Cari Taylor-Carlson

Zaffiro’s Is More Than Just a Pizza Joint

This historic East Side pizza place has a wide array of Italian-American favorites that impress.

By - Sep 25th, 2019 03:02 pm
Zaffiro’s Pizza. Photo by Joey Grihalva.

Zaffiro’s Pizza. Photo by Joey Grihalva.

In 1953 Dean Martin crooned “When the moon hits your eye like a bigga pizza pie, that’s amore.” People thought he meant chocolate or coconut cream, until they met that pizza pie, a gooey, cheesy concoction, an overnight success. Soon it was everywhere, the next new thing in the franchise world, almost as ubiquitous as Wonder Bread.

Those early pizza places had nothing in common with Milwaukee’s Zaffiro’s, a staple on the Lower East Side since 1954, when Bobby and Rose opened their restaurant/bar on Farwell. The crust on their pizza would soon be the gold standard for those who prefer a cracker-thin crust with a crunch. Today, the only thing that’s changed in the pizza world since Zaffiro’s opened their hole-in-the-wall place 65 years ago, is the number of pizza restaurants that seem to pop up almost weekly. While the “Who has the best pizza in Milwaukee?” debate rages on, I’ll join the controversy and throw my vote to Zaffiro’s.

Friends and I came recently on a Tuesday when the Daily Special was pizza, buy one and get the second one at half-price. We were the lone females in the room that day, seated next to a table of eight, where a cellphone rang with the theme to The Godfather and comments ranged from “I knew you when you were a little shit,” to an entire conversation overheard on a speaker phone set to “Loud.”

Like almost everyone else that day, we took advantage of the Daily Special, and polished off two 10-inch pizzas, one Special, cheese, sausage, mushroom, and onion, and the Basic, cheese and onions. My companion requested an extra crispy well-done crust; that was exactly what she got. Someone in the kitchen paid attention to her special order.

In addition to their pizza, I’m a fan of everything else on the menu. They may have made their reputation on that thin crust, but this mighty little restaurant is more than a pizza joint. All the soup, for example, is house-made. Stuffed Pepper, tomato-based with ground beef, rice and peppers, and Chicken Soup, with a chunk of white meat in every bite, were both worth a rave. Only the Cream of Eggplant let us down. It could have been cream of whatever, as it lacked any discernible taste of eggplant.

They also make a mean meatball. You can have it several ways, in a sandwich inside an Italian roll, on mostaccioli with tomato sauce, on top of cheese ravioli, or as a side. The meatball is impossibly tender with subtle Italian flavors, especially oregano and thyme, and big enough to add serious protein to the carbs. Come on a Thursday, and you can order the Special, Mostaccioli with marinara, two meatballs, and a basket of Nino’s Italian bread for $7.00.

Also, on the Pasta Menu, Cheese Ravioli, house-made, stuffed with ricotta, and topped with meat sauce (my choice) made my list of best-ever classic, not fussy, Italian dishes. The ravioli, soft, luxurious, impossibly tender, just like the meatballs, filled the platter, easily enough for two. You can also order it with plain tomato sauce, meatballs, Italian sausage, or butter sauce.  If you want something else with those sauces, order the house-made tortellini.

For the Italian Beef Sandwich, the chef stuffed a toasted roll with thin slices of marinated beef and melted cheese, then served it with a dish of au jus, just as it should be. This heaty meal came to a whopping $6.75 and it included an order of fries.

Likewise, the Fish Sandwich, two deep-fried pieces of cod, also served on a toasted roll with a side of house-made tarter sauce, was a delectable bargain at $5.50. You could turn the fish sandwich, or any other sandwich, into a platter with fries and soup or salad for an additional $3.00. Other sandwiches include: Tenderloin Steak; Pork or Chicken; Italian Sausage, patty or link; Beef Burger; and Grilled Cheese-

On the salad menu, they tell you straight up, they use the oft demeaned iceberg lettuce, along with tomatoes, black olives, croutons, and pepperoncini, not fancy, but abundant, as evidence by the gigantic bowl we noted at a nearby table.

I leave with a Par-Baked Personal Pepperoni Pizza and a promise to return for Homemade Lasagna and an order of Deep-Fried Eggplant, a relatively new addition to the menu. I also take with me an increased appreciation for Zaffiro’s, not just the pizza, but for the care they give everything on their diverse, very Italian menu.

Photo Gallery

On The Menu

The Rundown

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2 thoughts on “Dining: Zaffiro’s Is More Than Just a Pizza Joint”

  1. just1paul says:

    Zaffiros is my go to place.

  2. Keith Prochnow says:

    And, as any resident of The Sterling will tell you, Zaffiro’s is a terrific neighbor. Never will a scrap of litter be found anywhere near the building, their sidewalk is the first-shoveled in the neighborhood every single snowfall, the hedges bordering the parking lot to the north are neatly trimmed every year. And notice Mayor Norquist’s harp lights in front. Very nice!

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