A homerun in the ballgame of foodie culture is to take something simple, ubiquitous, and pleasant, and deify the fuck out of it. Maybe call it “organic,” raise the price, or source it “locally.” In this case, “it” is the almighty tomato. In 1519, Hernan Cortes discovered the plant in the Costa Rican gardens of Montezuma and took the first seeds back to Europe. The bulbous red balls were used ornamentally, were long thought poisonous, and eventually became embraced as rightfully delicious by poor folk. It was German lore that associated the plant with witches and werewolves, birthing a term that translates to—cue dramatic Robert Pattinson voice—“Wolf Peach.”
If all that sounds more history class than appetizer, or if your bag is simply noodles and some bright red gravy out of a jar, the newly opened Wolf Peach might not be your spot. But as the long-loved and largely overrated Roots closed, changed owners, and got a minor facelift, the destination has become a sacred altar of Cherry, Heirloom, and all other types of the vegetable—or fruit, or whatever. And while we normally like to give a joint some time before dining and journalistically busting its pork chops, once we realized there was a spanking new 6,000 pound wood-burning oven on the premises, you’d need a restraining order to keep us out more than a week.
The space: No matter the owner, food, or how many new yuppie condo splotches impede the skyline, this pastoral perch on Hubbard Street is an undeniably great building with the best eating views of Milwaukee around. Inside there’s dark wood, rustic rafters, too-bright chandeliers, and more such run-of-the-mill accoutrements implying laid back class. If you can’t sit facing our sprawling midsize skyline, looking as good as it possibly might—especially after a stiff, scotch-y Satan’s Handlebar ($9)—then the convivial setting at the bar is the next best bet. The 10 or so stools are mere feet from the loving, lapping licks stoking inside the gargantuan oven, and what other seat in town could offer such promise, render such salivating, and yield such deep warmth regardless of season or temperature?
The service: Bubbly, proficient. Our waiter practically floated around the room, looking both at home and quite happy to be there. Even from the greeting and assured water-pour, he struck a remarkable note for such a newly opened joint. Anyone acquainted with Roots will see at least some familiar faces serving and gabbing. It’s largely a readymade professional staff, able and instep with the well-heeled clientele.
The A.V. Club’s food: Such a fetish for tomatoes might imply a fierce loyalty to a preferred type, or vast experimentation with the some 25,000 varietals. (U.S. Department of Agriculture—look it up.) But the waiter’s reply of using “mostly Roma right now” didn’t really strike us as either passionate or unique. We forged ahead regardless, smacking complimentary squash croquets with tomato and jalapeno relish into our throat, and downing a Mull It Over ($10)—house-mulled spice-infused brandy, hard apple cider, and nutmeg. Basically it was an autumnal warm-up of a squash popper with the stiffness of last Halloween’s cider. Warmed, rewarded, and deeply mulled, we turned toward dinner.
Drink intensity never helps menu conclusion, especially when the small plates and entrees are a muddied mix. We hedged bets and got a cheap and an expensive. The steak tartar ($8) offered a smack in the gums of spicy, oniony, cool, meat mash-up. All-the-rage grilled crostini’s gave a stiff handle to the greasy matters at hand, and the garlic aioli left us wondering if the proper folklore foodstuff had been fetishized. It also had us promising ourselves at least a couple of long runs between meal conclusion and our next cholesterol test. A glut of food and flavor—especially for the bar-food price level. Chicken paprikash ($20) was more of an entrée, at least we told ourselves because we weren’t sharing. A slow-poached, spice-battered, fried drumstick of heaven came out succulent, tender, and near-perfect. It caused manner and fork evacuating, as this was finger-greasy fried chicken. There were peppers and dumplings somewhere underneath, but we could hardly tell for the sidekick brilliance of a dark, burgundy link of potent lamb sausage.
Content or not, meat-saturation achieved or bypassed, this was all but heavy foreplay to the carnal focus of the night. Soppresata, rapini, peppers, ricotta salata, and chili oil ($13) topped our cherry-popping Milwaukee wood-burning pizza experience. Charry and chewy bites mixed, globular mozzarella chunked, and muscular saltiness and brackish meatiness contrasted the tomato brightness like it was New York City. Or Sheboygan. If only it had lasted longer, if only it were consensual. Either way: 700-800 degrees, San Marzano tomatoes, and 90 seconds of cooking yield an ineffable product, every time. So simple and aromatically brilliant. And all conquered by the kitchen staff in a mere six days, opening promise for future menu explorations greater than Cortes, Columbus, or even Ponce de Leon might imagine: sausage, fennel, fennel pollen(!), the hallmark Margherita ($11)…
The verdict: You say tomato. We say pizza sauce. They say Wolf Peach, and as long as they don’t call us late for dinner, they can name it what they will. We say screw the tomato fetishism, nuts to charcuterie ($14), and down with hipness. Wolf Peach might actually be the best fried chicken and pizza joint in town.