When the original Pizza Man was lost to a fire in 2009, the loss was palpable. Countless blog posts and articles around town recounted memories of good times and great food. And, for many, the memories of Pizza Man went well beyond the pizza.
For me, the restaurant was a harbinger of great memories. It was the place we celebrated everything from birthdays to anniversaries to new jobs, the place where we'd go when life had taken us for a ride, and left us yearning for familiarity and the comfort of an old friend.
When Pizza Man returned in 2013 in a new location on Downer Avenue, I was comforted to find that, while the new restaurant was larger, brighter and updated, it retained many of is former charms, including the original bar, a replica of the original sign, and heavy wooden doors reminiscent of the original (powered by pulleys and weights). The menu, too, was on par with the classic showcasing butter-drenched escargot, ultra-thin crust pizzas and deep dish pies and a wine collection that gleaned accolades from Wine Spectator.
Fast forward to 2020 (prior to the pandemic) and a visit to Pizza Man left me wanting. The flavor of the sausage on our pizza was flat and one dimensional. The menu had been slimmed down, most of the appetizers were fried, and the wine list seemed far smaller. It wasn’t the Pizza Man I remembered.
Getting back to their roots
Last week, Pizza Man released the news that they were making wholesale changes at the long-beloved restaurant. The news gave me hope and (honestly) a very good reason to head back and try them out again.
“If anything good has come from our industry slow-down over the past year, it was the chance to take a step back and focus on what really matters in life, in relationships, and in pizza,” the release read. “When the Pizza Man team looked inwards, we found that what mattered the most is high-quality ingredients, local vendors and really (really) delicious food…[that means] re-building relationships with local farmers and getting back to our roots.”
This week, I spent some time at the restaurant, chatting with folks like head chef Jesse Wendel, a long-time Pizza Man employee who’d worked with Chef Zachary Baker, the Bartolotta’s alum (now owner of Ca’Lucchenzo), who’d brought the restaurant’s original dishes back to life when the restaurant reopened in 2013.
Wendel says the team has been working for months to bring the menu back to its former glory, refocusing on locally sourced ingredients and bringing back the flavors folks remember, including Vinny’s Sausage, a staple product used on Pizza Man’s pies for over 35 years.
“I learned so much from Zak [Baker] about sourcing locally and the value of high quality products,” says Wendel. “And we’re putting those values back into place. We’re switching from big box distributors to local purveyors, replacing pre-cut ingredients with fresh, making all of our pestos and sauces. We're also sourcing flour locally from Meadowlark Organics. Overall, we’re taking extra time to do things right and putting extra love in every dish.”
Go-to classics like eggplant fries, garlic bread and calamari remain on the menu, as do pizzas like the Pizza Man Special, Artichoke A La Mode and Topher, all made with Pizza’s Man house-made crust, fermented three days to produce a more complex flavor profile.
Mussels are back, steeped in white wine, garlic, fennel, chives and tarragon. And housemade pasta (which had been replaced by dried pasta for the last few years) has returned, made on premise five days a week.
Guests will also find new items like fresh (and beautiful) seasonal bruschetta, currently served with smashed fresh English peas, pancetta, balsamic vinegar and mint.
There’s also The Bomba, a giant housemade meatball served in marinara with American grana padano cheese and garlic crostini ($10).
Sunday Ragu features fresh hand-cut fettuccine, ground beef, Vinny’s Italian sausage, salumi, thyme, rosemary, sage, garlic and American grana padano ($16).
There are also new pizzas including the King-Roni with classic red sauce, pepperoni cups, diced pepperoni, regular pepperoni, grana padano, chili flakes, oregano and a side of ranch ($17-$21).
The Pesto Pig features basil pesto, porchetta, red wine pickled onions, goat cheese, fried basil and oven roasted tomatoes ($19-$23).
Meanwhile, the Pinn Oak features Italia red sauce, lamb sausage, ricotta, asparagus, dandelion greens and salsa verde ($20-$24). It’s named for Pinn Oak Farms, the source for their fresh lamb.
The wine list, which was awarded the Wine Spectator Award from 2014 to 2019, had dropped from between 160 and 180 wines down to only 50. But that’s also on the mend with the goal of once again meeting the Wine Spectator standards for next year.
“We’ve always been wine-focused,” says Hugo Flores, regional manager for the Downer and Mequon locations. “And we’ve always wanted to encourage guests to try something new. So our list [now at about 80 wines] focuses on classic influential wineries and unique wines, with representation from all the major varietals throughout the world.”
The restaurant will also open any bottle of still wine on premise for customers who order a minimum of two glass pours.
Guests can view the full menu and make reservations online at pizzamanwi.com.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.