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Milwaukee-Style Pizza

October 25, 2019 Prepared By Dax

With all the unique American pizza styles gaining attention, you may wonder if there are any you haven’t heard of. The answer is yes! There are many different and unique styles quietly being served in cities across the country. Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit have specific styles, so it begs the question… Does Milwaukee, a major city in the same geographical area, also have a pizza style? I’ve lived here almost 50 years (minus a brief stint for culinary school), and I can tell you that we may not call it Milwaukee-style, but we do indeed have a unique pizza profile that is uniquely Milwaukeean.

At one-point, Milwaukee was home to three of the top five largest breweries in the country. It even was nicknamed the Munich of the Midwest. Beer became vital to the economy of this city and an extraordinary amount of corner bars popped up to supply the demand for the locally brewed malted beverage. Today, only one of those major breweries remain, but the corner bars that ear marked this golden age of brewing are still present throughout the city. It is in these small corner bars the unique Milwaukee style pizza was developed. Many establishments would offer an honest and inexpensive simply topped thin crust pizza to help keep patrons in their stools and drinking more. These thin crust pizzas became, and still are, referred to as pub pizzas. They have a shared distinct thin crust style and varied but simple topping combinations.

If you saw a pub pizza, you may think it shares visual similarities to today’s frozen pizza, and for good reason. What most may not realize is that southeastern Wisconsin is the birthplace of the frozen pizza. Big names like Tombstone, Jack’s, and Palermo’s all have their roots in this part of Wisconsin. These big frozen pizza brands all started off with humble beginnings as little shops selling premade pizzas to local pubs, and slowly branching into the frozen section of grocery stores. And while there is a lot more competition in today’s Milwaukee for food spend, it is still common for bars to be pizzerias or sell pre-made ones baked in little countertop ovens. So, while Milwaukee style pizza may share roots with frozen pizza, its quality is very different from its frozen relative.

THE BUILD

What are the defining characteristics of pub-style or Milwaukee style pizza? What has to be and what can vary? Do we have specific toppings or preparation methods? These are the vital questions detailed below.

THE DOUGH AND THE CRUST

The dough is normally aged for 8-24 hours in dough balls. Most are stretched to order by a sheeter, but can be hand stretched. This is a basic pizza dough consisting of flour, water, yeast, salt and oil. No spices, herbs or butter here.

The crust is thin—it can be paper thin or up to a quarter-inch, and is a carrier for the toppings. It is little more than stretch and top. It will have yellow cornmeal on the bottom. Since Milwaukee makes it thin and on a fresh dough, cornmeal is needed to prevent the dough from sticking to the counter or oven.

THE OVEN

The dough gets cooked in a deck oven. A normal Milwaukee pizzeria will have a double or triple stacked, gas-powered deck oven, like a Blodgett or Baker’s Prides commercial cooking equipment.

SHAPE

The pie is usually round. There are a few older establishments that do a sheet-pan shape, but they are the outliers in this town.

SAUCE

This will be an Italian seasoned tomato sauce that is lightly sweet and savory with some garlic and oregano notes. The sauce is made from canned puree and is normally not cooked prior to spreading on the pizza.

CHEESE

Nothing fancy here! We want low-moisture, whole milk mozzarella and maybe a little provolone as the base.

TOPPINGS

Again with the nothing fancy.

Vegetables are fresh cut. The exception would be mushrooms, which can be either fresh or canned. California black olives are canned and sliced.

The meat of choice is a fresh Italian sausage that is hand pinched and cooked on the pizza from a raw state. Italian sausage is a Midwest thing. You can sell it anywhere in the region but go outside the market and you can’t give it away. Pepperoni is a popular second main option.

VARIETIES

Milwaukeeans stand by the one thing every pizzeria has and is judged by—the CSMO, otherwise known as cheese, sausage, mushroom and onion. You will find this at every self-respecting Milwaukee pizzeria that doesn’t claim to be something else like a New York or Neapolitan style. It often will be sold under a name like: Milwaukee’s own, the Milwaukee Special, the Special, CSMO, or Milwaukee’s best. 

CUT

Today, pizzas in Milwaukee are cut both in squares and wedges, but square cut method was the standard years ago.

Here is just a small sampling of the places I explored for this post.

PIZZA SHUTTLE

Pizza Shuttle

MILWAUKEE-STYLE

  • Variety: CSMO
  • Build: Crust, sauce, cheese and toppings
  • Crust: Round, very thin, docked, no cornmeal (baked on a conveyor belt), cracker-like
  • Sauce: Tomato-based, a little pasty texture, sweet and very clean (neutral)
  • Cheese: Really good melt, no discernable flavor profile other than whole milk mozzarella
  • Toppings: Fresh mushrooms sliced, fresh Spanish onions sliced, fresh hand-pinched Italian sausage
  • Visit their site

ZAFFIRO’S

Zaffiro's Pizza

MILWAUKEE-STYLE: “The SPECIAL”

  • Variety: The Special (CSMO)
  • Build: Crust, sauce, cheese and toppings
  • Crust: Round, the thinnest crust I have ever seen, docked, no cornmeal, very neutral, cracker like, heavy browning on the edges, very crisp for such a thin crust, and edge is the same thickness
  • Sauce: Tomato-based, used sparingly, very light and clean (neutral)
  • Cheese: Very light amount used, no discernable flavor profile other than whole milk mozzarella
  • Toppings: Fresh mushrooms sliced / canned mushrooms sliced, fresh Spanish onions diced, fresh hand-pinched Italian sausage

PIZZA MAN

OLD SCHOOL THIN CRUST

  • Variety: Spicy lamb sausage
  • Build: Crust, sauce, cheese and toppings
  • Crust: Round, thin-to-medium thickness with a pronounced edge, hand tossed, cornmeal, 24-hour-aged dough and heavy fermented notes
  • Sauce: Tomato-based, very clean (neutral)
  • Cheese: Really good melt, with whole milk mozzarella and goat cheese
  • Toppings: Spicy lamb sausage, dandelion leaves and goat cheese
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