Say “Milwaukee,” and your mind might conjure up some thoughts of beer, brats, bowling, Laverne & Shirley, Fonzie 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 is this well-kept secret getting out.
In comes Milwaukee’s Pizza Bus. Why would we choose to develop a tour dedicated just to Milwaukee pizza? We’re frequently asked for restaurant recommendations and tour attendees are also often suggesting new tour ideas to us. Through the years we found that so many conversations revolved 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 styled 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-1800’s that 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 when World War II was just ending and pizza was finding its way into the United States. Their marketing technique – handing out free pizza slices on Milwaukee’s downtown streets – was an allure that soon self-perpetuated.
Today, 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 cut in its signature tavern-cut, square pieces and the crust is unfoldable – it is cracker-thin, 1.25 mm to be exact! 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 is filled with flavor. When we sit down to a Caradaro Club slice, we most look forward to the rich, near burnt flavors disbursed in each bite by a few dark spots on each crust.
Now 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 that there are four commonalities that stem from the Caradaro Club original slice now found at other area pizzerias: cracker-thin crust, sauce, cheese, cut. Pizzerias such as Barbierie’s, Balistreri’s, DiMarini’s, Maria’s, Calderone Club and Lisa’s all offer the signature, cracker-thin crust along with a very basic, nearly naked tomato sauce. Despite that we are the dairy state, cheese is not abundantly found on these slices, and nearly all pride themselves on their tavern-cut, square slices of pie. It is hard to define which pizza is best as Milwaukeeans are loyal to their local pizzeria, but all qualify as great examples of a classic Milwaukee style pizza.
One of our personal favorites is in Milwaukee’s “Little Italy,” along Brady Street, where we often stop for a visit to Zaffiro’s Pizzeria. History began in 1954 for Zaffiro’s when two nice Italian boys, John and Liberio “Bobby” Zaffiro, created a pizza unlike anyone had ever seen or tasted before. Their pizza has a curiously thin crust – perhaps a mere two credit cards thick - proving even thinner than Caradaro Club’s pizza. To yield this perfection, they begin by par baking their dough, removing it from the oven, flipping it over to dress the pizza, and then returning it to the oven just long enough to finish off the toppings. It is topped with sliced cheese and then ladled with their secret recipe sauce to create a signature Milwaukee style pizza that has consistently been 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, we are home to just one Chicago style, deep dish pizza joint and more recently have seen several New York style “by the slice” establishments as well. Most are newer restaurants offering Milwaukeean’s varieties such as wood firedpizza, as well as the more traditional Sicilian bakeries offerings Sfincione.
If you are going on a pizza adventure, ask any local for a recommendation on their favorite thin crust establishment and dive on it, or you can join us on Milwaukee’s Pizza Tour where we’ll show off our city while sampling Milwaukee’s quintessential thin crust pizzas at some of the most historic area pizzerias.