I've found a number of pretty good pizza places in Milwaukee over the years. One of the first that I tried nearly 10 years ago came upon the recommendation of a dealer I used to call on years ago at a place just across the street from his store with the decidedly Italian name of Mama Mia's. It had been some time since I'd treated myself to a pizza on the road and I decided to give Mama Mia's a long-awaited revisit one evening on a recent trip to Milwaukee.
Actually, the full name of the restaurant is Barbiere's Mama Mia's Ristorante. And to confuse you, there are actually two factions of Mama Mia's that share the same DNA, but not the same ownership. The Mama Mia's story starts in 1954 when Alvin Fernandez and Tony Barbiere opened the first Mama Mia's restaurant at the corner of 49th and North Ave. in Milwaukee's Uptown neighborhood, right near the present day location of McBob's Irish Pub. Business flourished and Fernandez and Barbiere opened a location in the Kops Park/Cooper Park neighborhood in West Milwaukee. The third location - the one on Silver Spring Dr. that houses the Mama Mia's I went to - opened in 1963. Somewhere along the way, Tony Barbiere and Alvin Fernadez split up with Fernandez taking two of the Mama Mia's and Barbiere taking the Silver Springs location. There is still a Mama Mia's restaurant owned by Alvin Fernandez's daughter in suburban Wales, WI, thus the "Barbiere's Mama Mia's" for the one on Silver Spring.
There are also some Barbiere family-owned restaurants in the immediate Milwaukee area. Up in the picturesque lakeside community of Port Washington, Tony's son, Jude Barbiere, owns the Mama Mia's Italian Restaurant, while Tony's brother, Sal, started the Barbiere's Italian Inn on West Bluemound Road in 1963. Sal's son, Steve, took over the ownership of that restaurant when Sal retired in 1973. And in 1997, Steve retired and sold the restaurant to longtime employee Mark Dempsey. A second Barbiere's Italian Inn opened in South Milwaukee about three years ago.
There was also a Barbiere's Mama Mia's in suburban Shorewood, north of Milwaukee, but that has since closed up. Tony Barbiere is still listed as the owner of the Mama Mia's in North Milwaukee.
It had been a long day of travel that started out in Madison with stops in Appleton, Green Bay, Manitowoc and north suburban Milwaukee. It was around 8:30 when I pulled into Mama Mia's located at the border between Milwaukee and suburban Glendale. (see map) As you walk into the restaurant, there's a large dining room off to the right and a bar off to the left. I decided to eat at the bar and watch some sports on TV. Directly beside the bar is another dining room that looks like its used for a lunch buffet or overflow dining. I was the only person in the bar and I got a menu from the bartender/server. Even though they have a number of Italian entrees on the menu, I knew exactly what I wanted. I ordered a 12" Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza with the Mama Mia's original thin crust pizza. My server asked me, "You want some butter garlic bread with that?"
I had heard that Mama Mia's butter garlic bread is to die for, but I knew I probably wouldn't be able to eat the whole pizza, let alone a pizza and butter garlic bread. I declined her offer.
Another couple had come in to pick up a pizza to go. It wasn't ready yet, so they sat at the bar near me and had a drink. I heard them talking to the bartender about a trip to Hawaii they just came back from. I politely interrupted their conversation and asked where they went to in Hawaii. The lady said, "Maui!"
I told her that we had spent a week on Maui about two and a half years ago. "I'd swim back to Maui, if I could," I told the couple. They agreed with me that Maui was the bomb.
Works of art take time, so it was 20 minutes and into my third beer when the pizza showed up in front of me. The misshapen corn meal crust showed that it was made from scratch. There were ample amounts of fresh mushrooms, pepperoni slices and chunks of Italian sausage on top of the pizza. I waited awhile to let the pizza cool down for fear of burning the top of my mouth. The first bite was a crunchy, flavor-filled explosion in my mouth. I'm not big on corn meal crust pizza, but this wasn't bad. I did think the crust was a little too stiff and crisp for me, but it wasn't a deal breaker. Another minor quibble is that I thought the pizza sauce was a little too sweet for my taste. Some parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes helped take some of the sweetness out of the taste. But the toppings, including the mozzarella cheese, were fresh. It was as good of a pizza as I remembered from my first visit years ago.
I was able to finish just over half the pizza and had the young lady box up the final three pieces for me. I had a refrigerator and a microwave in my room and I had the remaining pieces for breakfast the next morning. The crust had soaked up the grease and sauce, and was not as crunchy and stiff as the night before. I remember liking it better with a softer crust.
I may want to try the other Mama Mia's restaurants to see if their pizza is similar to Barbiere's Mama Mia's in North Milwaukee. I don't think it's the best pizza I've had in Milwaukee, but it is still very good. It's different from many others in the area, a sort of pizza signature, if you will. Some people probably prefer the corn meal crust and the sweet tomato sauce over the others, but not me. Still, past that, I certainly can't say anything bad about the pizza at Barbiere's Mama Mia's.
(Update - After 60 years in business, Mama Mia's closed their doors in the fall of 2014. Their location in Mequon is still open.)