By Wade and Theresa Nemetz
Say “Milwaukee,” and your mind may conjure up thoughts of beer, brats, bowling, Fonzie, “Laverne and Shirley” and pizza.
Wait, did I just say “pizza”? Although most native Milwaukeeans know of our city’s great reputation for Milwaukee-style pizza, only recently has this well-kept secret begun to get out.
We started Milwaukee Food Tours nearly five years ago with the simple goal of taking guests—both locals and tourists—on a culinary adventure through our city. The foundation of Milwaukee’s cuisine was laid by the many German, Italian, Sicilian, Polish and Irish immigrants that settled the city before us, and we enjoy taking guests for, as we like to say, “a progressive meal with a side of history.”
But why would we choose to develop a tour dedicated just to Milwaukee pizza? We’re frequently asked for restaurant recommendations, and tour attendees often suggest new tour ideas to us. Through the years, we have found that so many conversations revolve around pizza favorites that we set out on a mission to visit everything between old-school pizzerias to newer, upscale establishments to find Milwaukee’s top spots, and, in the process, the concept of Milwaukee’s Pizza Tour was born.
Most people are familiar with Chicago or New York-style pizza, but most have no reference point when it comes to defining Milwaukee-style pizza. Our signature pizzas evolved from the Sicilian and Italian immigrants of the late 1800s who came to the area in search of a better life. With them they brought new ingredients and new cooking techniques. Two such Sicilian immigrants—John Caravella and Joe Todaro—started serving pizza at the Caradaro Club in 1945 as World War II came to an end and pizza began finding its way into the United States. Their marketing techniques—handing out free slices on Milwaukee’s downtown streets—created an allure that soon perpetuated itself around the city.
Today, the Caradaro Club stands in a new location but still serves its original recipe. Unlike a New York-style pizza, this Milwaukee-style pie continues to be sliced into its signature tavern-cut, square pieces, and the crust is unfoldable—in fact, it’s cracker-thin, 1.25 mm, to be specific! The sauce is basic, just enough to cover the crust yet not so thick as to overpower it, and the cheese is a shredded mozzarella. This pizza is crisp, light, airy and thin, yet every bite bursts with flavor. When we sit down to a Caradaro Club slice, we particularly look forward to the rich, near-burnt flavors disbursed in each bite by a few dark spots on each crust.
So how did this original slice influence the rest of Milwaukee pizza history? As we traversed the city to sample Milwaukee’s many pizzerias, we learned along the way that many Caradaro Club employees left to start their own establishments. It seems there are four commonalities, all stemming from the Caradaro Club’s original slice, that are now found at other area pizzerias: cracker-thin crust, sauce, cheese and cut. Pizzerias such as Barbierie’s, Balistreri’s, DiMarini’s, Maria’s, the Calderone Club and Lisa’s all offer the signature, cracker-thin crust along with a very basic, nearly naked tomato sauce. Despite the fact that Milwaukee is the Dairy State, cheese does not abound on these slices, and nearly all the pizzerias pride themselves on their tavern-cut, square slices of pie. It’s hard to say which pizza is best since Milwaukeeans remain loyal to their own favorite local pizzeria, but all qualify as great examples of a classic Milwaukee-style pizza.
One of our personal favorites can be found in Milwaukee’s Little Italy on Brady Street, where we often stop for a visit to Zaffiro’s Pizzeria. Its history began in 1954 when two nice Italian boys—John and Liberio “Bobby” Zaffiro—created a pizza unlike anything ever seen or tasted before. Zaffiro’s pizza has a curiously thin crust—perhaps a mere two credit cards thick, even thinner than Caradaro Club’s pizza. To yield pizza perfection, they begin by par-baking their dough; then they remove it from the oven, flip it over to dress the pizza, and return it to the oven just long enough to finish off the toppings. They top it off with sliced cheese and ladle on their secret-recipe sauce to create a signature Milwaukee-style pie that has been consistently named a favorite among locals and food writers alike.
Milwaukee does have its share of pizzerias that don’t fit the classic Milwaukee-style, thin-crust mold. In a city of thin-crusted pizza, one Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza joint can be found along with several New York-style “by-the-slice” establishments. Most are newer restaurants offering varieties such as wood-fired and coal-fired pizzas (yes, Milwaukee’s first coal pizza oven is only one year old) as well as the more traditional Sicilian bakeries offering Sfincione.
If you’re going on a foodie travel adventure, be sure to make a visit to Milwaukee a priority. We’re just 90 minutes north of Chicago and offer some of the best cuisine in the Midwest. And, of course, be sure to sample a classic Milwaukee-style pizza while in town. You can ask any local for a recommendation on their favorite thin-crust establishment, or you can join us on Milwaukee’s Pizza Tour, where we’ll show off some of our city while sampling Milwaukee’s quintessential thin-crust pies at some of the area’s most historic pizzerias.
Wade and Theresa Nemetz are founders of Milwaukee Food Tours, including Milwaukee’s Pizza Tour.