The return of Pizza Man
Pizza Man is back, out of the ashes of a five-alarm blaze that destroyed half a block, and left restaurant owner Mike Amidzich more concerned with overseeing a pre-mixed margarita company called “Stinky Gringo” than adding to his list of Wine Spectator awards. Spankingly updated and awash in new buzz, the longtime pizza and pasta slingers began what looks like a very lucrative second life this month on Downer Avenue. So, in accordance, let’s all get excited, over-excited, pretend we know something about wine, wait multiple hours for a table, spend way too much, and, like it can’t be done elsewhere, eat a fuckload of pizza.
The space: Any discussion as to Pizza Man’s “space” has to start with its old digs. It was a joint so perfect, so food-and-drink enhancing, it gives pain to consider: dim, cozy, warm, on-the-strip but somehow still in-the-know, hip but old school. But all that’s in the past. While we still have wood aplenty, big-backed booths making you feel ensconced and appropriately intimate with your pepperoni, lots of wine, and what is generally a very nice, chic restaurant, the layout seems culled from the pages of Bon Appétit. Upstairs is a bustling outdoor patio. On the ceiling is some tin, or faux tin. There’s that ridiculous sandbag-weighted front door, almost the same as the old one first-timers used to struggle mightily with. And this makes us smile. We just wish we could step through said portal to that other time and place.
The service: Pretty friendly, considering the malignant news of a two-hour wait. Largely cordial, seeing as how the bartender was being bitched at by an openly pissed-off server. Mostly helpful, despite dirty glasses piling high and doing a Tower Of Pisa impression at the end of the bar. We’ll chalk up the side-stage disenchantment to stress and the overwhelming opening-week rush.
The A.V. Club’s food: New York is considered, accurately, the mecca of American pizza. At the same time, it’s the most expensive city in the history of mankind; so, a quick price comparison seems apt.
Here, a “Simple” with cheese and sauce runs $17 for a 16-inch large pizza. Add $3 for pepperoni, and you’re paying $20 for what would run you $16 at Grimaldi’s—a tourist and local favorite with lines around the block and a consistent reputation for some of the best pies in the five boroughs. Also, here a single serving 12-inch with cheese and sauce is $13, while at Roberta’s—a top-of-Zagat Brooklyn joint—the same deal, with fresh basil included, runs $12. Good pizza is priceless, of course. But maybe even more baffling than paying less in the billion-dollar-rent locales than we do on Downer is the technical difference: Grimaldi’s is using a hand-built, 1200-degree coal fired-oven; Roberta’s, a from-Italy wood-burning stone masterwork. Pizza Man uses, well, something that gets pretty hot.
But, maybe there’s nothing wrong with all that. Maybe here they cook with more love. And, really, how’s it taste?
We sampled a classic cheese-sauce-pepperoni combo ($16 for a small) and the “most famous of them all” Artichoke À La Mode ($18 for a small). Both could have probably used another minute in whatever kind of convective is back there behind the grumpy waiters, but the former had nice black spots and decent snap on the crust, awesome curvature on the edges of pepperoni, and good middle-of-the-road grease content. The latter hit some nice notes with cream cheese, fresh tomato, and not too many of the overwhelming-if-overdone eponymous thistle.
They added up to a solid ’za experience, but one definitely laid naked in a far less convivial, one-of-a-kind atmosphere. We had to wonder: were we even ever in love with Pizza Man’s pizza? Or just the place, the idea? But while bad pizza is still good, even a bit above the Mendoza line is pretty great. And here we can at the very least offer a roster spot in our gut. As long as they don’t try to sell us the Pizza Man Special—with way too many toppings for appropriate cooking, or any of the unfortunate green olive or pineapple-topped jobs. Or anything else, really, because we were barely on our third glass of Friday happy hour Pinot ($6—nice, if you’re into that sort of thing) and already over our entire weekend budget.
But, expensive or not, pizza is undoubtedly the way to grub here. Especially when you consider some unfortunate preambles: the disgraceful Onion Ring Loaf ($7) is a foot-long brick of congealed, crustified, fried onion rings, so big and bad it was an embarrassment when we bumped into friends during our app round. It’s a deep-fried mess likely from a mad, stoned fry cook hopped up on a marathon of Man Vs. Food and oversupplied with jammed crates of RSA onions. Pushing this ugly beast aside, we figured the Salume board ($12) could nicely whet our protein whistle. Instead, the “cured meats and prosciutto” was a heaping mess of cold-cut-like ham product. There was little distinction, there was too much, and of course with the noise level, there was no hope of ascertaining the identity of any of the olive and parmesan overwhelmers.
Maybe these precursors are just executed in the vein of homey simplicity. At these prices? We’d rather be wow-ed than aww-schucks-ed.
The verdict: A bit overrated, certainly overpriced, and for what most likely will be the foreseeable future, way overcrowded. And yet, somehow, we’ll be back—still bringing out-of-towners, overeating, over-selling, over-convincing ourselves of what, even if it shouldn’t be, sure feels like a Milwaukee institution.