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Clockwise from top left: You don't see neon signs like this one as much these days, sadly. Maria's dining room is a trip, full of religious iconography, Christmas lights, and those old Tiffany-style lampshades you often find in Midwestern bars of a certain era. (Click top two pictures for larger view.) The "Special": cheese, sausage, mushrooms, and onions.

Maria's Pizza

5025 West Forest Home Avenue, Milwaukee WI 53219 (near S. 51st Street; map); 414-543-4606
The Skinny: Thin- and flaky-crusted, these pizzas are loaded with toppings until they can take no more then served on trays far too small for their cheesy, delicious bounty. Come hungry but not too hungry. Wait time from order is about an hour. You won't go wrong with the "Special" pizza—sausage, mushrooms, and onions
Oven Type: Four Blodgett gas-fired deck ovens
Price: Special, $16.25 for large, $15 small; but, please, just get the large
Notes: Cash only; no delivery; no alcohol, no beer (Yeah, surprising for Milwaukee, right?)
Hours: Tues.–Sun., 4 to 10 p.m.; Sat., 4 to 11 p.m.; closed Mondays

Maria's Pizza is soul food. Not in the traditional sense, of course—there are no collard-green or barbecue pizzas on the menu at this 52-year-old Milwaukee institution.

And while scads of religious iconography hangs on the wood-paneled walls, making oblique reference to the life of the soul, that's only part of it.

Maria's brand of soul derives mostly from the love, hard work, and comfortable familiarity of the second- and third-generation family members who staff the place, roaming the aisles in their red T-shirts, taking orders and bringing hungry Milwaukeeans rectangular trays of oblong pizzas that overhang the serving platters by several inches.

Maria Traxel founded Maria's Pizza in 1957, using her own recipe and roping her three kids—Ronnie, Bonnie, and Mickey—into working in the joint. And work they did. According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, Maria didn't believe in vacations, so when you go, you'll always see a familiar face. I've been going to Maria's off and on since childhood (while visiting family in Milwaukee) and on Saturday night recognized Bonnie Crivello, with her signature blond bouffant and red dress, still roaming the dining room after all these years. Sadly, her sister, Mickey Story, died in 2006. Prior to that, you'd go and your waitress would either be "the blond one" or "the brunette"—or one of Mickey's daughters.

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Bonnie Crivello, daughter of founder Maria Traxel, at the cash register.

Regardless, all waitresses there wear red, Maria's favorite color—and the color of the dining room walls at the original Maria's Pizza on 7th Street and Greenfield. The original closed in 1993, after Maria's death. She had split her daughters between the first and second locations and stipulated that, upon her death, the original be closed so her daughters could work, reunited, at the Forest Home pizzeria.

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Just some of many of Walter Traxel's paint-by-number religious-themed works.

At that time, all the religious paint-by-number pictures, done by Maria's husband, Walter, were transferred to the second location. (On a side note, those paintings were originally meant to be temporary. There was no money to paint the walls when the pizzeria opened in 1953, so Maria covered them with Walter's paintings. After a priest blessed them, she felt it would be bad luck to remove them.)

The Pizza

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We were a party of seven, and, because I was held up as the "pizza expert," my family had me assess the number of pies needed. I figured three large pies of various topping assortments were in order. The pizza at Maria's is cracker-thin, with a flaky almost-pastry-like crust, so you can eat a lot of it. Plus, we had an eighth person we needed to bring pizza back to.

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Maria's pizzas: thin like a razor blade.

It had been a while since my last Maria's trip, and I had forgotten the size of the large pizzas. As we saw nearby tables receive theirs, I began to worry we wouldn't have table space or belly room enough.

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The "Cheese Supreme," seconds after serving. My extended family is unused to the ways of food bloggers and had to be trained to leave the pizza untouched until yours truly could shoot it. I'm guessing they think my job is crazy.

No worries. We made enough of a dent in the first two (a "Special," sausage, mushrooms, and onion; and a pepperoni) that we consolidated them onto one tray within minutes and were able to bring over the third (a "Cheese Supreme," mushrooms, onions, black olives, and green peppers) from a neighboring table we had commandeered.

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Like many Midwestern thin-crust pizzas, the pies at Maria's are sliced "party cut" into a haphazard grid pattern. Depending on topping distribution and whether you get an edge piece, you can either attempt to pick it up or just go at it with a knife and fork. I used a knife and fork for the first couple slices and didn't get a look at the crust until I got my hands on a rim piece.

I hadn't been expecting much in the way of crust color, since this was pizza loaded with cheese and toppings and cooked in a gas oven. But the upskirt shot here reveals a deep-golden-brown crust with lots of texture—surprising for a dough fed through a sheeter.

The ample cheese is of high quality and pulls away in long strings as you eat. The sauce, I have to admit, is difficult to discern among everything going on, but at least it is not oversweet, a fault I've found with much of the Milwaukee pizza I've had.

If you're a pizza snob, the toppings might rub you the wrong way—green peppers instead of roasted reds, canned mushrooms instead of fresh, diced onions instead of nice round rings—but Maria's is something else entirely, and I'm not judging it by New York pizza standards.

It is delicious, reliable, comforting food of the highest order. And on a cold rainy, Saturday in Milwaukee, it was chicken soup for the pizza soul.

Bonus Photographic Outtakes

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