Cari Taylor-Carlson
Dining

It’s Not Just for Pizza, Man

Pizza Man offers far-ranging menu, incredible wine list, good food -- and a very cool space.

By - Dec 3rd, 2018 02:10 pm
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Downer Avenue Week
Pizza Man. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

Pizza Man. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

In 2000 I wrote in my book 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 pasta, ribs, or Caesar Salad tossed with house-made garlic anchovy dressing. And clearly that hasn’t changed for some. Recently, when I asked a friend what she knew about Pizza Man, she replied, “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 and North. For 38 years I drank good wine at the bar and dined well, but never thought to order pizza. I was there for things like Fettucine Alfredo, butter-soaked garlic bread topped with crusty mozzarella, and escargot, swimming in a puddle of garlic buttered crumbs. A friend and I often shared an order of escargot, split a Caesar salad, and called it a meal. We shared that meal with a bottle of wine on the tiny candlelit patio behind the restaurant.

When 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, though 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 old wood must have been easy tinder for the fire that obliviated the restaurant.

Now we have the reborn Pizza Man on Downer Avenue where vestiges of the old remain, i.e., the stiff wooden booths, but otherwise it’s all new including the menu, where some of those original favorites such as escargot and French onion soup have been replaced by more varieties of pizza, pasta, and sandwiches. A contemporary urban vibe dominates with a mile-long bar and large windows that face Downer and Webster.

Upstairs, an outside deck and a patio with a retractable roof doubled the seating capacity, giving diners a place to enjoy fresh air with their meal which they do, in droves, when the weather cooperates.

Since Pizza Man has a reputation for one of the best, if not the best, wine lists in the city, it follows that the interior décor would incorporate a few hundred empties. A large chandelier made up of colorful hanging bottles lights the way up the wooden steps to the deck, while dozens more add sparkle to the lower part of the bar in the evening.

At a recent lunch, I overheard a conversation at an adjacent table. “I thought this was a pizza place like Pizza Hut.” Not exactly!

Yes, they do serve pizza. The similarity ends there. Let’s start with Specialty Pizzas, a list of 20 that includes Chicken Pesto Pizza on a green base with red onion and kalamata olives, Lamb Sausage Pizza, Artichoke a la Mode with artichokes and cream cheese, and the basic, albeit favorite, Margherita, red sauce, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella.

You can also build your own starting with a choice of crust, Old School Thin, Pan Crust, or the gluten free option made with quinoa. From there you choose from four base sauces, Classic pizza sauce, Italian with San Marzano red sauce, Bianca, a garlic sauce, and Verde, pesto sauce. Then comes a long list of toppings including several kinds of meat, veggies, cheese, and miscellaneous extras such as a fried egg, truffle oil, and pine nuts.

Since I wasn’t up for pizza, I went to the Sandwiches, a list of five, and ordered the Meatball Sub, three juicy meatballs on a roll with giardiniera and provolone. This was a knife and fork meal, unless you have a hinged jaw like a dragon fly larvae. For an extra $1.00, I ordered a pile of eggplant fries and a cup of marinara sauce, a significant bonus, as those same fries cost $8.00 on the antipasto menu.

My companion ordered the Eggplant Parmigiani Sandwich. “It’s not too cheesy, like others I’ve had,” she said, “and I can tell everything is really fresh.”

From the short list of sandwiches, we bypassed, Grilled Chicken Panino with pesto aioli, House Roasted Italian Beef with smoked provolone, and Pizza Man Panino, three meats and olive tapenade.

For something substantial, go to the Pasta menu where you’ll find Wild Boar Ravioli (a long-time Pizza Man specialty) with sautéed mushrooms in a marsala cream sauce. There’s more. Carbonara with crisp pancetta, Seafood Penne, shrimp, calamari, and crab, in spicy white wine tomato sauce, Ortolano for vegetarians, zucchini spaghetti with green olives, basil, ricotta salata, and tomato fonduta, and the familiar Spaghetti and Meatballs.

Several Entrees to whet the appetite include, Rack of Ribs, Parmigiana with eggplant, chicken or veal, Marsala with chicken or veal, Milanese with chicken or veal, and the unique choice for vegetarians, The Leaf Eater, curry roasted cauliflower, greens, raisins, almonds, and farro in a tahini dressing.

If all that delicious food hasn’t left you in a sated stupor, then check the dessert: Tiramisu, Cold Spoon Gelato, or Suzy’s Cheesecake.

Pizza Man made many changes since I became a fan in the 70s. I miss the escargot and the French Onion Soup, but one thing remains a constant, everything they serve is fresh, well-prepared and well-presented. In a word, delicious!

On The Menu

Photo Gallery

The Rundown

  • Location: 2597 N. Downer Ave.
  • Phone: 414-272-1745
  • Hours: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mon-Thu, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fri, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sat, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sun
  • Walk Score: 88
  • Website: https://pizzamanwi.com/
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PizzaManMKE/
  • UM Rating: 3.6666666666667 stars (average of Yelp, Trip Advisor and Zomato)
  • Menu size: 68
  • Price range food (small plates): $3.00-$22.00
  • Price range food (entrees): $16.00-$20.00
  • Wine list size (bottles): 225
  • Wine list size (glasses): 150
  • Price range wine (bottles): $22.00-$290.00
  • Beer list size (bottles): 33
  • Cuisine Style: Pizza, Italian

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