By Rick Rodriguez Special to Published Feb 04, 2015 at 12:36 PM

The lower level of the Best Western Woods View Inn is home to National Pizza Pub and Grille, located at 5501 W. National Ave. I drive past it almost daily.

The space most recently held a restaurant called Crazy Chef, but changes in management and philosophy resulted in the hotel’s chief engineer Josh Fritz and director of operations Eric Unmouth partnering to turn the restaurant into a successful venture.

What’s different now versus the last restaurant? The hotel has retained ownership of the space as opposed to leasing the space out; therefore, the restaurant has a vested interest in the success of the restaurant.

Fritz started his position just over a year ago, while Unmouth started two months prior. They took over the restaurant space in June, received a capital contribution from the hotel for renovations and opened the doors in October.

Fritz is from Milwaukee, while Unmouth is originally from Marquette, Mich. Unmouth helped open several Italian restaurants and pizzerias. He and Fritz collaborated on the menu and recipes. Many of the recipes have been created through trial and error.

The menu consists of starters, wings, burgers, salads, sandwiches, calzones, pizza and a fish fry served on Fridays and Saturdays featuring cod, walleye, shrimp and combo dinner options.

Pizzas come in 10-, 12-, or 14-inch thin or hand tossed crusts, which are made from scratch and priced at $5, $6.50 and $8, respectively, for a cheese pizza. Additional toppings range from $1 to $2.50.

Aside from the more traditional toppings, National Pizza Pub and Grille also offers feta cheese crumbles, green olives, jalapenos, sun dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives, sauerkraut, turkey, corned beef and roast beef.

They also differentiate themselves from most other pizzerias by offering different crust and sauce options. Crust options feature garlic, ranch, butter or a Cajun crust for a $1 upcharge.

Different sauces are also available at no extra charge and include ranch, barbecue, 1,000 island, extra virgin olive oil, alfredo, pesto alfredo, and a blend of ranch and the house red sauce.

Specialty pizzas include the reuben which is topped with thousand island sauce, corned beef, and sauerkraut; club supreme with alfredo sauce, ham, turkey, bacon and onions; and a Greek pizza topped with a feta cheese dressing, Kalamata olives, onions, mozzarella cheese and feta cheese crumbles.

Other specialty pizzas include Hawaiian, Mexican, barbecue chicken, meatball, chicken bacon ranch, veggie, chicken spinach, honey hot barbecue chicken and Meat Madness.

I’ve visited twice with almost a month between visits and learned that changes had been made to the pizzas, and other changes might be made based on customer feedback. Most orders are placed at the bar, so comment cards are available on the bar for convenient access.

On my first visit, I ordered the Meat Madness on thin crust. The thin crust looked a lot like the hand tossed crust. It was only slightly thinner than the hand-tossed and had a crispy edge and light crisp center, but the slices held up well despite the generous toppings and layers of cheese.

Toppings included slightly spicy sausage and pepperoni, small pieces of pulled ham, finely diced bacon and well-seasoned ground beef over the house red sauce. National Pizza starts with a canned tomato puree and adds their own blend of seasoning, providing a somewhat spicy flavor which I enjoyed, so I would have liked more sauce.

On my second visit, I opted to build my own pizza: a chicken and spinach pie on thin crust with a pesto alfredo sauce.

The first thing that got my attention when the pizza came out was the aroma of pesto. Wow, did it smell good! I couldn’t wait to get home and open the box.

Much to my surprise and delight, I noticed that the thin crust has changed from the hand-tossed thin crust to a cracker thin crust since my prior visit. I was reminded of the conversation I had with Fritz, where he commented how they weren’t getting the desired results from the press they used on the pizza dough, so they moved to a hand-stretching method.

The crust was very crispy around the perimeter, but it was softer in the center, and the slices were floppy due to the weight of the sauce and toppings. It’s not a bad problem to have, but I’d recommend more tweaking of topping to crust ratios until a balance is found to allow for a crisper crust throughout.

There was a nice balance between the flavors of the alfredo and pesto sauces, and unlike the sauce on the Meat Madness, this sauce was generously applied which likely led to the saturation and softening of the crust.

I noticed seasoned chicken was a topping on a few of the specialty pies. This chicken was not seasoned. Diced pieces of mostly dark meat were spread over the pizza, and while the chicken was tender, it wasn’t particularly flavorful. Well-seasoned chicken would have helped turn this good-tasting pizza into a great-tasting pizza.

While I waited for my order, I watched other diners enjoying their fish fries and pizzas. The fish fry looked good, so I may have to go back and try it some time.

Despite being in the lower level of a Best Western hotel, Fritz told me they were trying to build a casual neighborhood vibe. While waiting for my order, I noticed Fritz conversing and laughing with one of the patrons, then making rounds to greet and chat with the other patrons. Both Fritz and the bartender called most, if not all customers, by name. I would say he’s found some success in creating that vibe.

They’ve only been open a few months, but I like what I see from National Pizza Pub and Grille so far. I’ve had some good pizza, and I met a manager committed to make adjustments to the recipes to ensure customer satisfaction and repeat business, keys to a successful neighborhood gathering place. 

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.