Pizza Man has burned. Olive Pit was fumbled through the cracks by nefarious landlords. Palermo Villa quietly faded into the pepperoni-shaped sunset. Zaffiro’s insists on serving pies on a crust so thin that we can’t tell if the cheese and tomato sauce aren’t simply levitating themselves through the air and into our gullets. In an age where you can’t throw a morel without hitting a “farm-to-table” entity, where “hand-crafted” is the norm for food trucks, and where every burger is “artisanal,” Milwaukee is actually facing some lean times for high-end ’za.
Not that any of our torchbearers were ever that great to begin with. Sure, spots like Via and Transfer have legions of backers, and a Piccante pie on Rustico’s riverwalk patio is one of our greatest pleasures of summertime. Yet there’s a reason the most buzz-worthy happening on Milwaukee’s pizza scene of late was GQ’s strange love for the schlock at Street-Za. What is our “for-out-of-towners” showoff pizza joint? Why are folks still excited to eat at Classic Slice? And where, for the love of God, are our wood-burning ovens?
Heading south on I-94 has long been the accepted antidote. In truth, Chicago can nail any strain of pizza, at damn near any hour. But since 2000, in-the-know pizza snobs with cars have gushed about a gem hidden the other way: an hour north. Spurred by such murmurs, we gassed up for the long haul up I-43, toward Il Ritrovo.
The space: Nestled in half-quaint downtown Sheboygan sits Il Ritrovo. Inside feels like a combo of Groppi’s and any ol’ generic noodle-slinger. One half features a bar and grocery racks, while the other half has banquette tables, dark red walls, and framed photos of the “old country” lining a positively buzzing dining room. But all of this is but visual foreplay for what’s in back.
First, there’s the official Vera Pizza Napoletana sign. The white placard signifies membership in a cult-like association whose members must meet all requirements for “authentic” Neopolitan style pizza. (The only other two in the state with such distinction are Cafe Porta Alba in Madison and Bricks in Hudson.) Second is the beast itself: a hulking behemoth of Italian craftsmanship named, simply, seductively, Stefano. We’d prepped ourselves for the wood-burning oven prior, with more than a few minutes of drooling over the restaurant’s website video feed. If there is such a thing as food porn, it’d be impossible to find hotter—800-900 degrees of a gaping, lapping womb of possibility, just waiting, primed and toasty for the pizzaiolo to stick his wooden wand inside to consummate the pizza magic.
The service: Milwaukeeans are rarely afforded the chance to sport big-city condescension, but being in Sheboygan, we figured it appropriate to try on. We were wrong. Our host and a team of waitresses were crisp, efficient, knowledgeable, friendly, and hip. What was going on? Weren’t we in the home of the World Bratwurst Eating Championship? At one point, a bartender even appeared to be giving us the “you’re not from around here” attitude. Puzzling indeed, until later it was concluded that quality assurance breeds aloofness. By night’s end, we were eager to abide.
The A.V. Club’s food: Here’s what you do: ask the waitress to take the bread away, immediately. Disregard the Bruschetta alla Campania ($5.95). As for the Positano salad ($13.95), nobody ever drove an hour for mixed greens. Focus. All trips to Sheboygan should start with the Margherita D.O.C. ($12.50). On the Italian Pizza syllabus, this would be both the introduction and the final. (The D.O.C. stands for “Denominazione di Origine Controllata.”) Charry puffs of carbon-y heaven punctuate an immaculately crisped, starchy crust. The cooks go heavy with the gravy, with the bright San Marzano notes bedding generous hunks of delightfully globby mozz. On the top there is just enough basil to both enhance and decorate. Add enough oil for the ingredients to swim through your mouth—but not enough to pool on the plate below—and you have simple, wood-fired perfection. At one-and-a-half minutes to cook, it took a fraction of that to win both our hearts and face holes.
The touch was as adept on all ensuing pies. Bufalina Bianca ($17.95)—Bufalo mozzarella, bufala ricotta, smoked mozzarella, parmigiano, prosciutto di Parma, fresh tomatoes, and arugula—was creamy, salty, charred masterfulness. Boscaiola ($17.25) had mixed mushrooms, rosemary, truffle cheese, smoked mozzarella, pancetta, and came on like the white mushroom pizza for people who think they don’t like mushrooms. Subtle, smoky earthiness changed our mind for good, and nearly provoked a fistfight with the waitress who prematurely grabbed the tray with an almost forgotten scrap of pancetta. But somehow, it was the already-full order of the Calabrese ($13.50)—tomato, mozzarella, hot sopressata salami (like pepperoni, but better!), Calabrian chili paste, basil—that led to climax. The kick from the paste alone made the drive worth it, while the salty, supple meatiness of the sopressata furthered our pity for vegetarians.
After giving the pizzaiolo a well-deserved standing ovation, and before contemplating the trip home, order a house-roasted espresso ($2.50). On the trip there, pizza-anticipation makes the miles slide by, and the speedometer but an afterthought. But with dinner we suggest drinking enough vino to take yourself out of “driver” eligibility. The best trip home is the one spent sprawling in the backseat, unbuttoning those restrictive pants and enjoying a post-coital gaze out the window at the multitudinous stars over Oostburg.
The verdict: It’s still true that even bad pizza is good. But until Milwaukee steps up its game (the owners of Sendik’s are set to unveil their very own Renato oven in the Public Market, so there’s hope), we suggest burning up the highway for the highest form of America’s favorite food. Hell, hitchhike if you must. Il Ritrovo would be at home in Chicago or NYC, and it boasts the best pizza in Wisconsin—hands down.