Lingering in my supermarket’s frozen pizza aisle as I frequently do, I recently spied a new brand that caught my eye: Outsiders Pizza Company, advertising Milwaukee-style pizza. Record scratch: Milwaukee-style pizza? I lived in the Midwest for years, wrote about food, visited Milwaukee on the regular, and never had I heard of such a thing. Am I ignorant, or is Milwaukee-style pizza a bunch of bull?
I send a photo of the box to my editor. He responds: “What?!”
Okay, I’m not the only one.
Outsiders, which is backed by Nestlé, also peddles Detroit-style pizza, unquestionable A Style. On its website, Outsiders defines Milwaukee-style thusly: “What’s Milwaukee pizza like? It’s tavern style, meaning the crust is thin, buttery, and far from an afterthought. Toppings range from spicy sausage to real cheese curds, and ample thick-shredded mozzarella is standard.” The company’s website also claims that “Milwaukee is the birthplace of the classic bar pie, because of course it is.” (This, friends, is a bold statement and I think other Midwest cities might want to contest it.)
My investigation continues.
I call Steve Dolinsky, food reporter for Chicago’s ABC-7 and author of the recent book Pizza City USA. (I know he’s eaten pizza in Milwaukee.) Tell me, Mr. Dolinsky, is Milwaukee-style pizza a distinct… thing?
“There’s no such thing,” he tells me, definitively. “It’s Midwestern-style, tavern-style. They tried to do this in Minnesota as well, where there’s maybe 12 people who say there’s a style there. They’re just hyperlocalizing Midwestern tavern pie.”
I’m growing increasingly skeptical, but I want Milwaukee itself to weigh in. Its tourism board would like you to think there’s a specific pizza style there, noting that “classic Milwaukee toppings are sausage, mushroom, and onion.” Toppings do not a pizza style make, though. So I put the question to Carol Deptolla, dining critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: How distinct is Milwaukee-style pizza from any other Midwestern city’s tavern-cut pies?
“I don’t know how distinct it is from, say, Chicago’s thin-crust, or if it’s pretty much the same,” she tells me. “I’ve heard it’s very similar. Milwaukee’s is a super-thin, crisp-as-a-cracker crust.”
Alright, I’m not seeing the distinction. I’m just going to have to try this for myself, aren’t I? So I buy the Outsiders pizza, bummed that my store only carries the pepperoni variety, not the cheese-curd-topped one. (Get it together, Missoula Albertson’s.) After 18-19 minutes, I remove the pie and
let it cool for the appropriate amount of time jk I tear into that shit like a honey badger.
My verdict: This is just Midwestern tavern-style pizza. The thin crust crumbles with an audible crunch but isn’t saltine-thin; the rough-cut pepperoni topping is… fine; the cheese is no different than any other frozen pie. My non-Midwest boyfriend doesn’t get the regional distinction at all: “It’s like a better Tony’s?”
Finally, I take my question to the ultimate juror pool, the arbiters in all matter of culinary battles royale: my Instagram followers. Their poll results are not scientifically valid, perhaps, but they are telling: 97 percent say no way is this a distinct style. One friend messages me specifically to say: “Coming from a guy from Milwaukee—no.”
Any Brew City natives care to disagree?