Sunday, April 25, 2010

Maria's Pizza: The Quintessential Milwaukee Experience

I really owe the folks at Maria's an apology: on Friday, February 12th of this year, we visited, ate, laughed, took all of our obnoxious pictures, and I told the owner that the review would be posted in a week.

Well, dear readers, you're probably all familiar with how Eating Milwaukee goes on hiatus from time to time, so this shouldn't be a surprise to you. But for the folks at Maria's, if you're out there, I'm sorry... this is a long, long time coming!

So, with my groveling aside, let's talk Pizza, shall we?

Everyone in this city has a favorite pizza. That's fine. I'm not here to tell you that your favorite should be Maria's, any more than I'm here to tell you that Coke is better than Pepsi, or that Toyotas probably shouldn't be on your to-buy list. I'll leave that to the more (annoying) opinionated folks in the media. No, my job is not to inform you of what your opinion should be, rather, give you some options you may not have considered. I'm sure Maria's should be on that list.

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool North Sider, having been born and raised in the venerable Washington Heights neighborhood  (a point I think I've belabored in previous reviews). However, now in my third year of South-Side living, I've had to leave my North Side ways behind. I've had to branch out. I don't order Marco's every week like I used to.

When I was young, pizza was a treat, and it never came from a chain. No, never Pizza Hut (my mom thought the crust was too greasy, I agree). No Dominos (I think we all agreed the old mascot was creepy, and yes, the crust did taste like cardboard), nor Papa John's, which wasn't even in town at that point. It came from little, hole-in-the-wall pizza places like Hups, or Pete's. Hups is apparently still in business, Pete's went defunct a long, long time ago, though I still have vivd memories of the dark, dank dining room on 74th and Capitol, the small, visible kitchen with the prominently featured sheeter, and the frosted red plastic drink glasses. Oh, the memories!

Well, all of that came flooding back the first time I ever went to Maria's. It's like Déjà Vu all over again. Bright, Googie-styled neon signs out front, red plaid vinyl table covers, wood-paneled walls festooned with religious paint-by-numbers paintings... it's all there. Granted, Pete's didn't have such an extensive collection of art, but that's why Maria's is better. Clearly.

The concept at Maria's is a simple one: either get your pizza to-go, or sit down, and plan on sharing some space in the dining room. This is not an elaborate system. Pizzas are ordered on the size system, which is to say, Huge, Gargantuan, and Oh-God-Is-That-What-We-Ordered. Expect that, with the popularity of the restaurant, you may have a little wait ahead of you before your food is served. That's okay, because it gives you time to appreciate the dense and ever-changing décor of the dining room. You can come back every day of the week, and you'll still feel like Howard Carter, unearthing a painting you didn't know was there. 

The pizza is served in the "Milwaukee Party-Cut Style," which is to say an anomalous, amoeba-shape pie cut into rectilinear slabs. I like this -- I've always thought round pizza cut into pie-slices seems a little hard to eat. I appreciate the tradition, I just don't adore it. No, I was raised on Party-Cut, and I relish the finer points of it. First, the slices are more manageably sized, and easier to pick up, should you want to forego the knife and fork approach. Second, they're easier to roll in a pizza-burrito should you be one of those who has to order every topping on the menu. Third, not every piece is an end-piece, which should please non-end-piece fans, and cause those who love the crust to sweat a little... you're now in competition with everyone else at the table for those few, proud outer slices!

We started our meal with an order of garlic bread, which really speaks for itself. 

Simple, but sublime. Crispy on the edges, chewy inside, with just enough butter and garlic to let you know it's there. Not swimming, not overly oily, not really anything crazy -- just traditional, done-right garlic bread. Nope, the main attraction here is the pizza. And oh, what a pie:

You may notice that the pizza is hanging off the edges of the pan. This was no in error. The "Large" tends to roam where it wants to, and usually this involves flopping over the sides of the half-sheet. This alone makes me love the pie. And we're not even to the tasting portion...

We ordered a large sausage, onion, mushroom -- straightforward, but such a classic combination. There is something about the way Maria's sausage comes together with their cheese blend, perfectly seasoned, never-too-sweet sauce, and crisp crust that just makes magic. Say what you will about thin crust pizza, but Maria's has the recipe, and I haven't found anything quite like it yet.

The crust is exceptional: cracker thin, super crispy around the edges, just a bit forgiving in the center. The flavor is perfect, with that little bit of deck-oven-doneness that takes a pizza from just, "eh," to "aha!" The sauce is perfectly well balanced, a little spice, a little tart, a little sweet, a little salty. But everything in moderation, yet there's enough of it so that you don't forget it. 

I will say, our 'shrooms were, I believe,  the canned variety, which always makes me think of a Pennsylvania Dutchman can that used to live in our pantry as a child. No one dared actually use it... the thought of brined, canned fungus always kind of freaked me out. Those limp, leathery slices of 'shrooms seemed so sad, so lifeless. I sort of wished that the mushrooms on our pizza were fresh, but I guess you can't argue with half a century of tradition. 

Which is really the crux of Maria's. We go there because the pizza is awesome, but I really believe we keep coming back because of the people. The owners have been there every time I have, running between the tables, doling out pizza, bread, and pitchers of soda like it's going out of style. They are a force of nature, and while I will spare you the back story on the restaurant (you'll have to go in and read the back of the menu for that, or better yet, ask!), it is a heartwarming tale that brought them to this point, although punctuated, as they always are, with adversity. 

And that's what makes Maria's such a jewel: a tiny, hole-in-the-wall pizza joint cranking out awesome pies the old-fashioned way, with no glitzy toppings, no hip soundtrack or décor (although I would be willing to bet we could call the dining room Hipster Chíc, which says something about youth culture...), and no pretense. 

I will keep coming back to Maria's, as long as they see fit to stay open (and with business the way it is, I can't imagine why they wouldn't!). I like eating at restaurants with great food, but I love it when that food is the restauranteur's passion, and their lifeblood, and I can't think of any establishment that better embodies this than Maria's. 

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A 
It's crowded, loud, chaotic, and an acid-soaked sea of color and paintings of the Christ. You'll absolutely love it or it'll drive you bonkers. I think it's wonderful.

Prices: A-
Prices for a large pie are pretty much in line with other family-run pizza places. 

Service: B
Being as busy as they are, don't be offended if you're not waited on hand-and-foot. You'll get your pie, just calm down.

The Food: A
Fantastic, true-t0-life Milwaukee pizza. If you're looking for one of the last of an era, Maria's is it!

The Details:

Maria's Pizzaria
5025 W. Forest Home Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53219
(414) 543-4606

Maria's Pizzaria on Urbanspoon


  1. Pete's is still around, actually. They've moved from Capitol, to 84th and Lisbon. There's a few of us who will go there after conferences and such.

    Personally, Pizza always tastes better from non-chain places, but that's just me. :)

  2. The Large S,M,O (Sausage, Mushroom,Onion) is pretty good. If you are wondering what the entire menu looks like, you can view it here.