By Rick Rodriguez Special to Published Mar 04, 2015 at 12:06 PM

My first experience with Cranky Al’s, 6901 W. North Ave., was during the Chili’n on the Ave event in Wauwatosa a few years back. Since then, I’ve been hearing about their pizza and their doughnuts – the crullers in particular.

I finally got to try the famous cruller when a friend brought a box of Cranky Al’s doughnuts to another friend’s house for brunch. I liked it, but since I don’t drink coffee, I didn’t get to enjoy it properly, at least that’s what my friends told me.

A few months ago, I was with friends at Camp Bar in Wauwatosa, and we ordered a couple of pizzas. Camp Bar in Wauwatosa serves Cranky Al’s pizza, but my friends told me they preferred the pizza at Cranky Al’s. I thought the pizza at Camp Bar was pretty good with a nice thin and crispy crust. If my friends like the pizza at Cranky Al’s better, then I really needed to try it.

We agreed that night to schedule a visit to Cranky Al’s soon and made that happen a few weeks ago. My friends were regulars, so the general manager came over to greet them, and I was introduced.

The general manager is Joey Carioti, the nephew of owners Alex ("Al") and Susie Brkich. After graduating college four years ago and returning from a back-packing trip through Europe, Carioti was asked to help his aunt and uncle for a couple of weeks. He grew to love the business so much, he is still there after almost four years and has no plans to leave any time soon.

A summary of the story that Carioti shared with me explains that Al Brkich worked at a bakery in Wauwatosa after a stint as a crab cake specialist with Crabby Al’s. Susie Brkich wanted to open a coffee shop and told Al she wanted him to make doughnuts for the coffee shop since he knew the bakery business.

He was reluctant and said he would consider it if they got "a sign." Shortly after that, they assisted a motorist and were offered a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts as a form or gratitude. That was "the sign" they needed, and Cranky Al’s doughnut and coffee shop was opened in 2006.

Al Brkich was a fan of pizzas and decided he would start making them rather than order out for them, considering he already had the equipment. People loved the pizzas, so Cranky Al’s added pizza to the business, too. The rest is history.

If you’ve never visited Cranky Al’s before, there are rules for you to know. When you walk in, look to the chalk boards on the wall on your left for Doughnut Etiquette for the morning hours and Pizza Etiquette for the evening hours. Etiquette includes the process for ordering and payment. 

The morning menu includes breakfast sandwiches, a breakfast pizza, quiche, doughnuts, muffins, scones and other treats. The evening menu includes appetizers, salad, pizza and specials such as a Friday fish fry featuring hand breaded cod and Cranky Wings and a Cranky Burger available Fridays and Saturdays only. Hot ham and rolls are available on Sundays.

Wing sauces include garlic barbecue, garlic parmesan, orange teriyaki, buffalo and a Guinness barbecue sauce that also includes a seasonal stout beer in the sauce recipe. The wings are fried and finished on the grill.

The burger patty is made from a tri-tip, brisket and Angus beef blend, grilled over an open flame and served on a toasted brioche bun with a side of crispy battered fries.

Pizzas are served on a soft hand-tossed crust made from scratch using a bread dough and available in 10, 14, and 16 inches. Build-your-own and specialty pies range from $8.50 to $22.

Specialty pizzas include the Super Cranky with sausage, pepperoni, and Canadian bacon; the Chicka-Chicka with grilled chicken, barbecue sauce and red onions; the Nikki-Knak with artichoke hearts, goat cheese and fresh garlic; and Susie’s Special, which is topped with baby organic spinach, ricotta and fresh garlic over premium mozzarella and romano cheeses.

My friends and I started with an order of garlic bread, and it was among the best garlic bread I’ve ever had. I thought the balance of garlic and butter was right on, and the bread was crispy with a soft center.

The first pizza we ordered was a build-your-own with cheese, sausage and pepperoni, although I noticed later that this combination is listed as a specialty pie called The Cranky. The crust had a crispy cracker crunch around the perimeter, but the rest of it was soft and slightly dense in some spots, as bread dough crusts tend to be.

The crust was not at all like the thin crust version I found at Camp Bar, but the sauce and toppings were the same. Carioti explained that they wanted to provide a different version of Cranky Al’s pizza to Camp Bar by altering the crust recipe a bit, but it is Cranky Al’s pizza.

The sauce had a slightly thick texture, and I enjoyed the spicy flavor, which also seemed to have a subtle sweetness to it. Cranky Al’s generously applies the cheese, which they source from Grande Cheese in Lomira, and the large chunks of Italian sausage from Greco and pepperoni from Prize Meats were spicy and delicious.

Cranky Al’s values relationships with its customers and its vendors, so local vendors are used wherever possible, and they’re willing to pay a little more to keep those vendor relationships intact. 

My friends were regulars and recommended Susie’s Special, so we capped our evening with that pie. I always prefer a pizza with meat on it, but I thought this one was delicious. The combination of flavors from the garlic, ricotta, mozzarella and Romano cheese was very pleasant.

However all of those cheeses, combined with the spinach, resulted in an overall texture that was just too soft for me. While the edge of the crust had the cracker crunch, a much crisper crust throughout or the addition of green or red peppers could have helped provide the contrasting texture that I prefer.

I went back recently on a Saturday evening to try the Cranky Wings and the Cranky Burger and enjoyed them both. I will definitely visit again to try the Friday fish fry after learning that the fish is hand breaded cod as opposed to the more common, yet often poorly executed, beer-battered cod found at many establishments around town.

While the chalk boards listing the steps for ordering etiquette may seem a bit cranky, the many families I saw dining on my visits and the way Carioti engages the customers give Cranky Al’s the warm neighborhood atmosphere one would hope to find when visiting. In fact, on my most recent visit, Carioti’s family was dining in, including his mother and his aunt Susie Brkich.

If you haven’t been to Cranky Al’s yet, go see for yourself. The hours are unique, so take note. Bakery hours end at noon Tuesday through Sunday, and the business reopens from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday for pizza. If you’re not an early riser, maybe you’ll be lucky to find some doughnuts left over during your pizza visit, so you can taste what Alton Brown raved about on Twitter recently.

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.