"Hello, Pizza Man Pizza? This is the King. Uh, huh. Elll-vis. Send me over a large, no, make that an extra large cheese, no, make that two extra large cheese, no, make that two extra large double cheese pizzas." (Singing) "I'm young, I'm alone and I'm hungry..."
That was a comedy bit I used to hear back in the mid-70's before Elvis Presley passed away. I always liked the name of the place in the piece - Pizza Man Pizza. So, when I started to travel to Milwaukee a number of years ago, I found that there was a popular place on the city's east side that was named Pizza Man. I had tried to get in a couple times before, but the 55-seat restaurant was packed both times and it would have been an hour wait to get a seat. Then, and quite unfortunately, it burned to the ground in January of 2010. There was talk for awhile that Pizza Man wouldn't be back in business, but they did reopen in a new location in late July of 2013. I finally had the chance to go try a Pizza Man pizza on a visit to Milwaukee in the late part of last year.
Mike Amidzich was a mid-20's hippie entrepreneur who would take his barbecue wagon around to outdoor concerts in the Midwest in the late 60's and into 1970. After a disastrous weekend at the Wadena rock festival in NE Iowa in 1970, Amidzich found himself completely broke and had to shut down his small enterprise.
Coming back to his hometown of Milwaukee, Amidzich went looking for a job and was talking to someone about becoming a pizza cook. However, that opportunity was pulled out from underneath him at the last moment. But when Amidzich found that another pizza place had recently gone out of business, he got a small bank loan - co-signed by his parents - and bought the former Rudy's Pizza, a take-out place at the corner of North Ave. and Oakland Ave. on Milwaukee's east side, and opened Pizza Man.
Initially, he used the recipes that were left from Rudy's Pizza, but found that most of the ingredients were frozen beforehand. He decided that he wanted to use only the freshest of ingredients on his pizzas. Customer's immediately noticed the better taste of the Pizza Man pizzas.
Amidzich embraced the counter-culture atmosphere that was growing in Milwaukee and decided to market to the people who liked what he liked. Nearly all of the pizza places in Milwaukee at the time either closed at 10 p.m., or they didn't deliver. (Or both!) Knowing that people who liked to party late in the night usually meant that they had the munchies, Pizza Man delivered up to 3 a.m. during the week and 4 a.m. on the weekends. And to help quench their customer's thirst, Amidzich provided free quart bottles of Pepsi products with each pizza. Business got so good for Pizza Man that they became one of the largest independent Pepsi accounts in the state of Wisconsin - and they gave away the vast majority of the pop!
A year after opening and with business booming, Amidzich asked the bike shop next door if they would mind moving to a larger location down the street so he could take over the space for a dining room. Pizza Man started sit down service in 1971. He built a small bar area and stocked the back bar with a number of higher-end liquors - Scotch, vodka, liqueurs, and appertifs, mainly. But that didn't seem to go over well with the patrons eating pizzas. He eventually took out the back bar liquor cabinets and put in wine racks. Amidzich loved wine and he felt that it was a better companion with pizza than hard liquor.
Intially, Amidzich (pictured right - photo courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) turned to a wine sommelier to help him pick the wines. California wines were beginning to become the rage and Amidzich and the sommelier picked out a number of wines to stock at Pizza Man. Within a short period of time, he garnered an impressive collection of great wines one of the best in the greater Milwaukee area earning Pizza Man the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. At one point in time, Pizza Man offered 600 different bottles of wine - all of them available by the glass. Suddenly, Pizza Man became one of the largest wine bars, not only in Wisconsin, not only in the U.S., but in the world!
In July of 2010, a fire erupted next door at the Black and White Cafe destroying both the cafe and Pizza Man, along with a couple of other businesses and a number of apartments that were located on the second floor of the building. (Photo at left courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) Authorities eventually indicted the cafe's owner for setting the fire to garner over $100,000 in insurance money so he could move to a new location. (Even though the cafe owner was acquitted by a jury in 2013, the judge in the case still gave him a 2 1/2 year sentence for probable cause. That sentence was thrown out on appeal in 2015.)
Amidzich lost everything. Even the bottled wine stored in the basement had to be destroyed. It was a low part in his life, but he decided he wanted to rebuild. However, banks were unwilling to work with Amidzich regarding his financial needs to build a new Pizza Man restaurant. Down in the dumps, Amidzich announced that Pizza Man would be no more, and that his wife, Deanna, and he would focus on their other business - Stinky Gringo pre-mixed margaritas.
But Pizza Man was his number one love and toward the end of 2012, Amidzich announced that a group of Pizza Man fans had approached him about helping him reopen in a new location. The funds from the private investors allowed Amizich to find a new building on Downer Ave. less than a mile from the original Pizza Man in what was the former Lixx Ice Cream and Frozen Yogurt shop. Amidzich worked with the progressive Milwaukee architecture firm Rinka Chung on the design for the new Pizza Man.
After extensive remodeling of the space including putting in an upstairs eating area with rooftop and deck seating, a larger bar with 12 taps and coolers for 50 different types of bottled beers, and the installation of the same-style of the huge barn-style wooden doors that were so heavy that they needed a counterweight to control their opening and closing, Pizza Man had a soft opening on July 30, 2013 featuring a limited menu. However, thanks to a mix-up via social media, hundreds of people showed up for the soft opening overwhelming the staff. Pizza man officially opened with a full menu a couple weeks later.
In the meantime, Amidzich - who is in his early 70's - opened a second Pizza Man location in the summer of 2015 at the Mayfair Collection, an upscale mall in west suburban Wauwatosa. Both locations have about 250 different bottles of wine - all by the glass. It's not quite the over 600 bottles of wine Amidzich had at the original Pizza Man location, but it's a nice start as he and his sommelier, Heather Korte, are trying to add about 10 new varieties a month.
I was staying in downtown Milwaukee and I made my way up Prospect Ave., then after a couple jogs I was on N. Downer Ave. pulling up to Pizza Man which sits on the corner of Downer and E. Belleville Place. (see map) The parking around the place is primarily street parking and I was able to find a spot just down the street from the restaurant.
Many of the tables and booths were filled when I got in around 8 p.m. I asked the hostess if I could get food at the bar. She said it was no problem. She let me pick out my spot at the crowded bar - I think I got the last seat - and she left off a menu for me to look through. My bartender/server that evening was a young man with the distinctive name of Eder. I had a quick look through the beer list and I had him bring me a Lagunitas IPA while I looked through the wine list just to see what they had to offer. It was an impressive collection of West Coast U.S. wines, most of them from California, but they also had a number of wines from Washington and Oregon.
The inside of the place had sort of a rustic, yet urban look to the place. The back bar was sent in an arch of bricks with a long tall bar in front. There was a tin roof ceiling above the bar and the famous wine bottle Christmas tree at the old Pizza man has been replaced by a wine bottle chandelier that hangs above the staircase. (Photo at right courtesy Milwaukee Business Journal.)
All the pizzas at Pizza Man start with a choice of thin crust, pan, or gluten free dough. From there, you choose a sauce - the classic is Pizza Man's original red pizza sauce, the Italia features a red sauce made out of San Marzano tomatoes, the bianca is a white garlic sauce, and they have a pesto sauce base, as well. The toppings start with a dozen different types of meat including spicy lamb sausage, pancetta and prosciutto from the La Quercia artisan meat company out of Norwalk, IA, and grass-fed ground beef. Vegetable toppings to choose from number over 20 including raddachio, rappini, Brussels sprouts, Kalamata olives, Calabrian hot peppers, and caramelized pineapple. And Pizza Man offers nearly a dozen different types of cheese including goat cheese, a 3-year-old cheddar, smoked provolone, gorgonzola, and cream cheese. Of course, they have fresh mozzarella, parmesan and romano cheese.
Pizza Man specialty pizzas - which number over a dozen - include the Atomic made with the San Marzano sauce, salami, pancetta, Calabrian peppers, red onions, smoked provolone, and oregano; the Greca has the white garlic sauce base, spicy lamb sausage, pine nuts, oregano and red onions; the Apugliese is topped with sausage, rapini, romano cheese, and an anchovy-garlic oil; and the Avantgardner is Pizza Man's vegetarian specialty pizza topped with grilled egg plant, rapini, red peppers, onions, oregano, ricotta cheese and a lemon oil.
The one thing about it, because of the eclectic sauces, vegetable and meat toppings, the pizza at Pizza Man isn't cheap. Many of the specialty pizzas started out at $17 for a small (12") thin crust pizza. A small pizza made with the San Marzano sauce base starts at $12. From there, meat toppings run $3 or $4 dollars each and vegetables run $2 each. Additional cheese toppings run $3 bucks. And it doesn't matter with the size of pizza - the price of the toppings is the same no matter the size (small, medium - 14", large - 18"), so getting a larger pizza is a better value.
I went with my old standby Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushroom. I went with the thin crust - a small - and with the San Marzano sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese. The sausage served on Pizza Man's pizza comes from Vinny's Sausage Company, a Milwaukee-based meat company known for their bratwurst, Italian, Hungarian and Polish sausage. The pizza you're looking at on the left ran right at $23 bucks. Ouch!
So, it had better be great, right? Well, it wasn't THAT great - I mean it was very good with the fresh toppings including the zippy pepperoni slices, the chunky and zesty Italian sausage, and the fresh and earthy sliced mushrooms. The San Marzano sauce was difficult to decipher on the tongue - I would have liked to have tried the classic Pizza Man sauce to see if there was a significant difference. The fresh mozzarella was very good, however. And the crust had a caramelized ring with a soft, yet crunchy texture. This was a very good pizza - but $23 bucks worth? For a 12" pizza? Hmmm... Tough to say.
I can see where some people would get sticker shock if they didn't know what to expect with the prices of the pizzas at Pizza Man. And for those of you who haven't been there before - like me - that's why I'm telling you. With my pizza and three Lagunitas IPA's (beers were $6 bucks each - double ouch!), my bill came to over $50 bucks with tax and a tip for Eder's fine job of taking care of me. I mean, the pizza was very good. I don't know if it was that good of a value, but it was different than most any other pizza in the Milwaukee area. And given that the place was packed - and they've opened a second location in Wauwatosa - the people who go to Pizza Man realize that they're getting a better pizza and are willing to pay for it. And that's what Pizza Man is evidently going for - a better and different pizza than what's available elsewhere. I just don't know if it's worth it, though. (Photo courtesy Milwaukee Business Journal.)