Have you ever been force-fed pizza? Decidedly not. Those words would never be used with respect to pizza. Because this most ubiquitous of foods is a close-to-godly food. Its consumption does not require coaxing.
Read carefully and make frequent stops so as not to miss key elements, including expounders on crust, toppings and frozen pies. Red wine not included, just highly recommended.
1. Lisa’s Pizza
I relive every early-life Lisa’s pie in my REM sleep. It’s brighter in that second-floor space than the tenebrous old days (thanks to a remodel a handful of years ago), and the firm thin crust still gets swiped with a thick, sweet tomato sauce and an application of toppings stamped with the classic label. Can’t go wrong with sausage, (fresh) mushrooms, onions and green peppers. 2961 N. Oakland Ave., 414-332-6360.
2. Classic Slice
Although these days, the Bay View hipster pizza place is venturing deeper into vegetarian and vegan pizza territory, it’s not what I think Classic excels at. It’s with its “traditional NY-style” (as they word it) pies offered by the slice – pieces as long as your forearm. With that, I default to meat-lover creations like the Satiricon Sausage, with feta, onions and peppers. 2797 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-238-2406.
3. Pizza Man
The East Side location’s undisputed success inspired its owners to make a sibling. That is the (very busy) Man at the Mayfair Collection, which mirrors its brother’s menu and has some physical similarities (the same architecture firm worked on each). Both also have the same executive chef – Zak Baker – who has proven that the Pizza Man of North Avenue, pre-fire days, could evolve and flourish. The pizza is crisper, the toppings combined more creatively and tastefully than in days past. To those who balk at the area-wide dominance of thin crust, the Pizza Men offer a limited amount of pan pizzas daily and deep-dish only on Mondays. 2597 N. Downer Ave., 414-272-1745; 11500 W. Burleigh St., Wauwatosa, 414-249-2000; 7974 S. Main St. Oak Creek, 414-856-1000.
4. Wells Brothers
Thin-crusting it down in Racine is not hard to do. Wells Brothers’ history dates to 1921, and descendants of the founders keep it all going, down to the thin-as-a-wafer pizza. They know how to do it up crisp and flaky, the melted cheese as smooth as a skating rink. The sausage makes savory breaks in the surface. Hold on, this is just pizza, right? Good pizza. 2148 Mead St., Racine, 262-632-4408.
5. Dom & Phil DeMarinis
The patrons seated around the bar finish each other’s thoughts, let alone sentences. This is that kind of place. The pizza has a solid rim of breadiness, and it’s strong and on the thicker side of thin. The toppings are what make it. More is more. If you can see crust under big chunks of sausage and vegetables, you’re not at this Bay View institution. 1211 E. Conway St., 414-481-2348.
6. Balistreri’s Italian – American Ristorante
The front stoop is rarely unoccupied by Tosans, who keep their eyes on the prize that awaits them once a table in this bustling, old-school ristorante opens up. That prize is a Bal’s Special: Italian sausage, mushrooms, onions and black olives scattered across a lightly sauced crisp-as-all-get-out thin crust. 812 N. 68th St., 414-475-1414.
7. Maria’s Pizza
The pizza – thin crust stretched to an oblong-ish shape that flops over the sides of a rectangular baking pan – is only part of the experience. Few pizzerias establish a connection deeper than piles of grain flour inside a gristmill. The passage of time seems negligible inside this wood-paneled room wrapped ceiling to floor in religious-themed art, Packers memorabilia and holiday finery, and lit by ceiling lamps with stained-glass shades. Owner Bonnie Crivello minds the cash register and gives face time to patrons in the dining room, where your red-and-white-checkerclothed table should hold a large Supreme, big sausage chunks with a firestorm of vegetables served with a pitcher of soda or water. Because this is a dry establishment. 5025 W. Forest Home Ave., 414-543-4606.
8. Carini’s la Conca d’Oro
Pizza is a recent thing at Carini’s, which has been doing Sicilian dining on Oakland Avenue since 1996. The arrival of an Italian-made Acunto Mario wood-fired oven – and return of owner Peter Carini’s chef-son Gregg to the restaurant (read “Some Like It Hot,” below) – resulted in a menu of Napoletana pizza, a selection of pies made with and without tomato sauce. (Purists should order a marinara pie.) In the style of Naples, the toppings are minimal, and the crust has the characteristic tender, bubbly, puffed edges and lightly charred bottom. Just as it bakes fast (in the 90-second range), it’s best consumed immediately. So sit back, order some Chianti, and enjoy your Samba, with Vinny’s Italian sausage, fresh mozzarella, and roasted bell peppers. 3468 N. Oakland Ave., 414-963-9623.
9. Transfer Pizzeria Café
When Transfer opened in an old pharmacy (with a cool old counter and chrome stools) back in 2008, the Ukrainian chef didn’t attribute his pie influences to any established style. He didn’t need to. The medium-thick crust is chewy and substantial, a nice base for anything from pepperoni to Thai chicken. What never fails to satisfy is the Paisano, with tomato and pesto sauces, spicy sausage, fresh tomato and shaved Asiago. 101 W. Mitchell St., 414-763-0438.
10. Hup’s Pizza
The restaurant with a green-and-red exterior offers a closet-sized waiting area – about as basic as it gets. Delivery or carryout only. It’s tempting to succumb to the extraordinary aroma wafting through the paper sleeve and break into the bag while driving. But that could rival cell phone use in risky driving. What distinguishes this from other thin, cracker-crust pies? Flavor and application of cheese. The smooth, antithesis-of-gloppy-and-stringy topping coats the entire pie, up to the rim. But I swear you won’t miss the end crust. 5400 W. Hampton Ave., 414-461-7510.
11. Zaffiro’s Pizza
In the realm of razor-blade-thin, but as sturdy as a crust much thicker, Z’s pizzas define the Milwaukee saltine-like pizzas. In transport, the pie does not fall victim to the weight of sauce and accoutrements, my capstone for toppings being the EBF (Everything But Fish). 1724 N. Farwell Ave., 414-289-8776.
From the Sand Castle Lounge on South 16th and Morgan, Vinchi’s moved to The Bubbler bar a few years ago, baking up pizzas, cheese bread and other yummities out of the kitchen. To follow wasn’t a huge geographic or aesthetic leap. The aroma of sauce and baked cheese could produce delirium. The crust, in the thin, crackly tradition, absorbs the flavors of what’s decadently distributed above it, but doesn’t become soggy. 3158 S. Howell Ave., 414-384-8040.
13. Pizzeria Piccola
In 2003, when the wood oven at this Tosa two-level was first fired up, we didn’t have too much experience with Neapolitan-style pizza (available in one roughly 12-inch size; minimally topped; puffy, chewy, bready crust; and not sliced). The concept has done well enough for Bartolotta Restaurants that it’s been duplicated at Mitchell Airport and in Downtown Kitchen at the U.S. Bank building. It’s no longer the only wood-oven game in town, but the chicken sausage with Gorgonzola, provolone, shaved celery and toasted pine nuts continues to pop up in my dreams. 7606 W. State St., Wauwatosa, 414-443-0800.
14. Little DeMarinis
Blocks south of its late, family-owned predecessor, Mama DeMarinis, Little D’s is owned by a matriarch granddaughter/keeper of the recipes. The strong, built-to-support DeMarinis thin-to-medium crust is in full force, and coverage is like few others. The Sausage is wonderful and applied with delectably reckless abandon. 2860 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-763-5272.
15. Zarletti Mequon
The wood oven has its own shepherds who stoke the fire and slide pizzas in and out with a pizza pallet. At Zarletti, the oven has a prominent spot near the bar. And my, oh, my, between the succulent toppings and the bubbly, chewy, tiny bit of charring on the crust and the judiciously applied, elegant toppings, there is nirvana. The conservative amount of sauce and cheese runs counter to the American palate. Be open: The Margherita D.O.P. comes with blobs of buffalo mozzarella, along with basil and tomato sauce. 1515 W. Mequon Rd., Mequon, 262-241-5990.
16. Harry’s Prohibition Bistro
The Blue Harbor Resort & Spa is your beacon for this Naples-certified pizzeria, where the servers and bartenders are dressed, as if Al Capone could walk in at any moment. Costume theme aside, Harry’s takes its pizza very seriously. The unsliced pies bear the traditional stamp: a chewy crust with a hint of charring on the rim and wetness in the middle (where the oils pool, another Naples trademark). The toppings enhance, not overshadow. Many good choices, including the Mezza Luna, with house-made mozzarella and fresh basil, and sausage, mascarpone cheese and garlic “hidden” in the crust. 668 S. Pier Dr., Sheboygan, 920-451-9100.
17. Il Ritrovo
Sheboygan, that coastal community to the north, has got something about Napoletana pizza. Patrons of Il Ritrovo dig fearlessly into the pies, with no hesitancy to pick up a whole, unsliced creation in their hands and take a big bite. If you love pizza, you have an obligation to drive 50 minutes north and experience this alchemy of the oven. Under the curved, muraled ceiling, slowly devour a pie, sauced or unsauced – there are so many from which to choose. Try a Margherita Classico (tomato, fresh mozz, basil) and bask in its simplicity. Also the Boscaiola, a genius melding of truffle cheese, rosemary, smoked mozzarella and pancetta. 515 S. Eighth St., Sheboygan, 920-803-7516.
18. Doc’s Dry Dock
This dive (meant in the kindest way) overlooking Pewaukee Lake offers almost no place to stand comfortably when it’s busy, but you stand, awkwardly, near the bar or the wood-accented, nautical-themed dining room, and just hope that someone gets up and leaves soon. It’s all worth this period of limbo. The crust is like a round, uniformly thin piece of lavosh lavished in toppings that improve when you add “super,” as in Super Special. That’s pepperoni and sausage, black olives and onions, green peppers and mushrooms. N38 W27091 Parkside Rd., Pewaukee, 262-691-9947.
19. Riverwest Pizza
A year of making pizzas named after streets in Riverwest has honed the craft at this corner-of-Wright-and-Weil pie house. What once was a thicker, cornmeal-laced crust has been pared down to a base that is thinner, chewier and lighter. Nice change. I’m into the specialty pies, like Gordon Court, a transcendent combo of cream cheese spread, queso fresco, jalapenos and bacon. If you’re a pizza builder, options include duck, kale and avocado, as well as house-made fennel sausage and meatballs. 932 E. Wright St., 414-269-9703.
Servers haul out big cans of stewed tomatoes to prop up the pan(s) of pie on your table. All I have to say is “wow!” in response to the Pizza Diavola, with cream cheese, pineapple, giardiniera and pepperoni on a crust. If you think of the crust as the train track, it’s thin and smooth, firm and crisp, a well-cemented surface for the train car of generously, maddeningly delicious toppings. Repeat, please. 2995 S. Clement Ave., 414-431-1014.
21. Ned’s Pizza
I’m looking at a 49-year-old pizza. Not literally my pizza, but Ned’s – whose modest digs near Leon’s Frozen Custard should compel you to also stop at this creamy king for a cone – is approaching a half-century in the pans-’o-pie business. If you think you’ve had one cracker crust pizza, you’ve had them all – that’s not the right attitude. We put the Mil Mag mouths to work one lunchtime, and we couldn’t keep our hands off Ned’s Triple P – pepperoncinis, pickles and pepperoni. This unlikely combination was slaying. 3246 S. 27th St., 414-645-2400.
22. Calderone Club – Fox Point
Build-a-pie workshop. Pick Roma tomato and strips of fresh basil with your sausage add fresh mushrooms, and you conjure summer. Add jalapenos and it’s a party. Cracker crust plus square shape for its medium and large pizzas equal old school. 8001 N. Port Washington Rd., 414-352-9303.
The popularity of this hailing-from-Madison chain’s no-holds-barred approach to pizza toppings (mac n’ cheese, chili cheese frito, drunken ravioli) can’t be underestimated. These chewy fold-over slices are no New York natives, but nobody tops them on creativity, and the flavor combos are quite good. 146 E. Juneau Ave., 414-727-9200; 2035 E. North Ave., 414-727-9200.
24. Organ Piper
Arcade games and a rousing 1929 Wurlitzer pipe organ are not to be reckoned with. (Can I mention the pistons, sound effects and light controls?) The place has a rotation of regular organists (including Dean Rosko, organist for the Brewers) who soar through who-doesn’t-love-its like the Star Wars theme. Tables are pushed together to seat legions of children, and the pizza doesn’t disappoint. The crisp base – like a zaftig cracker, not a wafer – is top-heavy with mild sauce, gooey cheese and up to 15 toppings. I like the veggie pie with fresh tomatoes. 4353 S. 108th St., 414-529-1177.
25. Ann’s Italian Restaurant
No stranger to top pizza lists we’ve done in the past, this house packs in the pie partisans on weekends. Don’t be afraid to stray from traditional tomato sauce and pepperoni on this joint’s cracker crust to feast on something a little different – shrimp “margarite,” a spitfire of garlic butter sauce, red onion, jumbo shrimp and mozzarella cheese. 5969 S. 108th Pl., Hales Corners, 414-425-5040.
26. Wolf Peach
[Editor’s Note: Now closed] A wood oven is more interesting to watch than a foolish drunk or a game of bar dice, and the wizards of Wolf Peach bake pies showered with ingredients as unusual as this restaurant name (an archaic term for “tomato”). The less humdrum the building blocks, the better. Try the downy, pillowy crust with Brussels sprouts, guanciale (Italian cured pork), red onion jam and a tiny poached egg, or crumbled lamb sausage with broccoli rabe, chile oil and garlic. 1818 N. Hubbard St., 414-374-8480.
27. Divino Wine & Dine
The name has changed (from Palermo Villa), but the ownership is the same. If you want a little more girth to your crust, these are your pies. Crisp edges, firm bottom, but a few steps beyond cracker-thin. A solid stream of toppings, including cheese and spicy tomato sauce, thicken the top. Particularly good is the Mediterranean with Kalamata olives, Roma tomatoes, pepperoncini, mozzarella and feta. 2315 N. Murray Ave., 414-212-2222.
28. Pizzeria Scotty
’Stallis strip mall. No dining room (but enough room to stand comfortably and wait). Cracker crust (other dough styles available, too). Thickly applied sauce. We’ve seen others like this; what makes Scotty different? Flavor that doesn’t quit. Just make sure you order sausage, mushrooms, onions and green peppers. 9809 W. Oklahoma Ave., 414-543-1300.
29. Alphonso’s the Original
A couple of stools against the wall just inside this ’Stallis strip mall enterprise allow you to watch your carryout or delivery pizza as it comes to fruition. The “super bee,” one of five kinds of crust, is chewy and thicker than a cracker, but firm. After it comes out of the oven, the pizza dude
drizzles honey on the crust’s edges. That’s a dazzling finish to the Roadrunner pizza, whose thick, Mesquitey barbecue sauce flavors the plentiful grilled chicken but doesn’t obliterate the red onion and bacon. The regular cracker crust with zesty tomato sauce, sausage, mushrooms and onions (the “SHMO”) is also a fist-bump. 1119 S. 108th St., 414-755-0341.
30. Anodyne Coffee Roasters
When the coffee roasters posted an Instagram pic a year ago of their red-tiled Stefano Ferrara wood oven curing at the Bay View location, followers like us went bananas. The massive oven (which occupies the spot that once belonged to the coffee-bean roaster) bakes a pie faster than you can brush your teeth. And like those folks in Napoli, co-owner Lacee Perry and her band of ’za makers keep the toppings really simple, and the crust really fluffy, chewy and characteristically wet in the center. Best of my bets: The Spice, with soppressata and chile flakes. Word to the wise: best eaten hot and right out of the oven. 2920 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-489-0765.
The Fuss About Crust
Let’s face it. Milwaukee is a thin town. But that doesn’t stop lovers of NY-style by-the-slice and Windy City deep-dish from wanting more local examples of crust girth. Let’s do some crust clarification:
➙ Zaffiro’s, Balistreri’s, Hup’s. This is Milwaukee pizza – saltine-thin, flaky and crispy. Sometimes cut into squares (aka, party cut).
➙ It’s moderately thick and bready; the most interesting part is the reverse order of sauce and cheese. After the crust comes a thick application of cheese (did I mention thick?) followed by a layer of chunky tomato sauce.
➙ The crust is thick and bready, chewy with a hint of richness to the dough. We’re talking a serious bottom. Local sources of pan crust: Pizzeria Scotty, Pizza Man, and even though it’s a chain, we mustn’t forget Rocky Rococo.
➙ Long, drapey, thin slices with enough flexibility that it’s easy to fold over and eat. Epitomized locally by Classic Slice and Ian’s.
The pizza toppings that will change your life. Really.
➙ Sprinkled on top when the pizza comes out of the oven, it adds a peppery bite. Fresh dandelion greens are snappy, too.
Fresh buffalo mozzarella
➙ This cheese made from the milk of water buffalo, traditionally produced in Campania in southern Italy, will have you at “twice the fat of cow milk.” Melted globs of gluttony.
➙ The cherry on the sundae. A single egg is cracked, its contents poured onto the middle of the “almost-done” pizza. The pie goes back in the oven until the egg is cooked over-easy, which, to me, is critical. You want a runny yolk to enhance the richness of your pizza.
➙ Sliced in half, or the leaves pulled off and scattered across the pie. Adds crunch while still being mild enough to play nice with other toppings.
➙ Spicy pickled vegetables, the kind that go on a muffaletta. Big, bold flavor. Wonderful with cream cheese.
➙ It melds with the other toppings without turning runny. We’re just talking dabs here and there. Creamy.
➙ They lend a roasty-sweet quality and marry well with goat or pungent Roquefort cheese.
➙ What does it take for an American pizza place to get official certification by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the gold standard for pizzaioli? The requirements vary from the type of oven (wood-fired dome), operating temperature (900 degrees Fahrenheit) and baking time (no more than 90 seconds) to the pizza ingredients, which include the choice of flour (wheat), tomatoes (certain canned are acceptable), mozzarella cheese and olive oil (extra-virgin). Of the four Wisconsin restaurants that meet the criteria, two (Sheboygan’s Il Ritrovo and Harry’s Prohibition Bistro) are on this list. For more guidelines, go to americas.pizzanapoletana.org.
Some Like It Hot
A pizzaiolo has a special relationship with his or her oven, as evidenced by Gregg Carini of the East Side’s Carini’s La Conca d’Oro. By Pamela Hill Nettleton.
What a barista is to coffee, a pizzaiolo is to savory pies.
At Carini’s La Conca D’Oro (3468 N. Oakland Ave.), Gregg Carini claims that title. For 10, 11, 12 hours a day, he stands in front of an 800-to-900-degree wood-burning oven (“I have good legs from soccer,” he says), stretching and topping dough (“I give it a coupla spins, you don’t have to toss it up”), and shoveling Napoletana pizzas into the fire.
A culinary graduate of MATC, Carini spent three years learning pizza-making while cooking for touring musicians like Taylor Swift and U2. When his father, restaurant patriarch Peter Carini, decided to add pizza to the venerable 19-year-old menu, Gregg came home to man the 5,000-pound-plus Acunto Mario oven, shipped from Naples.
“You could get a brick oven built in America, but hey, we’re Italian,” says Gregg. It took two forklifts to slowly haul it across the restaurant floor, cracking floor tiles all the way. “That’s all right, we’ll get new tiles,” says Peter.
Making the perfect pie requires a delicate balance of a dizzying number of factors: dough moisture, mix time, the size of the dough ball, how long the dough is cured in the refrigerator, how it’s stretched, the type of wood in the oven, the temperature of the fire. And then there’s the matter of cooking time: 90 seconds. “It goes from perfect to ruined in five seconds,” says Gregg. “It takes longer to stretch it and top it than to cook it.”
What wrecks a pizza? “Inexperience. And dropping it on the floor on the way out of the oven. That happens.”
Americanized pizza has a sturdy crust to hold up under an overload of toppings. A Napoletana pizza holds “three to four, then you’re pushing it,” says Gregg. “It’s about the crust and the fresh ingredients – it’s not a lot of sauce, it’s the right sauce. A crispy outer crust, a soft, light interior, the right cheese, not too much.”
Pizzas are served uncut, in the traditional manner. “Fold it in half and eat it,” says Gregg. “Or use a fork and a steak knife.”
There’s a hybrid on the menu – the “Domenico,” named after Gregg’s pepperoni-loving nephew. “Italian pepperoni is smaller. It gets that nice char on the edges, it curls up in the oven and holds that little bit of oil at the bottom.” Sold.
The Chill Factor
Have you seen the frozen pizza aisles in grocery stores lately? Holy competition. Here are the best of Wisco-made pies.
Screamin’ Sicilian Pizza Co.
➙ The name, the packaging, the pizza varieties (Mambo Italiano, Holy Pepperoni) all give attitude. The medium-thick crust is a solid foundation for a topping-palooza like Supremus Maximus, which is parent company Palermo Villa Ltd.’s version of a supreme pizza. No skimpy meat distribution here and good flavor overall (can actually taste the green pepper). Where: Pick ‘n Save, Metro Market, Piggly Wiggly.
Classics by Dino’s
➙ A good, basic thin crust, a string-fest of cheese, with chunks of flavorful Italian sausage. That’s the sausage and mushroom pie. But there are many other topping combos by this Racine outfit. Where: Pick ‘n Save, Piggly Wiggly.
➙ Bay View’s Hannah Roland brought her vegetarian and vegan pizzas to the natural foods-shopping masses in early 2015. Roland is a whiz at making vegan pizzas flavorful. The garlic-roasted broccoli and cauliflower, plus toasted sesame seeds and a thick blanket of spicy Asian coconut cream-peanut sauce, work together like a seamless plot device. The inch-thick rosemary sourdough crust is firm, with a nice crunch. Where: Outpost, Beans & Barley, Riverwest Co-op, Groppi’s.
The Milwaukee Pizza Co.
➙ An upper-crust choice if you like a crisp, flaky crust as thin as a tortilla. In late 2016, the company announced it had pulled back its availability at area grocery stores in favor of selling the pies strictly from its retail space, 6207 W. National Ave. Hope it’s a good move for the company, as the Herbivore and Lakeside Supreme want to be in my freezer.
➙ The label reads “Caution: Exceeds expectations!” Them’s strong words for a cracker crust from Watertown, Wis. But the Main Street Special (sausage-pepperoni) puts the onus on meat and doesn’t fail. Where: Pick ‘n Save, Metro Market.
Pizza by the Numbers
By Liz Chatterton