Cari Taylor-Carlson

Pizza Man Offers Far More Than Pie

It still offers good food, a wide-ranging menu and vast wine list, but now in a bigger, gorgeously-rehabbed space.

By - Jan 20th, 2015 02:45 pm
Pizza Man. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

Pizza Man. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

In 2000 I wrote in Milwaukee’s Best Cheap Eats, (out of print) “Sometimes good food shows up in unexpected places.” At the time, people associated Pizza Man with pizza and nothing else, not Escargot, French Onion Soup, nor Classic Caesar Salad tossed with house-made garlic anchovy dressing. If anything, its menu is wide-ranging at the new location. Yet recently, when I ask a friend what she knows about Pizza Man, she replies, “It’s a fast food pizza place isn’t it?”

Let’s get the record straight. I’ve been a customer since 1972, two years after Mike Amidzich opened at the corner of Oakland Ave. and North Ave. For 38 years I drank good wine at the bar and dined well, but never thought to order pizza. I was there to indulge in Fettucine Alfredo, butter-soaked garlic bread topped with crusty mozzarella, and Escargot, snails swimming in a pool of garlic butter. A friend and I often shared an order of escargot, split a Caesar salad, added a bowl of soup, and called it a meal. Sometimes we shared that meal along with a bottle of wine on the tiny candlelit patio tucked behind the restaurant.

If we could, we preferred to dine al fresco, because inside the small, dimly-lit dining room, the wooden booths were not the epitome of comfort, but they did force us to sit up straight.

On January 20, 2010, Milwaukee woke up to the sad news that our beloved Pizza Man had burned to the ground. All that wood must have been tinder for the fire that destroyed the restaurant.

Now we have the reborn Pizza Man on Downer Ave. where vestiges of the old remain, e.g., the stiff wooden booths, but otherwise it’s all new. A contemporary vibe dominates with a mile-long bar and huge windows that face Downer and Webster.

Upstairs, an outside deck and a patio with a retractable roof doubles the seating capacity and gives diners a place to enjoy fresh air with their meal.

Since Pizza Man has a reputation for having one of the best wine selection in the city, it follows that the interior décor would incorporate a few hundred empties. A large chandelier made of colorful hanging bottles lights the way up the wooden stairs to the deck and dozens more add sparkle to the bottom half of the bar in the evening.

Since Pizza Man serves lunch every day, we arrive on a Tuesday, only to be met at the door by an employee who hands us $10.00 certificates and asks us to come another day. Seems they were having a party for the employees that day. Kudos to them.

We use the free money the next day for lunch where I overhear a conversation at an adjacent table, “I thought this was a pizza place like Pizza Hut.”  We know better. A Meatball Sandwich, three juicy meatballs on a submarine roll with giardiniera and provolone, turns out to be a knife and fork meal. That is, unless you have a hinged jaw like a dragonfly larvae and can open your mouth as wide as the circumference of your head. For an extra $1.00, the sandwich comes with a pile of fried eggplant and a small cup of marinara sauce. A significant bonus since that same eggplant costs $8.00 on the Antipasti Menu. We also share an Onion Ring Loaf, which lives up to its billing on the menu when a large brick of battered onion strings overflows the plate. It’s enough for a dozen diners.

Wine chandelier. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

Wine chandelier. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

The Eggplant Parmigiani Sandwich wins the day. “It’s not too cheesey,” my companion says. “You can tell everything is fresh.”

But I have a less than satisfactory experience at dinner a few days later. We arrive at 6:30 on a frigid Friday and notice two empty booths in the center of the restaurant. I request a booth thinking I’m in luck. But the hostess walks past the empty booths and keeps going, all the way to the back corner where she seats us across from the entrance to that mile-long bar. So far so good—until each time a door opens across from where I sit, I look directly into the Men’s Room. I’m so close that I can confirm there are two rolls of toilet paper hanging on the wall.

We order from the “New From The Kitchen” menu, one pasta and one pizza special that changes every week or two. The Pappardelle, fat pasta tossed with wine braised beef ragu is a carnivore’s delight. Or as my companion says, “The chunks of meat are fall-off-the-bone tender and flavorful.”

From the pasta menu, the Mushroom Risotto, creamy carnaroli rice with mushroom ragu and bits of kale does not disappoint. Just enough kale gives it crunch; tiny slivers of wild mushrooms add an earthy flavor to the dish.

We had requested some bread to munch on while we wait for our entrees. When the server brings the bread, four slices so thin I can almost read the menu through them, I ask if we could please have some olive oil. She smiles and delivers a little cream pitcher half full of oil.  When the bill comes, we’re charged $1.50 for that paper-thin bread and $2.00 for the olive oil.

We ordered a half carafe of house red ($20.00) because the least expensive red by the glass is $10.00 and that’s a teeny five-ounce pour.

Everything we ordered was delicious. If $38.00 for a single glass of wine and a serving of risotto (my half of the bill) seems a bit steep, perhaps it’s because someone has to pay for that gorgeous rehabbed building. And, if the skinny bread at dinner cost more that the Fried Eggplant Strips at lunch, so be it. It was all good, that is all except my front row seat that faced the men’s room.

On the Menu

Pizza Man
2597 N. Downer Ave.

Open at 11:00 daily including Sunday

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