By Rick Rodriguez Special to Published Apr 02, 2014 at 11:26 AM

I’ve been hearing about Tenuta’s, 2995 S. Clement Ave., in Bay View from a few friends over the past few years, so I thought I’d finally pay a visit.

My friend and I stopped in around 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon. There were a couple of guests at the bar and a few tables already occupied, a good sign considering they opened merely 30 minutes before. 

Warm colors on the walls, stained glass above the entrance, and plenty of natural light from the large picture windows provided a comfortable setting.

Owner Frank Tenuta was on site, but General Manager Brenden Fuerstenau kindly took some time and filled me in on the history of the restaurant. 

Frank Tenuta’s parents moved here from Italy in 1966. His father worked for DeRango’s in Racine and later took ownership of the restaurant. There are currently several DeRango’s pizzerias in the Racine area, and they’re owned by at least three different families, including the Tenuta family, represented by Frank’s brother Dan.

Frank Tenuta, meanwhile, worked in his parent’s restaurant along with his brothers. Tenuta moved to the Bay View area when he married his wife, Jodi. He opened the Tenuta’s restaurant in Bay View on Dec. 19, 2003.

Most of the staff has worked at Tenuta’s for over five years. Fuerstenau has been there more than nine years and has been general manager for the past two years. Since he started out making pizzas, he was a great resource without giving away their secrets.

I peeked at the menu on the website before visiting and was surprised to see so many variations and options for pizza. Even with the preview, I still hadn’t come up with a strategy. Luckily, I had some help.

Pizza crust options include thin, virgin, deep dish, and stuffed crust, all available in 12- and 16-inch sizes.

The virgin crust is barely touched, just stretched a bit, topped and baked. The deep dish is baked in a round pan and removed before serving. The stuffed crust is the deep dish pizza topped with an extra layer of cheese and sauce.

Cheese pizzas range from $9 for thin crust to $15 for the stuffed crust. Toppings are $1.25 and $2 each, including meatballs, giardiniera, anchovies, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and cream cheese, as well as the standards.

Specialty pizzas include the margherita, diavola, meat lover, veggie and house special, which comes topped with ham, pepperoni, tomato, garlic and olive oil instead pizza sauce.

We started out with a meatball appetizer. Five large meatballs in a homemade marinara sauce arrived in a bowl. The meatballs were moist and lightly seasoned, and the marinara was thick and slightly sweet.

The first pizza we took on was a 12-inch sausage, mushroom and pepperoni on thin crust. The crust was much to my liking: very thin with a cracker crisp texture throughout, not just around the perimeter. I was impressed at how the center slices maintained a crispy crunch and held the toppings really well. I was also pleased that there were no traces of cornmeal on the crust. To my eyes, this crust was nearly perfect.

The only characteristic I didn’t notice was the light airy layer separation I like to see when I look at the side of a slice. That, however, would have been tricky with a crust this thin.

Most of the pepperoni slices were placed under the cheese, as were most of the toppings, so they didn’t get a chance to curl and crisp up. However, they did have a great spicy flavor. Tenuta’s uses fresh mushrooms on their pizzas, and they complemented the pepperoni and sausage instead of dominating over them like canned mushrooms typically do.

The sausage was moist and tender with a bit of a hot kick. Fuerstenau told me the sausage is made for Tenuta’s by a butcher in the Racine area using an old Tenuta family recipe.

The sauce is made fresh daily, starting with a canned paste which gets the secret family seasoning blend added to it. My friend thought the sauce was on the sweet side. I tasted more of a spicy sauce. Either way, we both thought it was delicious.

Tenuta’s has a garden in the back, so they grow many of their own herbs and vegetables that are used in the restaurant and try to source locally whenever possible.

Next up was the house special on a 12-inch virgin crust. Fuerstenau later told us we made the right crust choice for this particular pizza. We had no idea what to expect this crust, but I certainly was not expecting what arrived.

The crust was well over an inch thick and somewhat uneven around the perimeter. The crust was crisp, yet soft and chewy. The oil was applied enough to taste without running off the slices. The garlic was also perfectly applied and complemented the olive oil very well.

The other toppings included diced tomatoes, diced ham and pepperoni. I probably would have left the ham off of this pizza. It was slightly salty and not overwhelming, but it seemed out of place on an olive oil and garlic topped crust. It was a good pizza, but I’m just not a fan of thick crusts, so I will likely try the house special on thin crust next time.

Finally, we chose the deep dish crust over the stuffed pie, but struggled with how to top it. The diavola eventually caught our eye. It probably would have been great on a thin crust, or maybe even the virgin crust, but we ordered the diavola on the deep dish.

The pie is baked in a round pan but served on a tray instead of in the pan it was cooked in. The crust was pushing two inches around the edges and didn’t have a layer of oil on it when served.

Usually this style has a prominent buttery outer texture and flavor from the amount of oil used, but this crust was dry on the outside, yet the dough in the center was somewhat moist, so the slices were easy to eat.

The diavola is typically a spicy pizza at pizzerias that feature it on their menu, and Tenuta’s did not disappoint. The hot giardiniera is the key. We ordered it on the side so we could control the heat.

Pepperoni, pineapple and cream cheese round out the toppings. The cream cheese worked really well with the mozzarella and provided a cooling contrast to the hot giardiniera. The pineapple was likely applied for the same reason, but I would leave it off of this pizza.

This was a good pie, but I would have preferred a touch more oil in the baking to provide a buttery flavor on the crust. Maybe the stuffed crust is baked with more oil. If you order it, be sure to let me know. 

Thick crust and deep dish lovers should enjoy the options at Tenuta’s. Chicago pan style fans may be disappointed, but thin crust connoisseurs should be very happy.

Tenuta’s thin crust easily makes my top ten thin crust pizzas. It will be difficult to figure out which pizzeria will get replaced. Then again, the Big Ten athletic conference has more than ten schools in it, so maybe I’ll just use their methodology. I think I can probably come up with a better logo too.

Enjoy the games this weekend with a pie from one of our local pizzerias. On Wisconsin! 

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.