By Rick Rodriguez Special to Published Jul 10, 2013 at 12:01 PM

Thirteen years ago, some friends invited me to join their softball team. Matty’s was the team sponsor. Back then, the bar was about two-thirds the size it is now, and the patio was about a fourth the size it is now.

After our Thursday night games, the team would go to Matty’s for a pitcher or two and a DiGiorno’s pizza that was cooked in a small countertop pizza oven behind the bar. Sometimes we would enjoy them on the back patio, which later evolved into a beer garden.

A couple of years later, owner Matt Anderson added a grill behind the bar and put burgers and sandwiches on the menu. That’s when Matty’s became Matty’s Bar & Grille, 14460 W. College Ave.

Business continued to grow, so Anderson turned the beer garden into a four seasons room complete with color TV’s and air conditioning, then added another patio behind it.

Further growth led to Anderson deciding to add a full kitchen and hire a chef around 2005. After placing an ad in the paper, Anderson met and hired Bob Nicholson, who still currently runs the kitchen with over 25 years of culinary experience.

Anderson was no stranger to the service industry. His background includes management stints at Edwardo’s and a sports bar in Greenfield that is now the site of a Walgreens. Opening a sports bar and serving pizzas, among other items, seemed like a natural progression, so he opened Matty’s in 1997.

Anderson and "Chef Bob," as they call him, collaborated on the pizza recipes and the menu development.

I was a little frustrated when I reviewed the menu because I was there for pizza, but I also wanted the Smokehouse Burger of the Day, the variety of sliders available or the Ribs on a Stick. It just wasn’t fair that I couldn’t consume them all in one visit.

In November 2011, the burger war between AJ Bombers and Sobelman’s inspired Anderson and Nicholson to find out what it would take to make a great-tasting burger.

After a series of tests and tweaks with different cuts of beef, flavored wood chips and cooking methods, they came up with the Smokehouse Burger.

The Smokehouse Burger patty is made from a blend of beef brisket that is smoked for three hours over flavored wood chips, then cooled, shredded and ground together with Certified Angus beef.

Each day, a different specialty Smokehouse Burger is featured. On my visit, the Bomber Burger was available, topped with a garlic cheese spread, Italian meatballs, house pizza sauce, sautéed mushrooms and smoked gouda served on their house brioche bun.

You will find their Smokehouse Burger calendar on their website by selecting "menus," then "Smokehouse." Of course, you also have the option of building your own Smokehouse Burger using a vast variety of cheeses, spices, sauces and other items.

Saturdays feature Meat @ Matty’s, when fresh cuts from Robert’s Specialty Meats are used to produce high-end dishes at low-end prices such as an 8-ounce bacon-wrapped filet for only $15.95 or a full rack of house-smoked BBQ ribs for only $15.95.

The day I programmed into my calendar is the first Saturday of the month. That’s when the Al Capone is served. It’s a one-pound roast layered with boneless pork loin, beef tenderloin, Italian sausage and seasoning, provolone cheese, smoked ham, hard salami, Genoa salami, pepperoni and mozzarella, served with choice of red jacket mashed potatoes or baked potato and vegetable medley.

I plan to bring a couple of friends to help me with that dish – probably my EMT friends.

Other menu items include homemade soups, Matty Gras Jambalaya, salads, sandwiches, wraps, pasta and a Friday fish fry that includes perch and baked or Newcastle Brown Ale beer-battered cod.

Breakfast is served Saturday and Sunday starting at 9 a.m. and features omelettes, avocado eggs benedict and Southern-style biscuits and gravy.

The pizzas at Matty’s are all served on a thin, crispy crust and come in 10 and 14 inches. Ten-inch pizzas start at $8.95 and include two toppings, with additional toppings for $1 each. The 14-inch pizza starts at $14.50, with additional toppings for $1.50 each.

Gourmet pizzas start at $9.50 and include BBQ chicken, Mexican, cheeseburger and chipotle chicken.

The chipotle chicken pizza is topped with a layer of spicy chipotle sauce and tender shredded chicken, mild peppers, a black bean corn relish, mozzarella and jack cheese then garnished with cilantro.

Of the three pizzas my friends and I tried, the chipotle chicken was our favorite. I didn’t think that the chipotle sauce was spicy, in that I didn’t feel any heat, but it was certainly bold with delicious flavor. The chicken was tender, as advertised, and the black bean corn relish added a nice dimension of texture and flavor.

The other two pies my friends ordered were more basic. One was topped with sausage and pepperoni. The other added onions and green peppers to sausage and pepperoni. All three pizzas were very generously topped, which I was happy to see. A good value was provided based on the pricing.

The sausage and pepperoni had nice flavor but we didn’t think either was spicy. I learned that Matty’s adds its own spice blend to the sausage, so I think they can play with that recipe a bit more.

I thought the sauce had a really nice flavor to it. My taste buds seemed to be playing tricks on me because at times the sauce tasted a little sweet to me and other times slightly spicy. Either way, I liked it.

A few slices had enough sauce for me to taste, but I would have liked a little more. I think the risk of a soggy crust comes more from greasy meat toppings than it does from pizza sauce.

Anderson shared that they start with canned tomatoes and add their own seasoning recipe before turning it into the pizza sauce.

Of the 48 restaurants I’ve visited, only one starts with fresh tomatoes, two start with canned tomatoes and the others use a canned tomato sauce or paste, so I appreciated the method that Matty’s uses.

The green peppers and onions on the other pizza seemed to neutralize the flavor of the pizza sauce and cheese. However, I didn’t think there were too many onions and green peppers.

Perhaps adding more sauce and/or using a spicier sausage and pepperoni would help swing the balance back the other way and provide the intended flavor profile.

The crust on all of the pizzas was really crispy around the edges. While the crust softened slightly toward the center, the crust on each slice maintained its integrity to hold firm rather than become floppy and let the cheese and toppings spill off.

Anderson shared that the dough is made fresh and pre-baked, then olive oil is added before applying the toppings and re-baking the crust. While I didn’t experience the intended "cracker crunch," the crust on the slices was crispy and easy to handle.

Anderson has run a very successful business, but he understands what is truly important in life. When not at his bar and grille, he spends time with his wife, Jenny, and their children.

Matty’s Bar & Grille also actively supports the National Kidney Foundation and Special Olympics Wisconsin’s Polar Plunge with sponsorship and fundraising activities. For a stretch of eight years or so, they organized Matty Gras, "a three-day party ’Nawlins-style," with proceeds benefitting the National Kidney Foundation. Now the GMO (Greater Matty Open) supports that organization.

I miss the good ol' days of playing softball and hanging out with my friends and teammates at Matty’s after the game. I’ve been impressed watching how this business has expanded and grown, and I respect Anderson for reinvesting his profits into the business and his surrounding communities.

Since the business is going strong after 16 years, I’m guessing a few others appreciate Matty’s Bar & Grille, too.

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.