By Rick Rodriguez Special to Published Dec 27, 2012 at 11:36 AM

I've driven past Papa Joe's, 5601 W. Vliet St., several times while taking an alternate route to work.

The building looked a bit like a dive on the outside, but that's never stopped me from patronizing businesses in the past and it wasn't going to stop me now. In fact, some of the best meals I've had have been in dives.

The lobby is large, but has only three tables for those preferring to dine in and a few chairs along a wall for customers awaiting carry-out orders.

"Classic" pictures of various menu items adorn the green and white walls that would benefit from a fresh coat of paint. I guess overhead is kept to a minimum here.

Menu boards hang behind the counter. The prices have been written on strips of paper taped over the original prices. You'll also find the owners behind the counter and in the kitchen.

Doug Dietrich, his sister Cheryl and their cousin Dennis Kahler represent the third generation of the family-owned business that started in 1966. They've run Papa Joe's for the past 27 years, with 20 years at the current location.

Doug is typically taking food orders and helping with deliveries, while Cheryl makes pizzas using recipes passed through the generations, including the pizza sauce that they make from scratch.

Pizzas come in 12, 14, 16 and 18 inches. Pizza crusts are hand-tossed and mostly thin. The 12-inch cheese pizza with one topping starts at $10.50. Additional toppings start at $2 each.

There are a few specialty pizzas such as the sausage special, pepperoni special and the super deluxe. I ordered a 12-inch super deluxe pizza which included sausage, mushrooms, pepperoni, green peppers, onions, black olives, extra cheese and extra sausage.

I didn't have the highest expectations for the pizza on my first visit, but I have to say that my expectations were exceeded.

The super deluxe is a heavy pizza due to the large quantity of toppings, but the crust was crispy and sturdy enough to hold together well. Even the center slices held up, which was a nice surprise.

The chunks of sausage were large, but I thought they lacked flavor and spice. I was pleased with the flavor and spiciness of the pepperoni slices, but I was disappointed that the mushrooms were canned. However, the thick layer of cheese was a hit that made up where the toppings missed.

The pizza sauce had a slightly thick texture. The flavors were subtle with a slight lean toward the spicy side. Overall, I though it was a decent sauce and a fair amount was applied.

Other menu items include appetizers, burgers, Italian sausage and meatball sandwiches, and pastas including lasagna. Soft-serve ice cream and shakes appear on the menu during the warmer months. Soda is sold in two-liter bottles only.

During my two visits, business seemed slow. However, while I waited for my order, a couple of calls came in for delivery requests.

Papa Joe's seems to have found a niche that has contributed to their longevity. I can only think of one pizza joint a short distance east or north of them, but there are a couple of major players a little south and west. With the business starting in 1966 and surviving 20 years at this same location, they must be doing something right.

Rick Rodriguez Special to
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, and I plan to stay in Milwaukee forever. I'm the oldest of three children and grew up in the Riverwest neighborhood. My family still lives in the same Riverwest house since 1971.

I graduated from Rufus King High School and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a business degree.

My true passion for Milwaukee probably started after I joined the Young Professionals of Milwaukee (now called FUEL Milwaukee) which just celebrated its one year anniversary at the time. The events that I attended, and sometimes organized, really opened my eyes to what Milwaukee had to offer, as well as its potential for the future. So for the past, present, and future FUEL Milwaukee corporate sponsors out there, that organization does produce results (editorial)!

I love all of the Milwaukee Sports teams, professional and amateur. I love the Milwaukee arts scene and all of the festivals. I love that you can find a free concert in the summer just about every day of the week. I love the various neighborhoods around the Milwaukee area and the unique characteristics that they offer. I love the people who take the time to tell us about those unique characteristics. I have to hold my breath and count to ten when someone tells me that there is nothing to do in Milwaukee. Then I prove them wrong.

Most of all, I love the Milwaukee dining scene. I love how it continues to evolve with modern dishes and new trends while the classic restaurants continue to remind us that great food doesn't have to be "fancy schmancy." However, I also love the chefs that create the "fancy schmancy" dishes and continue to challenge themselves and Milwaukee diners with dishes we've never seen before.

Our media provides attention to the new restaurants, which is great, but I don't like seeing the older great restaurants close their doors (Don Quijote, African Hut) because they've been forgotten, so I try to do my part to let Milwaukeeans know that they're still out there, too. I do that through social media, online reviews, and a dinner club I run for my friends, where we visit restaurants they haven't heard of before or try ethnic cuisine they haven't had before.

My dream is that one day I can mention a great experience in Milwaukee and not have someone respond with "have you been to Chicago?" I don't like those people very much.