It's certainly no secret, but if you never travel more than a few miles west of the lake shore, then Mama's Italian Cuisine and the attached Papa's Pub, at 7712-18 W. Burleigh St., will be a revelation.
Serving Cooper Park and environs since 1958, the bar, restaurant and carry-out business have flourished under the direction of Tony Pipito, who manages the eatery, and his 31-year-old son Steve, who runs the bar. Pipito purchased the business about 25 years ago when, according to his son, the business was failing.
With a thin-crust pizza to die for, Mama's is easily among the city's top five pizzerie (despite the unfortunate John Gotti photo on the wall). The attention to quality ingredients is what makes Mama's special and the friendly staff, even at the often bustling carry out counter, doesn't hurt either.
"Klement's makes our sausage," says the younger Pipito proudly. "We make our crust every morning and we bake our own bread every day for the garlic bread and sandwiches."
And, although the cheese, sauce and toppings are sumptuous, it is the nearly wafer-thin, crispy and flaky crust that makes Mama's pizzas go down so easily. The nearest equivalent is the crust at Zaffiro's. Indeed, on a recent visit, a friend (and Zaffiro's devotee) was in seventh heaven as he devoured a Mama's thin-crust pizza with sausage and pepperoni.
But there's more than pizza on the menu, of course. In addition to pasta, sandwiches, familiar appetizers like baked clams and fried calamari, Mama's also is one of the few places in town that ladles up traditional Sicilian wedding soup year round. They also make a big batch of cannoli -- covered in chocolate and not -- every day.
There's an outdoor patio out back with a fountain and an intimate feel but when it's too cold, the large indoor dining room -- part of which was added about 13 years ago, according to Steve Pipito -- adorned with family photos and reproductions of Italian paintings, is quite welcoming.
Papa's Pub, which occupies a space that housed a Ben Franklin store until a few years ago, is a favorite hangout for locals, who enjoy live music by bands like Mount Olive and The Rockefellers on Thursdays and Saturdays, and a daily happy hour from 2 to 6 p.m. with 2-for-1 specials.
Steve Pipito also celebrates his love for motorcycles by hosting a bikers Thursday each week. The event is growing and Pipito says, when the hogs rode into town, they found their way to Mama's and Papa's.
"(During the Harley anniversary) the place was full and there were a lot of bikes parked out front," he recounts with a glimmer in his eye. "We had a great time."
But you don't have to arrive on two wheels to feel at home at Mama's neighborhood pizzeria and Papa's Social Club.
Call Mama's, which, by the way, is not affiliated with Mama Mia's, at (414) 871-0700 and Papa's at (414) 871-1704.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.