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The OnMilwaukee.com "Slice of Milwaukee" pizza contest featured only one rule, but in the end, the single request determined the winner: Balistreri's Bluemound Inn.
The four participating restaurants -- Classic Slice, Balistreri’s, Pizza Man and Zaffiro’s -- were asked to create a "Milwaukee" pizza, and they could interpret the sole command however they saw fit. OnMilwaukee.com encouraged the pizza makers to get creative and concoct a new ‘za that is deliciously and uniquely Milwaukee.
All four of the restaurants -- which were chosen to compete because they received the most votes in last year’s OnMilwaukee.com Best Of contest -- provided extremely flavorful and satisfying pies. The contest judges, also known as the OnMilwaukee.com editorial staff, agreed that all of the edible entries deserved a perfect or near perfect score when it came to taste.
"There's no question all of the pizzas were delicious. These are some of the best pizza places in the city and there's a reason people love them as much as they do," says OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Maureen Post. "But in terms of the contest, some of the pizzas were just more creative."
Indeed, creativity narrowed the playing field. Pizzas that went beyond taste and used Brew City-based ingredients and / or incorporated Milwaukee culture into the pizza pulled ahead in the race for the top spot.
Two of the restaurants, Balistreri’s and Pizza Man, went above and beyond the requirements, delivering a product that was both delicious and unique. However, after tallying points and much discussion, the OnMilwaukee.com editors voted Balistreri’s the winner, with Pizza Man a close second. (Pizzas were awarded points for taste, presentation, creativity and "Milwaukee-ness.")
Tom Siever, manager of Balistreri's, says he wanted to create a pizza that "took the best parts of Milwaukee and made it work." The Balistreri’s pie featured a beer dough made with Pabst Blue Ribbon. Siever brushed the famous thin crust with sour kraut juice and topped it with two types of 2-year-old, aged white cheddar reduced in Schlitz beer, brat coins boiled in Miller beer, pieces of Usinger's polish sausages, red onion and Bavarian sauerkraut.
"With not one, but all three classic Milwaukee beers used in its entry, it's a shoo-in for the best Milwaukee Slice. Add some Usinger's sausage and -- believe it or not -- sauerkraut and this is the Cream Citiest pie in the contest," says OnMilwaukee.com managing editor Bobby Tanzilo.
Pizza Man created a pie that was a cross between pizza, quiche and shepherd’s pie.
"It’s dinner at mom’s in a pizza," says Pizza Man general manager Aaron Cleavland.
Cleavland and cook Kory Moser created a pizza that they described as "homage to the old and new." The hearty pie featured a medium, flaky crust made with Central Waters’ Mud Puppy Porter, topped with Koppa’s Farwell Foods' homemade bohemian sausage, mashed potatoes (Cleavland’s mom’s recipe), Wisconsin corn, caramelized onions and smoked cheddar.
"I was floored by the Pizza Man offering, and replacing the sauce with potato was a stroke of genius. As full as I was, I ate a second piece ... and wished for a third," says publisher Andy Tarnoff.
"It was very close, but Balistreri's was simply more Milwaukee," says staff writer Molly Snyder Edler.
The Classic Slice entry was delicious, too, featuring locally grown basil, feta cheese, and half with Greco meatballs (Greco is a local company), half with curried tofu.
Classic Slice owner Marisa Graff-Lange served her zesty creation with bottles of Spotted Cow, a detail that won bonus points with the judges. However, although the pizza was well-crafted and flavorful, it received a lower score in the category of "Milwaukee-ness."
"I appreciated Classic Slice’s ability to appeal to both the carnivores and herbivores without sacrificing its Brew City authenticity. But the curry-seasoned tofu -- although delicious and locally made -- was a bit of a hiccup in their Milwaukee theme," says OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence. "The combination of feta and basil made my mouth happy, but I wouldn’t say it represented our city’s ‘official’ flavor."
Zaffiro’s was the least creative with its entry, serving an existing pie taken from its menu called the "EBF" ("Everything But Fish"). The pizza was baked to perfection, with its signature crackery crust and loaded with every imaginable classic topping other than anchovies.
"Both Classic Slice and Zaffiro's delivered on their already solid pizzas. I wish Zaffiro's would've made something unique, because the pizza tasted so great -- it just didn't follow the rules of the contest," says Tarnoff.
A couple of the contest judges found Zaffiro’s pizza too meaty, but senior editor Drew Olson was the least bothered by the carnivorous toppings, or their inability to incorporate a Milwaukee theme into the pizza.
"There was nothing particularly ‘Milwaukee’ about this offering, but that didn't bother me as much as it should have. It always touches off arguments from the thick-crust contingent, but I think this is the best pie in the city. Even though it was heavy with meat and ingredients, the crust holds up and the symphony of flavors is sublime," says Olson.
Balistreri’s and Classic Slice plan to feature their "Milwaukee" pizzas on their menus so the public can sample these delectable, Cream City-inspired slices.
"The ‘Slice of Milwaukee’ pizza contest was a ton of fun, and OnMilwaukee.com sincerely thanks all four of the restaurants for their tasty efforts," says Edler.