Time capsule: Zaffiro’s Pizza & Bar

Liborio “Bobby” Zaffiro owned a tavern in the Italian section of Milwaukee in 1951—until a road trip to the East with friends revealed pizza’s popularity. “At the time, there was only one other pizza place in Milwaukee,” recalls Mike Zaffiro, son of Bobby and current owner of Zaffiro’s Pizza & Bar (zaffirospizza.com). “My father developed the dough through trial and error for almost a year; the sauce was a family friend’s recipe; the pasta sauce and meatballs were my maternal grandmother’s recipes; and my uncles made sausage in an Italian grocery store, so we bought from them.” Voilà—pizza hit the menu by 1954; by 1956, the bar/pizzeria moved to its present location on Farwell Avenue. 

Bobby had a solid following in the Italian Third Ward, but upon moving had to wait for the pizza to catch on. “My father didn’t believe in advertising because it was so expensive,” says Mike. “He always said, ‘The only advertising you do is on matchbook covers.’” He instead relied on word of mouth to keep the business going; today, four generations of customers have filled seats at the small pizza “joint,” as Mike calls it. “You come here to eat, because there’s no ambience,” he laughs. “But people are comfortable here, and we’ve been really blessed with longevity and consistency.” 

That comfort level extends to staff, many of which have been working at Zaffiro’s for decades. “We’ve never advertised for help; a lot of relatives work with me, and I’m lucky to find 30 employees I can trust.” Recently, Mike allowed a local company with Cineplexes to open locations in theaters using the Zaffiro’s name and recipe, which spreads the word about his own location—thanks to the company’s generous advertising and the influx of suburban customers who first tried the pizza at the movies. Content with his one location, he advises newbies in the pizza biz, “Start out small with your place and your menu so that overhead doesn’t take you down. It’s tough nowadays—I think if I had to start all over again, I couldn’t do it!”