One of the best parts of relocating to the Midwest is that most grocery stores around these parts dedicate an entire aisle to frozen pizzas. And nestled between the Tombstone (snore) and the Jack’s (ho-hum) you’ll find the crowning jewel of the lot: the delicious Portesi Cheese Fries.
Are they pizza? Nope! Nor are they French fries covered in a mountain of melted cheddar, as the name would suggest. Per the brand’s website, this regional staple is a food group unto itself:
“The quick and easy cheesy snack, Portesi Cheese Fries are made with a specialty garlic butter on top of either a thin or rising dough crust. Covered in heaps of mozzarella and spices, the Cheese Fry is the easy to make, no hassle snack you always wanted.”
Long before I was born into this world (presumably for the purpose of eating pizza), an Italian immigrant named George Portesi opened a restaurant in the back of a Central Wisconsin bar. According to company lore, “After a few years running the restaurant, George decided to take his pizzas to the freezer. He noticed that even while freezing his pizzas, they maintained that oven-fresh flavor and Portesi Frozen Pizza was born.”
When exactly the company’s cheese fries came to be is anyone’s guess, but I’d wager they began as an appetizer option. Most pizza places offer some combination of cheese and bread as a starter, so this seems like a logical conclusion. But whether they’re eaten a side or a main, these slabs of dairy and dough have been a Midwest classic for decades.
If you stacked up all the Portesi Cheese Fries I consumed before adulthood, I would guess they could fill a small U-Haul truck. To me, they taste like sleepovers, birthday parties, and video game marathons, and I still enjoy the gosh-darned things—something that can’t be said for other saucy indulgences of my youth, such as plain Tombstone Cheese Pizza. Never, ever again.
Portesi sells this signature treat in a few ways: a 12” Hi-Rise or Thin Crust, and the 9” Thin Crust you see here.
Look at it, so simple and tasty. Maybe it’s the cheese, the way it crisps at the edges while remaining stretchy in the center. Or it could be the garlic butter that soaks into the crust beneath. But if I’m being honest, a lot of credit must go to the sauce. The packet of marinara included with each frozen disc of Cheese Fries might be the highlight of the whole affair. It’s bright, simple, and absolutely essential, whether you’re dunking the fries, spreading sauce over the top, or, in my case, both.
If you’re already picking up some Cheese Fries, know that Portesi’s pizzas are well worth a buy, too. The “Oven Fresh Original Style” is the one I recall most from childhood, with its signature pre-melted cheese. Because of their half-done consistency, these pizzas turn a beautiful golden brown when you finish the baking at home. There’s something going on with the crust as well: The edges become almost shatteringly crisp, like a bubbly saltine cracker.
Then there’s the Thin Crust, which uses a more traditional shredded cheese and pairs it with small, uncooked chunks of sausage. This results in a slightly juicier bite of meat, and there’s a less pronounced border between the toppings and the pizza’s edge.
Finally, there’s the “MORE” line of products, which, per the website, “offers exactly what the name says… These are fully loaded pizzas with some unique ingredients you won’t find in our normal pizzas. Chicken, bacon, Canadian bacon and more.”
If you’re lucky enough to be swinging through the freezer section of a Midwest grocer or gas station, keep an eye out for Portesi’s smiling chef with the pointy mustache. The guy makes a mean frozen pizza, and his cheese fries are one of a kind.