By Rick Rodriguez Special to Published Jul 24, 2013 at 12:01 PM

I can’t believe this is the fifieth blog I’ve written about pizza in just under a year. I thought the best use  of this issue would be to recap the first 49 pizza venues I’ve visited, provide a few updates and tell you about some of my favorites.

Those of you reading for a while know that I understand we all have our favorite styles of pizza, whether it be hand-tossed or pan style crusts, sweet or spicy sauces, etc.

Growing up in Riverwest, my parents ordered from nearby Aldo’s and Roseanne’s, which featured thin crusts, thick sauces that were on the sweet side, large chunks of spicy Italian sausage and small slices of pepperoni that curled up into the shape of a bowl when they baked.

My parents always ordered the same toppings, sausage and pepperoni. Once in a while, my dad would be in the mood for mushrooms, peppers or onions, and that stuck with me ever since.

I will typically order the same toppings, sausage and pepperoni, because they’re my favorite and because it is the most fair way to compare pizzas from different venues.

That’s how the blogs started until some great feedback suggested trying and posting pictures of different pizzas. The rest is history (very recent history).

The first place I blogged about was Vedo’s (pronounced VAY-doh’s) in Shorewood. One of my cousins raved about their pizza, so I went in to buy a slice and became a fan. However, I learned that their pizzas normally come on hand-tossed crusts when you order a whole pie, unless you ask for a thin crust. Their pizza by the slice is on thin crust, so that surprised me. I definitely like the slice of thin crust better.

The next pizzeria I blogged about was Alphonso’s. I loved the hand-tossed crust with the cracker crunch and their rich and savory pizza sauce. Unfortunately, they didn’t stay in business. The story behind Alphonso’s Pizza was the best story of the 49 venues I visited. I’m guessing that Alphonso’s book of recipes didn’t include a recipe for running a business.

Alphonso’s customer loyalty program was aggressive, offering a 25 percent discount on every purchase. I don’t believe that was taken into consideration when pricing the products.

Papa Joe’s didn’t close, but they did give their place a fresh paint job. Maybe they read my blog or maybe it was a coincidence. I just thought you should know.

Other pizzerias that closed are Mr. D’s II in West Allis and Crisp on Brady Street. Mr. D’s II had a delicious sweet sauce, but I wasn’t a fan of their crust. I remember being a fan of the thin crust from the original Mr. D’s on 21st and Greenfield, which is no longer in operation.

Around a month ago, a third version called Mr. D’s The Original opened on 6th and Hayes, a block south of Lincoln Avenue. Some say it’s owned by the daughter of the original owner. Others say it’s owned by the original chef. I can only tell you that their pizza didn’t remind me of the original location either.

I was really surprised that I enjoyed so many of the pizzas I tried. Early on, I seemed to be on a roll with the Mequon Pizza Company, which puts a layer of sauce over the layer of cheese on their thin crust pizza. Their pan style pizza was also pretty good.

Pizzeria Scotty! probably made my favorite pan style pizza and one of my favorite thin crust pizzas. The owner, Scott Vaughn, is from Chicago so he brought some recipes with him when he moved here 28 years ago.

In the "don’t judge a book by its cover" category, Hup’s Pizza on 54th and Hampton really impressed me. They’re located in a small green and red structure that resembles a large tool shed. Their pizzas are generously topped and served with a rich and slightly spicy sauce over a thin crust.

Other thin crust pizzas that I really enjoyed were found at Armeli’s in New Berlin, Barbiere’s on Bluemound Road, Lisa’s on Oakland Avenue, Papa Luigi’s in St. Francis, Sofia’s in West Allis, and Upper Crust in Shorewood.

What I enjoyed most at Armeli’s were the new personal-sized specialty pizzas like the Tuscano, topped with garlic butter, pepper jack cheese, fresh mozzarella, mushrooms, sausage and bacon. This pizza brought me a delicious symphony of flavors.

Barbiere’s pizza crust is the closest I’ve found so far to a thin crust with the cracker crunch. The crust didn’t soften in the middle like most (if not all) of the other thin crusts I’ve sampled. The pepperoni was among the spiciest I’ve had, and the Italian sausage is supplied by a local butcher.

Lisa’s Pizza might be the closest to the pizza I grew up with. The crust was crisp, the mushrooms were fresh, and the Italian sausage is ground fresh and made in-house.

Papa Luigi’s makes a delicious sauce that is a little sweet and a little spicy, or at least that’s what my taste buds told me. The thin crust was crispy, but the dough on my thick crust pizza wasn’t fully cooked. Their Sicilian pizza is deliciously topped simply with olive oil, mozzarella, sausage and Papa’s secret spice blend.

The pizza sauce at Sofia’s is one of the best I’ve tasted. It has a thick texture and a bold, spicy flavor. The sausage and pepperoni were also spicy and have been purchased from the same local provider for the past 30 years. The thin crust and the thicker, hand-tossed crust were both solid options.

Upper Crust pizza recently added very thin crust to their menu, but it did not have the cracker crunch and got softer toward the center. What I liked most about this pizza was the thick, spicy sauce that was generously applied and the large chunks of spicy Italian sausage.

Another pizza I’d like to mention is the Chipotle Chicken pizza I enjoyed at Matty’s Bar & Grille in New Berlin. The thin crust was crispy and sturdy. While the slices were crispier around the perimeter, each slice held firm instead of flopping over, which was impressive considering how generous Matty’s is with toppings.

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

The sauce wasn’t that spicy but certainly had a bold and rich flavor. The chicken was moist and tender, and the black bean and corn relish added a nice dimension of texture and flavor.

Finally, I would like to give a special shout-out to Trattoria di Carlo for being the only pizza place that makes its sauce from scratch using fresh, whole roma and San Marzano tomatoes.

I know I covered a lot of thin crust pizzas, but I also found a few hand-tossed pizzas that impressed me. First and foremost would be the pizzas at Mozzaluna. Phil and Barb LeClair opened the restaurant in Brookfield last summer, and Sicilian native Chef Alfredo D’Amato has been producing Neapolitan style pizzas using ingredients imported from Italy and a wood-burning oven that heats to 700 degrees!

All of their pizzas are 12-inch pies and Mozzaluna has more than 15 specialty pizzas for you to choose from. The crust comes out of the oven crisp, chewy and delicious. They also have a gluten-free crust for the gluten-intolerant pizza lovers out there.

My favorite Mozzaluna pizza is the Diavola, which is topped with your choice of shredded or fresh mozzarella cheese, chunks of Italian sausage, sopressata and red pepper flakes.

This was my first introduction to sopressata, which is a spicy Italian salami that is used to replace pepperoni here because the pepperoni would dry out in an oven this hot. I think I might even like sopressata better, but don’t tell anyone I said that.

Another that I tried and enjoyed is the Mozzaluna pizza, which is topped with fresh sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, prosciutto di Parma (a dry-cured Italian ham), arugula, and shaved parmesan. Antonio’s Pizza in the Riverwest neighborhood has a very spicy sauce that tastes great on their crispy hand-tossed and stuffed pizzas.

While I didn’t try the hand-tossed crust at Pietro’s in Bay View, the thin crust and thick crust pizzas worked well with their bold and spicy sauce. The pizzas were generously topped and the sausage and pepperoni provided great flavors.

Recently, I visited Café La Scala and experienced some of the best hand-tossed pizzas I’ve tasted so far. The standouts were the spicy and savory sauce, the crispy and spicy pepperoni that curls up into a bowl and quite possibly the best Italian sausage I’ve had topped on a pizza, which is made fresh locally and fairly exclusively to Café La Scala.

The last pizza place I’m going to mention is Filippo’s in West Allis. I wasn’t a big fan of the crust or the sauce, but the sausage and pepperoni were among the very best I’ve had. The pepperoni even curls up into the little bowls I like.

The mushrooms were canned and they don’t have a list of toppings available, so you have to rely on your server’s memory. If you are big fan of Italian sausage and pepperoni, you might enjoy Filippo’s.

So, there you have a year’s worth of pizza bundled up into one blog. I certainly did not mention all 49 venues, but I hope I covered what you really wanted to know - a list of the pizzas that I enjoyed the most over the past year.

I’m going to take a break next week as I prepare for round two, so stay tuned and look for blog number 51 two weeks from today. Thank you for reading. Pizza be with you.

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.