Milwaukee-Style Pizza Is Real, No Matter What People Say

Milwaukee is famous for its beer culture, dairy products, and Friday fish fries. However, a hidden gem lies amidst the breweries and cheese factories: Milwaukee-style pizza. Now, I'll admit Milwaukee isn't celebrated for its pizza, but residents and tourists are drawn to the allure of its provisions, even to the point of it being ranked among the best pizza cities in the U.S. As someone who has lived in Milwaukee for my entire adult life, I've determined our pizza warrants better recognition — at least, a nibble more than it currently gets. Milwaukee-style pizza doesn't share the same international fame as the icons from New York, Chicago, or Detroit, but it holds its own with a recipe that reflects the heart of the Midwest.

The debate around Milwaukee-style pizza's status is an uphill battle. Some argue it isn't a distinct variety due to its lower recognition than the acclaimed regional pizza styles. Some claim it's merely a ripoff of other cities'. As Chicago food reporter Steve Dolinsky told The Takeout, "There's no such thing ... They're just hyperlocalizing Midwestern tavern pie." Well, Mr. Dolinsky, you're certainly entitled to your opinion, but you're sadly mistaken. Milwaukee-style pizza is positively something special, with rich history and distinctive characteristics deserving of their own spotlight.

What makes Milwaukee-style pizza unique?

Let's start with the foundation: the crust. Unlike the deep-dish wonders of Chicago or the foldable slices of NYC, Milwaukee-style pizza boasts an ultra-thin, "tavern-cut" crust. The delicate base, which is flattened as low as 1.25 millimeters, offers a satisfying crunch. In Brew City, we slice things up a little differently — literally. In lieu of triangular portions, Milwaukee-style pizza is cut into squares, just like our neighbors in Chicago, St. Louis, and the Ohio Valley.  Furthermore, the pie is sometimes oval-shaped rather than presented in a conventional circular form.

Next up: the sauce. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I've always adored the thick layers of smoky-sweet sauce adjacent to all of that gooey, pliable cheese. Milwaukee-style pizza, though, keeps it simple with a light, tomato-based sauce that flavors the crust without overwhelming the situation. This subtle touch lets the quality of the ingredients shine through.

Milwaukee-style pizza stays true to its Heartland roots with robust toppings. A highly endorsed combination is the "SMO" — a classic trio of sausage, mushrooms, and onions. The fusion of crispy crust, melty Wisconsin cheese, smoky sausage, earthy mushrooms, and pungent yet sweet onions is undeniably comforting. There's also the "SMOP" — all of the above plus pepperoni. When you add the cured meat to the mix, you've got yourself a delicious union of spicy and savory.

A cuisine devoured across Milwaukee

Milwaukee-style pizza is, by no means, a brand-new invention. The Caradaro Club is widely considered the birthplace of Milwaukee-style pizza. The original location, co-founded by John Caravella and Joe Todaro, opened in 1945 and remained in business until 1978, when the building was — sadly — destroyed by a fire. Although the first Caradaro Club is no longer standing, folks can still get their fix in Milwaukee's Washington Heights neighborhood and in the suburb of West Allis.

Today, several Milwaukee pizzerias offer pies with cracker-thin crusts and quadrilateral slices. Zaffiro's Pizza (an award-winning, family-owned restaurant) has been serving wispy masterpieces for decades. Another hotspot is Lisa's Pizza, an eatery with a menu of exceptionally thin, square-cut 'zas. Fixture Pizza Pub in the Walker's Point neighborhood whips up Milwaukee-style pies named after local bars in addition to various other Italian-inspired meals.

So, if you're craving a mountain of cheese, thick and chewy crust, slices the size of your face, and an abundance of unorthodox toppings, you might want to journey elsewhere for pizza. But if you admire unpretentiousness in your fare, you may need to add a trip to Milwaukee to your bucket list. For those of us who are proud to call this city home, our pizza is a taste of tradition we wouldn't trade for anything — except maybe a basket of cheese curds and an ice-cold beer or two.