What Is Milwaukee-Style Pizza? And Who Made it First?

MKE’s own thin-crust pizza story.


Loyalists to longstanding pizzerias such as Zaffiro’s, Balistreri’s and Calderone Club might like to think their favorite joint was the one that originated our city’s signature style, whose defining characteristics are a crisp, cracker-thin crust and pieces cut into rectangles, which is also known as tavern-cut.

But it really all started with a place called the Caradaro Club, whose Third Ward location opened in 1945 and was destroyed by fire in 1979. There’s a plaque outside its old digs at 143 N. Broadway that honors both the restaurant and the start of MKE pizza.


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The story goes that Caradaro Club’s owners combined two styles – the thick-crust, rectangular-cut Sicilian pie known as sfinciuni, and the thinner crust of Neapolitan-style pizzas – to create our MKE original. Zaffiro’s East Side location opened a little more than a decade later, in 1956, and has the thinnest crust around.

As for those other beloved pizzerias, Balistreri’s in Tosa has a Caradaro connection. Founder James Balistreri worked at Caradaro Club before opening his first restaurant. And Calderone Club’s founder, Antonio Fazzari, actually owned Caradaro for a period of time back in the day and had the original recipe in hand – a recipe his son, current Calderone Club Downtown owner Gino has worked hard to replicate at his restaurant.



The word pizza is thought to have several originations, including the Latin pitta (which refers to a flatbread baked at a high temperature) and the Lombardic pizzo, meaning mouthful. 


The first pizzeria in the United States was reportedly Lombardi’s, which started serving pies in New York City in 1905.


Simplest way to cut a pizza? Use kitchen shears. They cut cleanly through the crust without pulling your toppings and cheese off the pie, an occupational hazard.


Are pizza boxes recyclable? Check your area, but in Milwaukee, no, because of the grease and cheese that adheres to the box. West Allis, however, will accept greasy pizza boxes. Either way, if the top is clean, you’ve got a green light to tear it off for recycling while tossing the rest.


Modern pizza likely dates to Naples, Italy, in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Neapolitans ate simple flatbreads topped with things like anchovies, garlic, tomato and cheese.

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s April issue.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.