Pizza is the protagonist of a culinary opus, and anyone who says Milwaukee doesn’t have a style to contribute to the narrative is talking out of his or her proverbial patoot. We respect other styles, too. There’s a place for Chicago’s deep-dish, New York’s hand-tossed and Detroit’s thick, crispy pies, but our hearts are set on a cracker crust so thin, it’s sometimes hard to believe it will hold up a mountain of toppings. And the best ones do.
But this isn’t just a story about great thin-crust pizza. Our city has honed its skills at making crusts that are thicker and chewier, including those that pay respect to the great pizzerias of Naples.
Here are our best – and be prepared to expand your pizza knowledge, too:
THE MILMAG PIZZA BRACKET
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1. Calderone Club
$8-$30 | 842 N. DR MARTIN LUTHER KING DR. | 414-273-3236
A pizza experience here is time-traveling to early Milwaukee pie-making history. The crust on this tavern-cut rectangle is thin – not quite as thin as Zaffiro’s – and perfectly crisp. The sauce is tangy and rich, and the toppings are so fresh, it’s like you can taste each one – sausage to mushroom, pepperoni to green pepper – individually. This is the kind of pie you should definitely upsize so that you have leftovers for that cold pizza meal you will likely have at midnight (if it lasts that long). I miss the days of being elbow to elbow with other pizza aficionados at the bar, but that time will return – hopefully soon.
$12-$24 | 3246 S. 27TH ST. | 414-645-3400
If you are traveling around town, trying to get all the MKE pizza classics under your belt, 52-year-old Ned’s needs a visit, and soon. It’s on that strip with Mazo’s Hamburgers and Leon’s Frozen Custard. Ned’s is known for its sauce, sweet-zesty-tangy. And for toppings like the PLT – pepperoni, lettuce and tomato. Don’t knock it until you try it. You get a sheet of warm melted cheese, spicy pepperoni, soft sweet sliced tomato and cool, crunchy iceberg. Ned’s is where I also learned how good pickles can be on a pizza, and a specialty here is to combine them with tangy-spicy pepperoncini peppers and bright-red, paprika-laced pepperoni.
A MAP OF WHERE TO GET PIZZA IN MILWAUKEE
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$13.50-$18.50 | 5025 W. FOREST HOME AVE. | 414- 543-4606
One of the things I love about these creations is that they don’t fit neatly into the pan. The crust spills over the sides into a delicious, amorphous hand-tossed blob. Big hunks of fennel-laced sausage and saucers of pepperoni, curled up at the edges, poke through the bubbling coverlet of cheese. I love the pockets of delectable grease and the classic thin crust with an edge that breaks o in a crackle. And what I really love is that this wood paneled, religious- and holiday-themed institution dating to 1957 is still co run by the late Maria’s daughter Bonnie Crivello, whose red clothing ensembles and real-M’waukee hospitality are as legendary as the pizzas.
4. Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co.
$12-$16. | 2920 S. KINNICKINNIC AVE. | 414-489-0765
Known more for coffee than pizza – though pizza-making has been part of the business plan since 2014 – Anodyne offers its pies at the Bay View location only because that’s where the handsome red-tiled, wood-fired oven, a Naples-made Stefano Ferrara, lives. Co-owner Lacee Perry is the head mistress of pies, and between her and her fellow pizzaiolos, they rock the crust world. These are not certified Neapolitan pies, but the 12-inchers lean in that direction, starting with the crust and its good charring and puffed-edges-meets-wet-middle. Toppings are judiciously applied and among the 17 choices, you might find yourself walking down Margherita road or “Meara” avenue, with prosciutto, fresh mozz, marinated artichokes, re-roasted mushrooms and Kalamata olives. All are stellar choices.
$14-$22 | 5601 W. VLIET ST. | 414-943-3278
Owners Ann Brock and James Durawa started making pizza in Portland, Oregon, after Durawa caught the bug for baking. Together they operated a popular trailer specializing in chewy, medium-thick-crust pies topped with fresh, some seasonal ingredients until they moved back home to Wisconsin and found a spot for their Wy’east – the original name for Mt. Hood in Oregon; the owners are also hikers – in Washington Heights. Durawa is the yeast master and creates crusts from long-fermented dough that is light and bread-like, chewy with snazzy puffy-crackly edges that get a little charred. I like all of that. It gets that way thanks to a dome oven that heats to 800 degrees. The couple do red- and white- (olive oil-ricotta-mozz) sauce pies and are into either basic regular menu toppings like pepperoni with garlic and sweet hot peppers (that’s the Hot Marmot) or glitzy seasonal starlets like the Salmon River, with roasted garlic cream sauce, smoked salmon, smoked fontina, mozz and pecorino-romano, and a lemon-caper-pickled onion mix. Durawa makes a set amount of dough each day and when it’s gone, it’s gone. And believe me, they sell out.
$10-$24.50. | 5400 W. HAMPTON AVE. | 414-461-7510
I remember the first time I visited this walk-up wunderkind. Years ago. I could smell and feel the heat from the hot oven as I approached the pickup window, and I envisioned pies bubbling with cheese and meat baking in the oven. Carrying my pizza home in the car was a torment. I just wanted to pull over, bust open the sleeve and dig into the squares. This is a very cheesy pie, a blanket spread over a thick, well-balanced tomato sauce. The sausage is flavorful (plenty of fennel) and generously applied. The crust is thin and crisp. Nothing wanting here.
$12.50-$22.50 | 1724 N. FARWELL AVE. | 414-289-8776
When I was a kid, my aunt and uncle would take my cousins and me to this East Side beacon. We’d sit at the bar or in the dining room, with other families piled into tables topped with red checkered tablecloths. This is the granddaddy of Milwaukee-style pizza – round and “tavern-cut” into squares, the crust wafer-thin and cracker-crisp, the thick, not-too-sweet sauce bubbling over the end crust, and just the perfect amount of toppings. I love everything on a Zaffiro’s pizza but fish (anchovies). The liberally applied sausage and pepperoni are rich and meaty and not too greasy.
8. Tenuta’s Italian Restaurant
$9-$21 | 2995 S. CLEMENT AVE. | 414- 431-1014
Imagine a thick, crisp cracker, golden brown and strong yet tender. That’s the texture of the Tenuta’s thin crust pies, which can support a whole lot of toppings – and they do not skimp on them at this cozy little Bay View neighborhood haunt. I like to ask for extra sauce because it’s thick and sweet-tangy, and I love having a cornucopia of fresh veggies – green pepper, black olives, fresh tomato – covering the blanket of melted mozz. They offer other kinds of crust, including deep dish and stuffed, but that’s just not Milwaukee pizza.
$14-$29. | 3158 S. HOWELL AVE. | 414-384-8040
You walk into a watering hole called The Bubbler, past the bar to the walk-up window in the back of the space. This is where the Vinchi’s magic happens, where yeast, flour, sauce, cheese and meat are transformed into Milwaukee thin-crust greatness, cut into squares so all you middle-piece lovers get a lot of what you want. The sauce is sweet-savory and lathered on just so, followed by plenty of gooey cheese and hunks of sausage. It’s the kind of pizza you can eat more than you think. Just one more piece? Yes, just one more. One more.
RELATED: HOW MKE-STYLE PIZZA GOT ITS START
10. Santino’s Little Italy
$13-$20 | 352 E. STEWART ST. | 414-897-7367
The last time I sat down in this dining room that opened in 2017, Moonstruck was playing on the flatscreen. Around me, everyone was drinking martinis or red wine and munching on pizzas – pizzas made on puffy, medium-thick crusts baked in an oven fired by cherry wood. It wouldn’t have felt out of place to turn and see Cher and Nicolas Cage dining next to me. That’s atmosphere. The pies are made with some stylistic nods to Naples, using Caputo 00 flour for the crust and toppings of Grande mozz and San Marzano tomatoes. The menu lists 17 specialty pies with build your-own as an option as well. There are so many good topping choices here, but for its mix of tomato sauce and pesto, as well as spicy Italian sauce and sweet cherry tomatoes, the Paisano rules the roost. Santino’s also does a nice job with their garlic white sauce, which is especially creamy and zesty partnered up with artichokes, feta, Kalamata olives and mozz in the Greek pizza.
11. Pizza Man
$16-$23 | 2597 N. DOWNER AVE., 414-272-1745 | 6300 W. MEQUON RD., MEQUON, 262-955-1858 | 11500 W. BURLEIGH ST., WAUWATOSA, 414-249-2000
I’ve been eating pies from here since the halcyon days of the original, destroyed-by-fire location on North Avenue, where folks would carve messages into the wooden booths. Some of those seats were transported to the Downer Avenue location when it opened in 2013. The thin-crust pies are crisp and like a saltine on the edges. Pizza Man has since expanded, and sometimes the pies aren’t consistently on point. But when they’re on, they’re on. I go for the specialties – like the Topher, with sausage, pickled jalapeno, cream cheese and Calabrian pepper honey. Pizza Man is where I discovered how well cream cheese works on a pizza. The globs of mild creaminess melt into the mozz for ultimate dairy cloud cover.
11. San Giorgio Pizzeria Napoletana
$14-$19| 838 N. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING DR. | 414- 276-2876
Just wow. This is the pie you want when you’re sad, happy, in love, in lust. In short, it’s the pizza you want all the time. Owner Gino Fazzari, who also runs the MKE-style-pizza- serving Calderone Club next door, is serious about Neapolitan pizza. He invested in a primo Stefano Ferrara wood burning oven and continues to follow the rules for making certified Neapolitan pizza. (And there are rules – read on.) These pies are pillowy and crusty with a soft center and exquisitely fresh flavor. Simplicity is best when eating Naples-style, so you never see these pies gobbed with toppings. I love the Margherita-style D.O.C., with San Marzano tomato, mozzarella di bufala, parmigiano, fresh basil and extra-virgin olive oil, but you also can’t go wrong with the Ilario, topped with roasted Italian sausage, fresh mushrooms, tomato, fresh mozzarella, basil and extra-virgin olive oil. Now sink into a blissful carb coma.
AUTHENTIC NEOPOLITAN: Some places may claim to serve Neapolitan pizza, but only a handful in our state serve the genuine article. It isn’t enough to have a wood-fired oven. But it is a start. Here in the states, pizzerias can get certified as the real deal by an organization called VPN Americas. Following its rules grants applicants membership in the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. And those requirements are pretty strict, specifying, among other things, that the wood-burning dome oven in operation needs to fire at a scorching 900 degrees, the dough must be mixed by hand or an “approved” mixer, and the ingredients used to make the pizzas have to be “fresh, all natural and nonprocessed.” Those ingredients should come from Naples’ Campania region in southern Italy. The pizza makers often get training from a certified pizzaiola. In Wisconsin, just four restaurants are certified VPN: Naples 15 in Madison, San Giorgio Pizzeria Napoletana here in Milwaukee, and Il Ritrovo and Prohibition Bistro, both in Sheboygan.
12. Balistreri’s Italian/American Ristorante
$13-$30. | 812 N. 68TH ST., WAUWATOSA | 414-475-1414
Balistreri’s is to Tosa what Zaffiro’s is to the East Side. People who’ve eaten pizza with me know I’m the corner bandit. This is never truer than with a Balistreri pie; even the little triangle wisps in the corners are my favorite. I get a little sauce, a little cheese and meat, and plenty of those crispy browned edges. This is a saucy pie that gets particularly wet the more toppings you add. That’s not a bad thing – you’re getting the wonderful meaty and cheesy oils you can sop up with those end crust pieces. A perfect pie for me here is sausage, mushroom, cheese and black olives, though if you want to throw on some of the thin, smoky pepperoni too, I will not turn it down.
$9-$24 | 2315 N. MURRAY AVE. | 414-797-1400
This is a new name to most people but it’s a location with street cred for ’za. Formerly Divino and prior to that, Palermo Villa, Tavolino is using the same pizza recipe as its predecessors. And it’s a goodie. The crust is medium-thick and a bit chewy, the base a terrific support for loading up the toppings. The classic Dean’s Supreme (named after previous owner Dean Cannestra) is an homage to the marriage of pepperoni and sausage in red sauce, with some healthy veg for color and crunch. My absolute favorite here has a bechamel (cream) sauce base covered with three kinds of roasted mush- rooms, plus pecorino romano and a little olive oil – fantastic.
15. Alphonso’s The Original
$16-$35 | 1119 S. 108TH ST., WEST ALLIS | 414-755-0341
Known for offering baton-size fried mozzarella sticks, Alphonso’s is also quite possibly the thin-crust king of West Allis. The crisp cracker of a crust is in full force here, under a layer of sweetish sauce and a smooth quilt of melted cheese. They bake the pies so the cheese is delectably golden with gobs of cheese that stretch when you pull off a square. Mmm. When you walk inside to pick up your pie, it’s like you’ve almost entered the kitchen, so close are you to the action. They have great names for their pies, including the Barracuda (queue up the Heart song), and the Cutlass Supreme, which is my favorite owing to the winning combo of sausage, pepperoni and a color wheel of fresh veggies.
The New Gotta-Try Pizza
16. E&F Pizzeria
$20-$23 | CROSSROADS COLLECTIVE, 2238 N. FARWELL AVE. | 2273 S. HOWELL AVE. | 414-885-0204
Egg & Flour Pasta’s Adam Pawlak has been a busy bee, expanding his carb based empire to new outposts (the latest being Metcalfe’s Market in Wauwatosa). Pawlak also branched into pizza-making, offering creations on a tantalizingly chewy medium-thick crust. Just as he tops his pastas generously with sauces and meats, he approached these like thickly painted canvases where the sauce and cheese meet at the end crust. He offers four kinds, including a pizza of the day. The pepperoni is so decked out, you can barely see under the meat. My fave, though, is the Shroom, with parmesan cream sauce, mozz and truffle oil – so rich!
BONUS: THE BEST TAKE-AND-BAKE PIE
ONE OF the things that got me through the COVID summer was the sausage and onion pie from Scardina Specialties (822 E. Chambers St., 414-395-3369), a little Italian deli in Riverwest where they make the freshest take-and-bake pizzas for a steal ($10-$14). Everything about this pie is amazing, from the thin, chewy hand-tossed crust to the fresh Italian sausage to the silky lake of melted mozzarella that makes it one of the most delectably cheesy pies in the city. Each bite conjures up the vision of an Italian mama adding the all-important cooking ingredient of love.