood, he was as easy shoo-in for the job. He took over in 2011, thereby sustaining one of the longest-running Ishpeming dining traditions after the last of the Bonettis had retired.

Established by Italian immigrant A. Louis Bonetti in the mid 1930s as a not-so-subtle statement about the liquor-less era of prohibition, the bar was a testament to the branch of government responsible for all the hullabaloo. But what started as a place to meet with friends for a drink evolved after about 23 years into Congress as it is known today, one of the best pizza places in the Upper Peninsula.

That isn’t an overstatement, either. The Bonetti’s recipes for their handmade sauce, crust and cudighi have gone largely unchanged since 1957, and there’s something to be said for enjoying the same pizza your parents and grandparents might have enjoyed half a century ago. One of the business’ pizza cooks has been making those pizzas for nearly 30 years, and with a simple menu that includes only a cudighi sandwich, three specialty pizzas, build-your-own pizza options (including gluten-free crust options!) and “pizza sticks”, it’s tough to have a bad experience at this tried-and-true UP classic.

The pizza itself will find you a bit indecisive, since the three specialty options — chicken pesto, plain pesto and chicken barbecue — all seem like a great idea, but what about the homemade cudighi? The only way around this dilemma is to get two pizzas, obviously. They offer a small and large option, but I promise you and a friend won’t have a hard time finishing off two larges if you’re hungry enough (they’re thin crust, and not quite as filling as their Chicago-style counterparts). In our case, the chicken pesto was the easy choice for our specialty pizza, while we chose to go with a more traditional pizza for number two — cudighi, green pepper and mushroom, with Congress’ secret sauce, no doubt the defining feature of a Congress pizza. It’s so secret that even the pizza cook that’s been there since the 1980s doesn’t prepare it.

It’s all done by Mike, who learned the trade from Paul Bonetti — A. Louis Bonetti’s grandson.

Paul inherited the business from his fathPicture2er Guido in 2000, after he had owned the business (along with his brother Geno) for forty-some years.

In the context of this storied past, the interior of the restaurant is part sports bar, part saloon and part diner, with orange vinyl booths and linoleum-topped tables coexisting with wood-paneled walls lined with old photographs and Ishpeming sports relics.  Framed photos of every state championship team Ishpeming has ever produced fill the entire back wall in the “Congress Hall of Fame.” Lining the other walls are historical photos — including one of legendary Yooper (and Anatomy of a Murder author) John Voelker smoking a cigar with Jimmy Stewart and another of him hanging out with Duke Ellington.

The place is simple and airy, spacious yet cozy, and even on a slow Tuesday night in the middle of February has the distinction of being “the place to be” for a bar full of patrons. It’s easy to imagine it shoulder-to-shoulder after an Ishpeming High School basketball game or, as has become tradition, after a Friday night football game. Homemade pizza sauce, Mrs. Pacman machine and its selection of Michigan beers aside, the reason people keep coming back to Congress is obvious — supporting a business for decades, whether through birthday parties, 5th quarter celebrations or by eating pizza in the same seats that your grandparents have sat tends to have a certain bit of nostalgia attached to it.

Now, about  leaving…

Words/Photos By Amanda Monthei