Milwaukee doesn’t hold title to a definitive style of pizza, nothing that’s earned it a Wikipedia page. Transplants complain about the nonexistent Chicago deep-dish, and the wide, floppy New York-style slices not found in plenitude here. Thinnish seems to be the overriding crust preference, but we’re adaptable, receptive pizza people. Consider the recent interest piqued by wood-
burning ovens, specifically those made in the reverential pie city of Naples, Italy. Last year, Anodyne Coffee’s owners installed a massive dome-shaped Stefano Ferrara from Naples in their Bay View cafe.
Around the same time as Anodyne folk were planning their pies, Gregg Carini – whose father, Peter, opened Carini’s La Conca d’Oro in 1996 – had moved back to Milwaukee to help his pop with the family restaurant. Peter had decided it was time to shake things up with a bona-fide Neapolitan wood-burning oven, a cooking tool that would supplant six tables in the back dining room. Gregg – a chef whose last gig was cooking for traveling country music singers in Nashville – came home ambitious for more change at Carini’s, known for keeping the Sicilian home lights burning. Carini the Younger took charge of the pizza oven, a Naples-made Acunto Mario that, fired up to 950 degrees, can bake a 12-inch pie in 90 seconds. They’re doing 13 varieties – the Samba, topped with Vinny’s Italian sausage and roasted red peppers ($14), to the quattro gusti, with mushrooms, artichoke hearts, olives and prosciutto cotto ($16).
The marks of a Neapolitan-style pie are here: the spotted bottom (dotted with char marks), a soft, wet center (where the oil, sauce and cheese pool) and a light hand distributing the toppings. The sauce – there is also pizza bianche (without sauce) – is simple: pureed San Marzano canned tomatoes. Carini’s may not have VPN certification (by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana; only three Wisco restaurants do), but the pizzas are stellar. For pronounced flavor, I like the diavola, with Italian sausage, soppressata (dry salami) and Calabrian chile ($15).
If the rest of the menu is a bit onerous, to the diner, it’s simply filled with Sicilian abundance. Gregg wants to whittle it down, however, preserving the best of Carini’s. It’s still the tender beef spiedini, stuffed, rolled in bread crumbs and grilled ($18); and veal Marsala (delicately flattened; sweet, diaphanous Marsala wine sauce, $21). And still the La Conca d’Oro, a mélange of seafood such as scallops and mussels over spaghetti in red wine marinara and/or garlic wine sauce, both good ($21). In the age of à la carte, Carini’s continues to deliver soup or salad without it feeling like an afterthought, and choice of side (potato or al dente pasta) with each entrée. Some things are better left alone.
Peter Carini – who “does everything” at the restaurant, says his son – gave the interior a full face-lift in the early 2000s, which included adding the front indoor/outdoor dining area with sliding glass doors. The Acunto oven’s arrival is the major, recent change to the space that’s embellished with gold-colored sponge-painted walls, murals, tile flooring, and a faux garden trellis in the back dining room. Peter’s son slowed his initial urgency to make changes, but his goal is to massage the menu into a creation that’s reflective not only of Sicily but of southern Italy.
Before the Carinis’ debuted their oven in winter, Gregg thought they were the first Milwaukee restaurant with a Naples-made Neapolitan wood-burning beauty. Then he heard about Anodyne. But it doesn’t matter who was first. As we know from countless examples, this city has ample room for pies.
[mark]➽ Carini’s La Conca D’oro[/mark]
3468 N. Oakland Ave., 414-963-9623. Hours: Tues-Thurs 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat 4-10 p.m.; Sun 4-9 p.m. Prices: Antipasti $7.50-$13; sandwiches $7.50-$10; pizzas $8-$16; pastas $12-$21; entrées $15-$25; desserts $4-$9. Service: Friendly; in some cases, a little green. Dress: Up or down. Credit cards: M V A DS. Handicap access: Yes. Reservations: Recommended on the weekend.