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Editorial note: This article was updated on July 1, 2019 to include a response from the Balistreri family.
Since 1975, Venice Club has served up one of Summerfest’s most beloved dishes: fried eggplant strips. In fact, the delicious fried staple has become, if you will, one of Milwaukee’s OG’s.
But in 2019, for the first time, there’s competition.
Pizza Man has entered the Summerfest food arena for the first time, and it's serving … you guessed it: fried eggplant.
I couldn’t resist putting both to the test. So I skipped through the gates on opening day and ordered up a basket of each.
What you get: A hefty serving of fried eggplant, marinara sauce and Parmesan cheese.
Flavor: The eggplant is tender and creamy. It’s very lightly seasoned, so they rely heavily on the accompanying Parmesan cheese for saltiness.
Texture: Eggplant strips are moderately thin with a light, crisp coating that’s fried until it’s somewhat dark; moderately greasy.
Marinara: Venice Club’s marinara is slightly sweet with a rich tomato flavor; it’s generously spiced with oregano, garlic and basil.
Serving vessel: A Styrofoam plate, a Styrofoam cup for marinara and a plastic cup for parmesan cheese.
What you get: A hefty serving of fried eggplant, marinara sauce and ranch dressing.
Flavor: These strips are tender and creamy. Their exterior is moderately seasoned with just enough salt to complement the eggplant’s flavor.
Texture: Eggplant strips are ever-so-slightly thicker than those at Venice Club. Their breading is ultra light and crisp, almost tempura-like in consistency; moderately greasy.
Marinara: Pizza Man’s marinara is bright and tomato-forward with a notable acidity; it’s lightly seasoned with a hint of garlic and basil.
Serving vessel: A large paper boat, plastic cups for marinara and ranch dressing.
Which eggplant is the best?
Here’s my take.
When it came to technique, both were well-prepared, served up crisp and hot with appropriate accouterments. The portions were also similarly sized, giving neither a particular advantage when it comes to quantity.
That said, price-wise, Pizza Man is the obvious winner, clocking in at almost $3 less for a comparable portion. But the more centrally located Venice Club is also more conveniently accessed from most parts of the grounds, so that could be a consideration for some.
As for flavor, this is where things get extremely subjective. I loved the lightness of the Pizza Man breading and the level of seasoning (a squeeze of fresh lemon would have taken these to a whole new level).
However, when it comes to dipping sauces, I found myself attracted to the robust seasoning of the Venice Club marinara. The ranch dressing is a nice touch on Pizza Man’s part (and might appeal to some), but the marinara definitely feels more classic to me.
Unrelated to the eggplant itself, I also found myself considering the vessels in which the eggplant was served. The eco-friendly part of me was disheartened by the Styrofoam vessels used for both the eggplant and the sauce at Venice Club (It's non-biodegradable and resistant to photolysis; its production also pollutes the air, creates toxic waste and produces hydrofluorocarbons.).
Admittedly, that has less to do with the eggplant itself and more to do with waste; but in today’s world, every little effort counts. I’d love to see Summerfest encourage vendors to use green serve-ware that could be composted or recycled on site. It's food for thought.
Update: On July 1, 2019, I received a very encouraging message from Thomas Balistreri of Venice Club in response to my commentary about their use of styrofoam:
"After reading the criticism about our styrofoam vessels, I spoke to the family. We will be looking next year to have a more environmentally friendly vessel. We appreciate you pointing out that in your article.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.