Daniel Zemans, our man in Chicago, heads north this week and checks in with a piece of pizza intel from Milwaukee. Daniel also blogs about Chicagoland pizza with his friends on the Chicago Pizza Club blog. —The Mgmt.
"The cheese is, as you would expect in Wisconsin, plentiful and of very good quality. The layer of mozzarella is three or four times thicker than the crust."
On Saturday, I made my first trip to Wisconsin since I watched Carlos Zambrano throw a no-hitter in September. As enjoyable as that visit was, since the stadium was filled almost exclusively with Cubs fans, it was a little like a vacation at an all-inclusive resort in a foreign country—no real contact with anything local other than those paid to be there. On this trip, I embraced local tradition, and in Milwaukee that involves copious amounts of food. The culinary tour ended with pizza, but it involved so much more.
The first stop, around 3:30 p.m., was at Usinger's Sausage, an almost 130-year-old sausage shop in downtown Milwaukee. The purpose of that visit was to pick up some fresh brats, Polishes, and other sausages for the next day’s Super Bowl, but there was no sense in walking into Usinger’s and not getting a couple of the approximately 25 different meats from the summer sausage/salami family and eating them immediately. The Hickory Twig was among the best beef salamis I’ve ever had, and the Landjaeger, a pork stick overloaded with garlic and caraway seeds was outstanding as well.
Zaffiro’s Pizza & Bar
1724 N Farwell Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53202 (map); (414) 289-8776
Pizza Style: Very crisp, very thin
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Milwaukee institution serves up cracker thin crust with excellent fresh sausage
Price:14” pizza with one topping and two Sprecher root beers for $19.55
Our next visit was Kopps's, a stop I’ve made virtually every time I’ve ever gone to Milwaukee. Kopp’s serves up the best frozen custard I've ever had. Ted Drewes in St. Louis is close, and has a better ambiance, but for custard quality, I have yet to find something better than Kopp’s. And of course, it would be pointless to set foot in Kopp's and not get a butter burger. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a butter burger involves a large, freshly griddled burger that has a generous pat of butter put on top after it’s done cooking, leaving the lucky customer with a buttery, juicy burger that has crisp deliciousness all around the edges. We did exercise some restraint by splitting the burger so as not to ruin our appetite for the rest of the day.
The third stop was about a half hour west of Milwaukee at Delafield American Legion Post 196, where we attended the 82nd Annual Coon Feed. We got there around 5:30 p.m., half an hour after the first raccoon was served, and the Legion Hall was packed and there were at least 40 people in line, about half of whom were happily waiting outside in the balmy (for Wisconsin in January) 25-degree weather. For a mere $10, I got a plate full of cole slaw, stuffing, sauerkraut, and, of course, raccoon. Sliced turkey, bread, and mashed potatoes were also available but, again, restraint was the order of the day.
Turns out raccoon is pretty good. The dark, tender meat was very heavily seasoned and was falling off the bone; it was not gamey at all. Not surprisingly, it did not really taste like any other meat I’d ever had. If I had to pick, I’d compare it to a cross between corned beef and pot roast. I’d eat raccoon again, but I probably won’t drive all the way to Delafield to do it.
We then took a little break from eating, stopped off at the Water Street Brewery for some outstanding vanilla-heavy homemade root beer, and then headed over to the Bradley Center to watch the Bucks beat the Hawks. After the game, it was about 10:30 p.m. and time for Milwaukee’s most famous pizza.
Liberio ("Bobby") and John Zaffiro, first-generation Italian Americans whose parents were from Sicily, first entered the food service industry when Bobby opened Rock-a-Bye Tap in 1951. There, they followed the lead of a number of other bars and started serving pizza to go along with their beer. This fine Midwestern tradition was also evident in Chicago at places like Home Run Inn (reviewed here for Slice). Five years later, Bobby opened Zaffiro’s at 1724 North Farwell Avenue, and they have not moved since.
Initially, Zaffiro’s was predominantly a bar with just a few tables. But when the barber shop next door closed in 1970, Zaffiro’s more than doubled its size and the barber shop became a dining room. John continued to make the pizzas until he retired in 1988. Bobby died a year later, but the restaurant remains in the family and uses the same recipes that Milwaukeeans have enjoyed for more than half a century.
The most notable part of Zaffiro’s pizza is the crust, which is incredibly thin and apparently has as little water in it as possible. The only other time I’ve had pizza crust this dry was at Pizza Capri (reviewed here), but it's not fair to compare the two pizzas. Capri’s dry, tasteless crust was so thick that it overwhelmed the pizza. Zaffiro’s crust, while dry and far from flavorful, did get a little bit of browning from the gas oven. More important, it serves its function of supporting the cheese, sauce and toppings without taking away any of their flavors. Also, Capri's thin crust pizza was just bad, while Zaffiro's serves up a very good pie that many consider great.
The cheese is, as you would expect in Wisconsin, plentiful and of very good quality. The layer of mozzarella is three or four times thicker than the crust. The slightly sweet sauce is heavily seasoned, particularly with oregano. There is enough sauce on the pie that it was noticeable in every bite, which I appreciated. The big hunks of fresh sausage are heavy on the garlic and very light on the fennel. As I am a big fan of fennel, it was not my favorite, but it was very good and was clearly high quality. For decades, another Zaffiro family member had a butcher shop nearby and he supplied the pizzeria with all of their sausage. He retired a few years ago, but Zaffiro’s kept the recipe and found a different local butcher to make the same sausage that customers have come to expect.
And in the coming years, fans of Zaffiro’s may be able to get their fix a lot more easily. While Zaffiro’s home page boasts of more than 50 years of tradition as something that “can’t be bought or traded,” recent events prove otherwise. Last year, the Marcus Corporation bought the rights to Zaffiro’s name and recipe. While the original location will continue to be owned and operated by the family, Marcus will have everything else.
The company had a Zaffiro's Pizza Cafe in the Majestic Theater just outside of Milwaukee before last year’s deal. Now, rights in hand, Marcus plans to open more concession-type locations soon, something that will not be difficult since they own more than 50 movie theaters in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. There were also plans last summer when the deal was made to open three to five restaurants in the Milwaukee area within two years, but given the current economic climate, I suspect there will be some delay in that expansion. Marcus also is considering offering franchising opportunities.
When I planned my 12-hour quest for obesity in Milwaukee, my hope was that my final destination, Zaffiro’s, would be the highlight of the day. Unfortunately it wasn’t close. That’s not to say it was bad pizza. I did like it and would be more than happy to eat it again. There was a lot of flavor and the extremely crisp crust was something new for me. If I lived a block away, I would eat it regularly; but it’s just not worth an hour and a half drive. That said, if they put some raccoon meat on top, I might change my mind.
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