When I awoke on the morning of January 19, 2010 to the news that a Milwaukee icon, Pizza Man on North Avenue, was ablaze, it was a shocker.
The restaurant was one of our "go to" spots. 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. The number of tear-filled sessions I've had, drowning my sorrows in deep dish pizza, I may never know.
There was always a wait. I can't count the number of times we found ourselves standing around waiting for a table (though, in most cases, we simply left the friendly hostess our cell number and grabbed a beer or two over at The Eastsider, a bar just across Oakland Avenue).
And that fact alone should be seen as a testament to the quality of both the food and the atmosphere – which included an old wooden door (which opened and closed, thanks to the power of pulleys and weights), darkly stained wooden booths, and walls hung with shelves of jars featuring Italian specialties like olives, roasted red peppers and canned beans.
If a comparison is even fair, Pizza Man was the historic equivalent of Lombardi's (New York), Santarpio's (Boston), and Giordano's (Chicago). The interior of Pizza Man itself was a historic marker, since it became a Milwaukee tradition to write or carve one's name or other messages on the wooden booths. The restaurant also garnered accolades for its huge wine list, which included over 500 wines from California, Washington and Oregon.
The loss of the restaurant 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.
Chef Kevin Sloan of The Pabst and Riverside Theaters rated the Pizza Man's escargot high on his list of favorite dishes in Milwaukee.
"It wasn't that they did anything unusual with their preparation, more so that they kept it simple and consistent," he recollects.
"If you really enjoy the mild flavor and slightly rubbery texture of snails, as I do, an elaborate preparation is not necessary. A snail swimming, or better yet drowning, in a pool of garlic butter is a great way to enjoy them – which is exactly what they did at Pizza Man, serving them with thick sliced garlic toast. I've cooked them at home a few times since ... I gussy them up a little more with shallots and booze before involving butter and fresh parsley, and although it's good, it's just not the same."
Though it’s been a long time in coming, Pizza Man has returned. I got the opportunity to experience its new location at 2597 N. Downer Ave. this past week.
The question lurking in everyone’s minds is likely to be, "will it be the same?"
The answer is yes. And no.
The new location, designed by Rinka Chung Architecture, Inc., reflects a similar charm of the old Milwaukee icon established on the East Side street corner more than forty years ago. The familiar sign that graced the exterior of the North Avenue location is displayed out front. Exposed brick, a tin-look ceiling, and dark – though yet unmarred – wooden booths offer up hints of the old look and feel.
But, the new location is roomier. The former Pizza Man had seating for 55 diners. The new two-story version has seating for 225, including quite a number on a balcony that overlooks Belleview Place. The space is comfortable and bright with plenty of windows. And, with two bars on the premises, no one will need to look for a beer at a nearby corner tavern while they wait for a table.
The new location also has myriad updates including trendy Edison-style light bulbs in the fixtures above the bar, reclaimed wood features and exposed duct work. Soon the private wine room on the lower level will hold an extensive collection of varietals. Among the impressive details, a rustic staircase leading to the second floor sports a chandelier fashioned out of colorful wine bottles.
But what about the food?
Die-hards will be happy to know that everything seems on par. Chef Zachary Baker, formerly of Lake Park Bistro, has worked hard to replicate the flavors that made Pizza Man famous.
From butter-drenched escargot to the familiar ultra-thin crust pizzas, the menu remains largely familiar. The classic artichoke a la mode pizza has been updated to include halved cherry tomatoes in place of slices, but the cream cheese doppled pie has all the charm of its former self.
The menu has something for everyone, including salads, pasta dishes, and even burgers. And vegetarian diners will have plenty of options, including a potential dish called the "Leaf eater" featuring curried cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
Deep dish pies will make their return when the restaurant opens. And a brand-new gluten free pizza crust will be making its debut in the coming weeks. Gluten free pasta is also on the docket, according to Chef Baker, who says he’s currently looking for a variety of wheat-free pasta that really shines.
"I’m really happy," owner Mike Amidzich told me as we visited at the bustling bar on Friday evening.
And he has a right to be. The new Pizza Man looks like it’s on the right track. And the public will be able to experience it, in all of its glory, sooner than first thought.
Although the restaurant has been somewhat elusive about its official opening date, and most have predicted a date in mid-August, a reliable source at the restaurant told me that Monday, July 29 would be the day.
"Let’s just say that around 4 p.m. on Monday the ‘private party’ sign on the door will be gone," he said.
Starting today, Pizza Man will be open daily from 4:00 p.m. to 2 a.m. Takeout will be available starting a few weeks from now. No delivery option is planned at this time.
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.