By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published May 21, 2012 at 9:01 AM

As often happens, Milwaukee was behind the curve on something – the arrival of pizza-by-the-slice restaurants. I was eating cheese slices in mid-town Manhattan in 1969, long before Sbarro, a national chain, began showing up in local mall food courts offering wedges of thin crust pizza.

At about the same time, overdone, cardboard-tasting, pizza-like food objects began sitting for hours under heat lamps in convenience store gas stations. They are even less appetizing than the dried-up wieners that rotate like logs on those little metal rollers.

It took way too long for pizza slices to break out of the malls and gas stations, and onto the streets of Milwaukee. But we now have Ian's, Classic Slice, Times Square and Brick 3, and we can positively say they have more than made up for the lost time. You can buy simple cheese and tomato sauce slices if you like, but imaginations have gone bonkers at the local slice joints, and we are light years beyond the East Coast in offering exotic and downright wacky toppings.

You can sometimes order a wedge of fish fry pizza at Ian's. It has a tartar sauce base, includes tilapia, lettuce and mozzarella cheese, and is available most often in Lent.

Staying nautical, Times Square Bistro & Pizzeria has done a smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers slice.

Brick 3 sells a wedge topped with sliced baked potato, bacon, scallions, cheddar and mozzarella. Classic Slice has a vegan offering that features a curry sauce with broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, tofu and tomatoes. It's called the Anne Curry.

"It's insane out here," Staten Island native Demetri Itsines says about slice toppings in Milwaukee. He is co-owner and general manager of Brick 3 Pizza. "If you put Fritos on pizza in New York, the customers would throw them back at you," he adds.

Well, Ian's did just that. Chili cheese pizza, topped with Fritos, was a monthly special in April, and managing partner Lexy Frautschy reports it sold well. No Fritos were flung at the staff.

Times Square chef and owner Sean Henninger believes the pizza topping possibilities are nearly endless. "Pizza has all of the elements of a sandwich. It is bread and stuff," he says.

"The crust is just the method of holding everything together." He once offered a peanut butter and jelly pizza – just PB&J plus crust. "It was a dessert pizza," he says with a smile.

Pasta and potatoes are surprisingly popular on slices here. Mac and cheese is Ian's signature slice, and wild mushroom penne alfredo was a weekly special earlier this month. The restaurant regularly tops slices with french fries, and wide lasagna noodles have a following among customers.

It addition to its popular baked potato topping, Brick 3 has a mostaccioli meatball slice, and it also offers lasagna and mac and cheese wedges.

The Classic Slice version of macaroni and cheese pizza adds Panko bread crumbs. "They give it a little extra crunch," co-owner Marisa Lange explains.

Times Square periodically offers a meat loaf pizza slice that includes mashed potatoes with meat loaf chunks, cheddar cheese and a bit of barbecue sauce. If the idea of mashed potatoes on pizza sounds gross or leaden, think again. It is surprisingly light and tasty.

Each restaurant goes about concocting its unconventional slices differently. Madison-based Ian's has a chef-run commissary in its hometown, and he comes up with some of the ideas. But staff and customers have also contributed to new and unusual topping combinations.

Managing partner Frautschy is proud of the gyro slice, which consists of gyro meat, cucumber sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion and mozzarella. He says the owner of an East Side gyro restaurant orders it, adding, "If he likes it, we must be doing something right."

Have you ever heard of rice on pizza? Ian's does it with its burrito slice, including black beans, cheddar cheese and sour cream.

At Brick 3, co-owner Itsines and his business partner, Tan Lo, put their heads together to come up with winning slices. The most popular is a barbecue chicken and bacon, with cheddar, mozzarella and barbecue sauce. A new addition, chicken Philly, with grilled chicken, mushrooms, green peppers and mozzarella, is selling well.

All of the slice restaurants sell at least a few non-pizza items, and Times Square has the most extensive menu. Henninger alone creates the unusual pizza topping combinations, and he says those are often inspired by whatever he has on hand.

Pork belly confit, pear and gorgonzola with balsamic vinegar, and fig with prosciutto have been daily specials. Henninger shops the farmers' markets, and he has been lately using ramps, wild leeks that are harvested in the spring.

Ramps have also appeared at Classic Slice's locations in Bay View and on east North Avenue. Co-owner Lange, her business partner Jason Zbichorski, and the restaurants' managers concoct slices of the week that reflect the goal of emphasizing local and seasonal food.

"We got a huge crop of ramps and put it on everything we could," Lange says. Classic Slice also made a large purchase of pork from a local farm and began offering a wedge that features it slow roasted with broccoli, feta cheese, and an orange-oregano gremolata. This is serious foodie pizza.

Lange's pizzerias have developed a gluten-free crust that has earned the gratitude of customers with a wheat allergy.

Not surprisingly, male diners at all of the slice shops favor meat toppings. Classic Slice does very well with the Meatallica, a wedge crowned with meatballs, pepperoni, sausage and bacon. Another offering, the Baconizer, is also a big seller.

Females are much more likely to choose a vegetarian slice, although non-meat sales to men increase during Lent, according to Brick 3's Itsines.

Ian's and Brick 3 are in the middle of busy bar districts and stay open very late on weekends – Ian's until 3 a.m. and Brick 3 until 4. Sales of the weird and wacky slices increase proportionately to the time and the number of wasted customers walking through the door.

Times Square's Henninger has observed that day of the week also affects how adventurous people are with their pizza toppings. They work up their courage as the week progresses.

He is more likely to schedule the duck gumbo slice on Thursday. Don't laugh. He has already tried it.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.