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If you’re a fan of family businesses, thin crust pizzas, excessive holiday decorations, vintage signs and religious paint-by-number art collections, Maria’s Pizza, 5025 W. Forest Home Ave., is the place. (Conversely, if you’re a fan of paying for meals with credit cards or drinking alcohol at mealtime, Maria’s is not the place. The pizzeria only accepts cash and does not have a liquor license.)
In 1957, Maria Traxel opened the first location on 7th and Greenfield with her three children which remained open until she passed away in 1993. Traxel, who was 100 percent Italian, originally wanted to open a spaghetti restaurant, but her customers preferred the pizza.
In 1971, she opened a second – the current – location on Forest Home Avenue. Today, her daughter, Bonnie Crivello, co-owns the restaurant and works regularly as a server. Only Crivello and one other family member remain among a younger, but not any more spry, crew.
Crivello, a platinum blonde always decked out in a red dress and heels, is as popular with customers as the pizza. Kind and personable, Crivello remembers customers old and new – as well as their orders. (During our recent visit, we noticed most of the diners did not need menus.)
"I've been here over 50 years. We have a lot of fun here," says Crivello, wiping her hand on her red dress, leaving a swatch of white flour on her hip.
The menu features appetizers – the breaded mushrooms are our usual go-to – along with salads, fried chicken, pasta dishes and, of course, pizza. Anyone who claims to like pizza (which is everyone?) should try Maria’s pizza, not only because it’s good, but also because it’s unlike any other pie in the city.
The pizzas come in two sizes: a 14-inch circle or an 18-inch rectangle. Toppings are simple and include sausage, pepperoni, onions, mushrooms, black olives and green peppers. The pizzas are served on baking sheets and the edges of the pizza hang over the sides.
The thin crust starts off crispy but becomes softer and softer as the grease from the cheese and toppings soak into it. Often the pizzas are only partially cut, so diners tear off pieces of pizza and fold it over or even roll it up (if the crust is soft enough) and eat it burrito style.
Soda is served by the plastic cup or the pitcher and for decades the house beverage was Black Bear's blue raspberry lemonade soda. However, the local soda company closed last month and so Two Brothers Beverage Co., located in Riverwest, took the blue pop top spot.
Maria's decor includes red-checkered tablecloths, strands of lights, paintings and paint-by-numbers of Jesus and Mary along with framed newspaper stories about the restaurant (longtime Milwaukeeans will appreciate the Art Muscle Magazine with Crivello on the cover.) Around Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Fourth of July, Maria's dons a plethora of holiday decorations, including a talking Santa in December.
Maria’s Pizza is 60 years old this year and not losing steam. It's almost always busy inside the restaurant, especially around "supper time," and the take-out business is impressive. There were at least six people coming in for a pizza or a stack of pizzas during our 45-minute visit on a Wednesday night.
Although chain restaurants took this concept and expanded it, Maria’s is an original. The real deal. A slice of sincerity.
Molly Snyder grew up on Milwaukee's East Side and today, she lives in the Walker's Point neighborhood with her partner and two sons.
As a full time senior writer, editorial manager and self-described experience junkie, Molly has written thousands of articles about Milwaukee (and a few about New Orleans, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston and various vacation spots in Wisconsin) that range in subject from where to get the best cup of coffee to an in-depth profile on the survivors of the iconic Norman apartment building that burned down in the '90s.
She also once got a colonic just to report on it, but that's enough on that.
Always told she had a "radio voice," Molly found herself as a regular contributor on FM102, 97WMYX and 1130WISN with her childhood radio favorite, Gene Mueller.
Molly's poetry, essays and articles appeared in many publications including USA Today, The Writer, The Sun Magazine and more. She has a collection of poetry, "Topless," and is slowly writing a memoir.
In 2009, Molly won a Milwaukee Press Club Award. She served as the Narrator / writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel from 2013-2014. She is also a story slam-winning storyteller who has performed with The Moth, Ex Fabula and Risk!
When she's not writing, interviewing or mom-ing, Molly teaches tarot card classes, gardens, sits in bars drinking Miller products and dreams of being in a punk band again.