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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Sept. 19, 2014

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Sofia's sausage and pepperoni on thick crust.
Sofia's sausage and pepperoni on thick crust. (Photo: Rick Rodriguez)
Sofia's sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms and green peppers on thin crust.
Sofia's sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms and green peppers on thin crust. (Photo: Rick Rodriguez)
Sofia's, formerly Pizza Chef, is owned by Selman "Sal" Ismaili, Sr.
Sofia's, formerly Pizza Chef, is owned by Selman "Sal" Ismaili, Sr. (Photo: Rick Rodriguez)

In search of the perfect pizza: Sofia's Restaurant

I discovered Sofia’s, 7030 W. Lincoln Ave., while exploring Lincoln Avenue in West Allis. I mentioned in a prior blog that this stretch of road had its fair share of pizzerias, and I intend to visit them all eventually. I also discovered that Sofia’s was in the Entertainment Book – bonus!

Most of the history of Sofia’s can be found on their website. To summarize, the current owner, Selman "Sal" Ismaili, Sr., was a baker in Europe during his high school years. When he moved to the states, he wanted to stay in the food industry, so he started with the Pizza Chef in 1982.

In 1983, he and his wife had their first daughter, Sofia, and the restaurant name was changed. In 1986, Sofia’s was expanded to add a full bar and double the seating.

Both of Ismaili’s children went off to college and chose not to work in the restaurant business.

I had the opportunity to meet with Ismaili to learn about the information not covered on the website. He was very friendly and had a big smile while telling me about his story.

The website doesn’t tell you that Ismaili moved here from Europe in 1973. Between 1973 and 1982, he worked in machine shops and restaurants until he bought Pizza Chef in 1982, the same year he got married. Due to his passion for food, he created and developed his own recipes, via trial and error, until he was happy with the results.

Sofia’s has a cozy atmosphere. The entrance brings you into the bar area with the dining room to the left, and the staff is friendly and attentive.

The menu is pretty standard for an Italian restaurant, but also includes a fairly extensive section titled "From the Butcher" which lists various preparations of steak, veal, chicken, pork chops, and ribs.

Sofia’s also offers three to four nightly specials starting as low as $6.95. Specials include pastas, sandwiches, steaks, and a Friday Fish Fry with your choice of fried cod, baked cod, or breaded fried perch.

Sunday night’s specials include an Italian Cheese Steak Pizza. Unfortunately I didn’t visit on a Sunday so I missed that special, but I do hope to return one day to try it.

On my first visit, I ordered a thin crust pizza with sausage, mushroom, pepperoni, and green peppers.

I asked my server if the mushrooms were fresh or canned, and she told me I could choose. Naturally, I chose fresh mushrooms. I know there are some that prefer canned mushrooms, but I prefer the texture, flavor and appearance of fresh mushrooms.

Ismaili takes pride in his recipes, especially the pizza sauce. He tried several combinations of seasoning until he achieved the desired result. The sauce was thick with a bold flavor, one of the better sauces I’ve tasted.

The thin crust had a cracker-like crunch on the slices around the perimeter. The grease from the toppings had their way with the center of the crust and softened it up as expected.

Sofia’s spicy and flavorful sausage and pepperoni have been procured by the same local suppliers for over thirty years. I could really taste the fennel in the sausage, which I typically have not noticed in sausage on a pizza.

The green peppers were cut thicker than I typically find, so if you like green peppers on your pizza, you’ll like these. Personally, I prefer green peppers to be diced finely so that they provide a subtle flavor, as opposed to a dominant flavor which can take away from the sauce and other toppings.

The thick crust pizza on my second visit was hand-tossed, crispy and chewy like a New York Style crust. I was impressed that even the center slices on the 12-inch pie remained crispy.

The sauce seemed to stand out even more on this pie, perhaps because I only ordered my favorite two toppings, sausage and pepperoni.

Ismaili asked his server to bring me a bottle of garlic and chili-flavored olive oil. I poured a little over a pizza slice and loved the added flavor! I also poured some oil on my plate to dip the pizza crust in.

When I asked him where I could find the oil, he suggested the internet but also advised me to mix hot giardiniera with extra virgin olive oil and let it sit for a week to create my own version. That sounded like a great idea. I’ll get on that!

Sofia’s pizzas come on eight, 12, 14, and 16-inch crusts, and you can choose thin crust or thick crust at no extra charge. The eight inch cheese pizza starts at $5.75 and the 16-inch cheese pizza starts at $13.75.

The menu lists a pizza pricing grid for one to four toppings and all four crust sizes, while also listing additional toppings for the 16-inch pie only, such as sliced tomato, ham, shrimp, steak, and anchovies ranging from $4.00 to $7.00 each.

The vegetarian pizza is topped with cheese, mushrooms, onions, green peppers and black olives. Sofia’s Supreme pizza is topped with cheese, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and black olives.

Sofia’s offers a private dining room that accommodates 12, but they’re also willing to make the main dining room available for larger parties.

I struggle to understand how so many Italian restaurants and pizzerias have survived for more than 30 years in this section of West Allis. Perhaps each has its own loyal customer base or perhaps they share the customers.

I only know that I will continue exploring until I’ve tried them all.

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