Here I am on the last morning of my family’s annual visit to my brother- and sister-in-law and their two sons, all of whom live in farm country about thirty minutes away from Milwaukee. Between the pool (which occupies most of my daughter’s time when we’re there) and my wife’s brother’s hockey and fitness business that he runs out of a red barn, it seems we rarely leave their place and we eat most meals in. In fact, over the many years we’ve been visiting them, I can count on ten fingers the number of times we’ve eaten out. Don’t get me wrong: I like eating in. But I also like to check out indigenous ― hopefully old school ― food scenes in unfamiliar locales.
It’s an uphill climb because I’m one person out of nine people. And while sometimes I succeed in forcing everyone to spring the coop to go somewhere in Milwaukee, I don't want to do that too much. One time several years ago, I had made an appointment to show my photos to someone at an ad agency. The appointment concluded at lunchtime and so, with just a little research, I figured out that we should go to Solly’s Grille ― a 1930s vintage countertop lunch place known for its “butter burgers.”
Solly's Grille, 2007
A butter burger is a hamburger or cheeseburger with a tablespoon-size pat of butter stashed beneath the patty. The butter melts when the thing is assembled. It’s a rich tradition, for sure. I remember I asked the waitress (most every employee was female ― and over the age of 60) to explain the butter-on-a-burger tradition. She couldn’t. But she didn’t (like someone in New York might do) act like it was strange that I should ask her, as if I thought she was around for its invention. (I didn’t, of course.) She surmised ― friendly as can be ― that the butter burger must have come about because 100% sirloin “is very lean” and that butter makes a burger juicier.
So this time around, I decided to push for a real Milwaukee pizza experience ― not that I knew what one is. It worked.
Also on this visit, my sister-in-law, Lisa, mentioned that she’d recently learned or relearned how to pay euchre, a Wisconsin card game that I had played years ago but had since forgotten. Euchre, along with Leinie’s beer, is romantic Wisconsin stuff to me. In my imagination, any Wisconsinite worth his/her weight in beer would have a monthly get together at a barn somewhere, where s/he plays euchre and drinks Leinie’s most of the night long.
Once Lisa brought up euchre, that was it: weekend decided. We’d play a lot of euchre, go out for real Milwaukee pizza, and ― as an extra bonus special ― we’d also swing by Leon’s, Milwaukee’s 1940s-era frozen custard stand upon which the fictitious Al’s Diner from “Happy Days” was based. I'd been there once before and was reminded, this time, of what a beautiful canvas it presents: all kinds of people, car culture, inexpensive prices, and delicious and sweet frozen custard. (Rollover above photo for a peek at the employees, their attire, and the cone-making that goes down on a typical summer Sunday evening.)
For pizza, which is the primary subject of this post, we went to Maria’s, a pizza business that dates back to 1957.
I had read Adam Kuban’s 2009 review of Maria’s on the “Slice” blog and, based on what he wrote and the pictures he’d posted, I knew here was where I wanted to go.
(Sister-in-law had proposed a place called Zaffiro’s, which was also on my short list. But when I learned that Zaffiro’s is a movie theatre place where you eat the pizza in the theatre while watching a movie, I had to veto. Interesting concept, I thought, but I wanted old school Milwaukee.)
(It turns out, actually, that Zaffiro’s is an old school place. The original location is owned by members of the founding family. Apparently a name-sell along the lines of the one negotiated by New York’s Patsy’s Pizza must have gone down. Next time I’m in Wisconsin it’ll be the original Zaffiro’s.)
Part of the sign at Maria's is equipped with motion-neon,
but Milwaukee won't allow its use because of the shop's "highway" location.
So, Maria’s. Any mere mortal would fall in love with Maria’s as soon as they see the signage outdoors. In New York, most of the signs like these were torn down in the ‘90s. But then ― for those of you superheroes who can stand strong and firm on evaluating a place for the pizza alone in the face of such excellent signage, I dare you to stand strong on your pillar of pizza-importance once you enter this place. You can’t. Or I should say, please don’t (and if you have no idea what I’m talking about, and how place matters as much as food, then please read this recent post about my time last summer in Calabria, Italy).
Because when you enter Maria’s, with its festive light-strings arcing from the ceiling, its mostly-over-40 personnel, and the abundance of religious images and iconography that hogs up every available space along the walls ― and in the glass enclosure below the pay counter ― and on the outside, below one of the amazing signs ― well if you don’t fall in love from these details right away, then perhaps you should reevaluate your priorities.
The imagery doesn’t end with the signs and religious icons. It also factors large when it comes to the pizza itself. These pizzas are oblong ― actually rectangular with rounded corners ― and when they’re delivered to your table, they extend well beyond the edges of the trays upon which they’re served.
I asked Bonnie (daughter of the original Maria; she’s the amazing blond woman in some of the photos) why Maria’s doesn’t use bigger trays. Bigger trays cost a lot, she told me.
I realize now that when I asked her that question that I still didn’t get it. Why should they change this? If the pizza happens to droop over the edge, then it droops over the edge. End of story. (Or is it? I have since reflected on the droopage and have come to realize that the charm of pizza overflow may carry one single liability: oil. More on this below.)
Pizza burst onto the US foodscape big time in the 1950s and I imagine several original spots still remain in many American towns. This should be a dining category all on its own: “Authentic ‘40s-‘60s Pizzerias.” To qualify, a shop must be the same as it was, both in decor and in pizza.
I should tip my hat at this point to Santillo’s, in Elizabeth, NJ ― five minutes from the Goethals Bridge. Santillo's offers an era-by-era menu of pizza and thus functions as a no-frills archive for styles of pizza from different points in time. See his menu here (pretty awesome-cool, but please note: there is no seating at Santillo's.)
Ah la la, back to Maria’s. The decor, the owner, the style and shape of the pizzas, the exquisite quality of the sausage (I'll say it again, the exquisite quality of the sausage!) ― and their method for applying it to pizzas ― all collude to make going there worthwhile. I loved it. (Click the top photo for a video of sausage pizza making at Maria's, or here for a larger copy of it.)
My wife’s brother Peter expressed jealousy about the pizza he witnessed at a neighboring table. He thought that the neighbor’s pizza’s ends (which also extended well beyond the tray) stood more erect than ours. Clearly, he had pie envy.
For sure, the best part of this pizza is its perimeter. The interior squares became soggy on the bottom and oily on top, perhaps due to the slope created by the pizza not fitting into the tray. But those perimeter squares with sausage? Great.
Upon reflection on the superiority of the perimeter slices and how these pizzas were shaped like elongated rectangles with rounded corners, I felt obliged to do a calculation based on the following question: if the edge of a pizza pie is the best part, does making the pizza rectangular yield extra perimeter? The answer is yes.
Here’s the math:
A large size pizza at Maria’s is 18” x 14” This gives the pizza a total area of 252 square inches and a perimeter of 64”.
Employing the equation for the area of a circle, Area = π r2, we discover that a round pizza with the same amount of square inches (252) must have a radius of 8.96”.
We then use the equation for a circle’s circumference, Circumference = 2π r, to determine that its perimeter is 56.26”.
Thus, with area set as a constant at 252 square inches, a rectangular pizza has about 7.75 extra inches of perimeter. At Maria’s, this means more-better-more-crispy.
(I’ve forgone consideration of the rounded corners on these pies, but I suspect that they would add to the perimeter value. Any takers on this math challenge?)
I should note that that the pricing of Maria's pizzas is a little odd — and to be honest, it rendered the inlaws rather flummoxed. The menu contains certain combinations of cheese (which is the name for what we east-coasters call “plain” pizza), pepperoni, and sausage — and in addition, it intermingles the terms “Supreme” and “Special” with single or double asterisk notations, about which one must look to the key at the bottom for definitions (see menu here).
The point is, large pies cost only $1.25 more than small ones. Puzzling? Not really. It leaves us with a simple choice: get the beyond-the-tray large, for a higher value pie; or get the slopeless and less soggy small, for more even distribution of the oil.
So there you have it. Milwaukee pizza. I wish Maria’s had had beer and that I hadn’t devoted all of my non-eating time there to taking notes and photos for this blog piece. Because then, I’m pretty sure, if there had been beer there would have been Leinie’s, and if there had been Leinie’s — and if I had had more time —then I know for a fact that we would have played euchre.
Maria's Pizza. 5025 West Forest Home Avenue, Milwaukee, WI. Tel. 414-543-4606. Map Maria's. Hours: Tuesday - Sunday 4 pm - 10 pm (closed Monday).