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A pepperoni, cheese and sausage pizza - also called The Cranky - from Cranky Al's.
A pepperoni, cheese and sausage pizza - also called The Cranky - from Cranky Al's.
Rick called Cranky Al's garlic bread "among the best" he's had on his pizza questing.
Rick called Cranky Al's garlic bread "among the best" he's had on his pizza questing.
The Susie's Special, featuring baby organic spinach, ricotta and fresh garlic over mozzarella and romano cheese.
The Susie's Special, featuring baby organic spinach, ricotta and fresh garlic over mozzarella and romano cheese.

In search of the perfect pizza: Cranky Al's

My first experience with Cranky Al’s, 6901 W. North Ave., was during the Chili’n on the Ave event in Wauwatosa a few years back. Since then, I’ve been hearing about their pizza and their doughnuts – the crullers in particular.

I finally got to try the famous cruller when a friend brought a box of Cranky Al’s doughnuts to another friend’s house for brunch. I liked it, but since I don’t drink coffee, I didn’t get to enjoy it properly, at least that’s what my friends told me.

A few months ago, I was with friends at Camp Bar in Wauwatosa, and we ordered a couple of pizzas. Camp Bar in Wauwatosa serves Cranky Al’s pizza, but my friends told me they preferred the pizza at Cranky Al’s. I thought the pizza at Camp Bar was pretty good with a nice thin and crispy crust. If my friends like the pizza at Cranky Al’s better, then I really needed to try it.

We agreed that night to schedule a visit to Cranky Al’s soon and made that happen a few weeks ago. My friends were regulars, so the general manager came over to greet them, and I was introduced.

The general manager is Joey Carioti, the nephew of owners Alex ("Al") and Susie Brkich. After graduating college four years ago and returning from a back-packing trip through Europe, Carioti was asked to help his aunt and uncle for a couple of weeks. He grew to love the business so much, he is still there after almost four years and has no plans to leave any time soon.

A summary of the story that Carioti shared with me explains that Al Brkich worked at a bakery in Wauwatosa after a stint as a crab cake specialist with Crabby Al’s. Susie Brkich wanted to open a coffee shop and told Al she wanted him to make doughnuts for the coffee shop since he knew the bakery business.

He was reluctant and said he would consider it if they got "a sign." Shortly after that, they assisted a motorist and were offered a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts as a form or gratitude. That was "the sign" they needed, and Cranky Al’s d…

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National Pizza's Meat Madness pizza on its original hand-tossed thin crust.
National Pizza's Meat Madness pizza on its original hand-tossed thin crust.

In search of the perfect pizza: National Pizza Pub and Grille

The lower level of the Best Western Woods View Inn is home to National Pizza Pub and Grille, located at 5501 W. National Ave. I drive past it almost daily.

The space most recently held a restaurant called Crazy Chef, but changes in management and philosophy resulted in the hotel’s chief engineer Josh Fritz and director of operations Eric Unmouth partnering to turn the restaurant into a successful venture.

What’s different now versus the last restaurant? The hotel has retained ownership of the space as opposed to leasing the space out; therefore, the restaurant has a vested interest in the success of the restaurant.

Fritz started his position just over a year ago, while Unmouth started two months prior. They took over the restaurant space in June, received a capital contribution from the hotel for renovations and opened the doors in October.

Fritz is from Milwaukee, while Unmouth is originally from Marquette, Mich. Unmouth helped open several Italian restaurants and pizzerias. He and Fritz collaborated on the menu and recipes. Many of the recipes have been created through trial and error.

The menu consists of starters, wings, burgers, salads, sandwiches, calzones, pizza and a fish fry served on Fridays and Saturdays featuring cod, walleye, shrimp and combo dinner options.

Pizzas come in 10-, 12-, or 14-inch thin or hand tossed crusts, which are made from scratch and priced at $5, $6.50 and $8, respectively, for a cheese pizza. Additional toppings range from $1 to $2.50.

Aside from the more traditional toppings, National Pizza Pub and Grille also offers feta cheese crumbles, green olives, jalapenos, sun dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives, sauerkraut, turkey, corned beef and roast beef.

They also differentiate themselves from most other pizzerias by offering different crust and sauce options. Crust options feature garlic, ranch, butter or a Cajun crust for a $1 upcharge.

Different sauces are also available at no extra charge and include ranch, barbecue, 1,000…

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The control pizza: A cheese, sausage and pepperoni.
The control pizza: A cheese, sausage and pepperoni. (Photo: Rick Rodriguez)
The Carbonara pizza from SALA, one of the finest the author has tasted on his search.
The Carbonara pizza from SALA, one of the finest the author has tasted on his search. (Photo: Rick Rodriguez)

In search of the perfect pizza: SALA

A friend introduced me to SALA, located at 2611 E. Hampshire St., three or four years ago. At that time, it was still known as Sala da Pranzo. I was looking for a place to host a group dinner, and my friend was related to the owners, siblings Teresa, Tony and Peter Balistreri.

Our group dinner was a great success. All of the food was excellent, and we were able to try their pizza, which was a new menu item at the time.

Teresa and Tony Balistreri worked together in restaurants for several years and decided they wanted to open their own. Sala da Pranzo opened in 2001, and their brother Peter joined them after completing culinary school around three years ago. In 2012, they changed the name to SALA as part of their plan to remodel and revitalize the restaurant and menu.

SALA’s dinner menu includes starters featuring grilled zucchini and a risotto of the day, as well as salads and entrees such as seafood pasta, chicken marsala, saltimbocca, salmon and tenderloin.

The lunch menu features paninis, Italian beef, and a meatball sub, as well as an abbreviated offering of salads and entrees from the dinner menu. Pizzas are available for lunch and dinner.

The pizza menu offers two crust sizes: 10-inch and 14-inch, although the actual crust sizes may vary a bit. On my visit, the 10-inch was closer to 11 inches and the 14 was closer to 13 inches. All crusts are hand-tossed, and a double crust can be ordered for an additional $1.50 for the 10-inch pie and $2.75 for the 14-inch pie.

SALA also offers a 10-inch gluten free crust, made locally by Schroeter’s Gluten Free Bakeshop, for an additional $5.

Cheese pizzas start at $10 for the 10-inch and $14 for the 14-inch. Additional toppings are $1 to $2.25 for traditional toppings – such as sausage, pepperoni, artichoke and anchovies – and $1.50 to $2.75 for gourmet toppings like prosciutto, pancetta, goat cheese, Boursin cheese and Kalamata olives.

Specialty pizzas range from $12.50 for a 10-inch Papa Tony’s, topped wit…

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The meat lovers pizza from Brian's.
The meat lovers pizza from Brian's.
The gourmet pizza, which tasted good from what Rick could sample.
The gourmet pizza, which tasted good from what Rick could sample.

In search of the perfect pizza: Brian's

I can’t recall how I heard about Brian’s, located at 924 E. Rawson Ave. in Oak Creek, but I think it came up in a Google search and was highly rated by its customers.

I was told the restaurant has had several names over the years, but it became Brian’s around four years ago when current owner Arian Abazi took over.

Brian’s has a family restaurant feel to it with diner-style counter seating and a dining room filled with booths and tables featuring green vinyl chairs and benches, contrasted by a patterned, burgundy carpet.  

The menu provides something for everyone, including chicken, seafood, pasta, sandwiches, burgers, comfort food, pizza and breakfast – which I found interesting considering they don’t open until 11 a.m. every day.

A white board next to the host stand listed the specials for the day – such as shrimp risotto, barbecue pulled pork, Ole burger, penne porcini, and chicken parmigiana – ranging from $7.50 to $8.95, plus soup and fries or garlic bread.

Brian’s pizzas are available on a "thin and crispy" crust or a "thick and crispy" crust. Crust sizes include 10, 12, 14 and 16 inches, as well as a 16x32 party pizza. Cheese pizzas range from $6.50 to $20.95 for the party pizza, while additional toppings range from $1 to $3 each.

Regular toppings include broccoli, jalapenos and anchovies, in addition to the more common offerings. Specialty toppings include chicken, shrimp, bleu cheese, fresh basil, double crust and double cheese.

Specialty pizzas include the supreme, meat lovers, garden pizza, gourmet pizza, chicken alfredo and the chef’s special, topped with sausage, mushrooms and onions.

We started with a side order of homemade meatballs, and I’m glad we did because we waited almost 40 minutes for our first pizza. The side of meatballs was only $1.49 and included four meatballs around an inch and a half in diameter, sprinkled with parmesan cheese and sitting in a bowl of delicious house-made marinara sauce.

Our server made i…

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