Lower East Side
Classic, ultra-thin-crust pizzas served on red-checkered tables
The Zaffiro family, who are Sicilian immigrants, started making pizzas in the early '50s, and their pies have become a quintessential Milwaukee treat. There’s no reason to stray from the most popular topping combination around these parts: the sausage, mushroom, and onion. While every local pizza place offers this combo, Zaffiro's doesn't have to have invented this wheel to have perfected it. Make sure you head to the Zaffiro's on Farwell; the others located in movie theaters are sub-par.
To-go pizzas loaded with toppings, plus butter-filled garlic bread
Alphonso’s is a little take-out and delivery-only spot named after the owners’ mentor... Alphonso, who willed his precious 1969 Camaro and his family’s (even more precious) recipes to owners Tim Szuta and Corey Washington when he passed in 2005. The Heavy Chevy is dedicated to him and his beloved drag racer, and includes just about every topping on the menu. Like all Alphonso's pizzas, the bake time is long, which ensures the middle of the pizza isn’t soggy under all that meat, veg, and cheese. If you’re not a kitchen-sink-pizza type of person, the standard sausage and pepperoni is perfection on a crunchy crust.
Eclectic toppings with special diet consideration in a bright storefront
There’s a ton of pizzas to choose from at this sleek spot, which also offers lots of live music and an extensive bar. All the options come on a pillowy, fluffy crust with lots of charred bubbles. You can get a range of toppings, from classics like prosciutto to, uh, less-common choices like salmon or shrimp. Many of the options come with a creamy garlic sauce in place of tomato, in case you want to ward off any vampires/romantic prospects -- try it with the roasted chicken breast and pan fried potatoes.
Chicago-style deep-dish pizza for take-out
Scotty’s makes a number of different kinds of pies, from thin and crispy to stuffed pizza with sauce on the top. The sweet spot seems to be in the middle, though, with the pan pizza: it’s a thick, doughy crust that’s got a nice crunch on the bottom, topped with a double helping of cheese. It’s not exactly like the deep dish you can get in Chicago, but it’s how we do it up north, and it's just as delicious.
Lower East Side, Juneau Town, and Story Hill
Madison pizza-by-the-slice transplant popular with the bar crowd
Most people only know Ian's as a bar time, fill-your-stomach-with-carbs-quickly kind of place. And while that's always been their bread and butter, it's time to visit one of their three locations during daylight hours. They make just about everything from scratch, including the dough, smoked meats, pizza sauce, and that great ranch dressing. The pepperoni is a solid, greasy NYC-style slice, but be on the lookout for slices like drunken ravioli, smoked brisket and tots, and chili cheese Frito. Also available: tons of vegan options like a plant-based version of their famous mac and cheese slice, and local tap beer.
Romantic Italian restaurant with wine by the glass
Known for pasta and an extensive wine list, this Italian date spot also serves up a seriously tasty pie. The Diavola is an interesting mix of toppings with pepperoni, giardiniera peppers, cream cheese, and pineapple, for a sweet/hot combination. It’s creamy, a little meaty, and definitely wakes up your taste buds.
Old-school strip-mall pizza
A south-side staple for just about as long as anyone can remember (1969 in fact), Ned's serves up the thin crust, square cut pies that Milwaukeeans love. They're heavy on the pizza sauce -- no dry pies here -- and cheese, making for a pizza that's almost too gooey as you pull off a slice… almost. The dining area is small and in need of a makeover, but hey, at least there is one.
Coffee shop with wood-fired pizzas
A coffee shop that serves pizza? It's not that weird once you see the huge Ferrara wood-burning pizza oven that was imported from Italy. Thanks to that bad boy, pizzas cook in only a minute or two, in true southern Italian style. Try the classic margherita pizza first, because it's just beautiful in its simplicity, ash it down with a glass of wine or a beer -- yep, this coffee shop has booze too.
Wauwatosa spot with long-fermented, fast-fired pizza
The owners of Wy'east moved to Milwaukee from Portland where they operated a popular pizza truck. Those same pizzas have found a permanent home here in a renovated spot with a small dining room on Vliet St, where pizzas are cooked quickly in a super-hot, wood-fired oven, with dough that's had an extra-long fermentation time, which leads to better flavor and texture. Toppings and pizza names are influenced by the Pacific Northwest, like the Hot Marmot topped with pepperoni and hot peppers pickled in a maple syrup brine.
Old-school Italian joint known for pizza
There are two Balistreri's locations just blocks from each other, but the one in Wauwatosa is more casual and laid back (and it's been around a lot longer). The pizzas are thin and crispy here, and come out in somewhat amorphous oval shapes. The edges of the crust that don't have a smear of sauce or covering of cheese tend to get extra well done and shatter when you try to pick up a slice, but just throw those on top for an extra crunchy bonus. Get the fried eggplant strips to start, but only get the massive full-size order if you have at least 4 people eating.
No-frills pizza shack for take-out only
This tiny shack, painted bright red and green, pumps out some of the best pizza in the city. The total customer area is about 5 square feet, so you’ll have to either wait at the bar across the street or call in your order ahead of time. The menu is small, and you won't find any fancy toppings here; Hup's serves up hearty, simple pie that's been sustaining the neighborhood for decades. The Italian sausage is bold with fennel, and makes a perfect pizza topper.
Throwback pizzeria with pies that overflow the pans
The pizzas at Maria’s are shaped by the dough sheeter, which means that they come in shapes that can't truly be described by geometry, and they will always flop over the edges of the serving pan onto the red checked vinyl tablecloth. Get pepperoni, as it’s the kind with a natural casing that gently cups into a delicious grease reservoir, ready to receive Parmesan from the shaker. The Christmas lights on the ceiling, paint-by-numbers on the walls, and bouffant hairdos on the senior wait staff are all just amazing bonuses that add to the charm of this cash-only neighborhood spot that's been around seemingly forever.
Inverted Milkwaukee-style pies in a relaxed setting with bocce ball
Milwaukee-style pizza, with its thin, crackery crust often suffers from one major problem: sogginess, especially in the center of the pizza. Fixture has set out to solve that problem by applying the sauce on top of the cheese, and has been largely successful. Sure, the pizza may look a little strange, but at least it won't flop a greasy heap into your lap. They also do a solid deep-dish pie, which puts the cheese back on top. Pizzas are named for local businesses, so don't feel strange when you order the D.I.X. or Tin Widow.
VPN-certified Neapolitan pizza bar
The focal point of San Giorgio is the conical blue pizza oven, imported straight from Italy, which pumps out pies at breakneck speed while diners sit around it at the bar and watch the action. This is the only VPN-certified pizzeria in Milwaukee, which means the owners pay a lot of money to be evaluated by the supreme Neapolitan pizza gods, who dictate everything from ingredients they can use to the size of the yeast packages they can buy. Maybe that really makes a difference, and maybe it's just marketing hype, but either way, it's good pizza.
Sleek tavern with traditional Neapolitan pizza
Housed in a 19th-century building that has been used as a tavern and a brothel, Santino's serves up Neapolitan pizza in the very northern tip of Bay View. The neglected building got a full renovation, including a few nods to The Godfather, and now boasts an abstract ceiling mural lit in hot pink at night. Pizza crust is made with Caputo brand 00 flour, the gold standard for this kind of pizza, so you should stick to the classic margherita to appreciate the simplicity. Of course, it's hard to pass up the very untraditional but delicious Italian beef and giardiniera pizza, so get that one too.
Friendly corner bar with cheap, thin-crust pizza
Happy Tap has all the things necessary for a long-lived corner tavern: regulars, cheap alcohol, "for entertainment only" machines, and great pizza to keep you spending money there. Pizzas are cheap -- $8 for a 12-inch cheese pizza -- and the crust is super thin and baked in a tiny kitchen. The sausage is pinched into chunks and flecked with spices, and its tasty grease mingles with the mozzarella. Cheesy garlic bread loaded with butter is also great here, and it's served with a cup of pizza sauce that's so thick the plastic fork stands upright in it.
Thin crust pies from the back of a tavern
If you're driving down the street looking for Vinchi's, you're not going to find it. Look for The Bubbler instead, the name of the neighborhood bar that Vinchi's is located in. It's a symbiotic relationship: You drink the bar's beer, and you eat pizza from Vinchi's, which also delivers if you live in the area. The style is quintessential Milwaukee, with a neatly shaped, crunchy crust cut into small squares, lots of cheese, and toppings that go right up to the edge of the pie. They're cooked well done, so the cheese gets those lovely brown spots that add so much flavor.