It’s a scientific fact that pizza will never go out of style. Stuffed-crust, fancy, or frozen, pizza is a universal constant that transcends age, gender, and taste. Still, the everyman/woman food is enjoying a stronger-than-usual renaissance these days, with an entire generation semi-ironically embracing its simple pleasures both online (Tumblr) and in real life (The Pizza Underground). So it only makes sense that the ever-youthful Riverwest, of all Milwaukee neighborhoods, should be the latest recipient of a brand-new ’za slinger. With a dearth of nearby pizza spots—and the recent loss of Antonio’s—opening a new pizza hub in Riverwest seems like a no-brainer.
Enter the definitively titled Riverwest Pizza (932 E. Wright St., 414-269-9703), which has taken over the 19th-century, castle-like building previously (and shortly) occupied by Café Vocar. Owned by Green Fields founder Shawn Hutchens and his business partner Andrea Haas, the fledgling business has promised pies both simple and elaborate, appetizers, sandwiches, and late-night grub. But is it the slam-dunk it appears to be on paper? And is RP’s slightly upscale take on the un-killable comfort food a good fit for the neighborhood? Taking the concept of a “first impression” to its literal extreme, Milwaukee Record stopped by Riverwest Pizza mere hours into its opening day to find out.
The space: Stepping through the unadorned outer door (there’s no permanent sign as of yet), it’s clear that Riverwest Pizza is angling for an intimate, low-light, make-googly-eyes-at-your-date-over-a-slice-of-pepperoni vibe. The once-bright walls of Café Vocar have been painted a dark slate blue/gray, with busy bric-a-brac art lining the walls. The cozy front room contains four tables and some stool seating, and is highlighted by a new bar that occupies the west end. In the back and past the kitchen, a smaller dining area awaits those looking for a bit more privacy, with tables, chairs, bench seating, and wall mirrors giving it the illusion of a much roomier space. An expansive, fenced-in patio taunts with far-off promises of warm weather.
The service: Considering we stopped by two hours into the first day, the service was spot-on. Drinks arrived promptly, appetizers showed up without a fuss, and, despite apologies from our server on the wait for our pizza, the main dish appeared within a more-than-acceptable time frame. (We didn’t turn down the free size upgrade, though.) Sure, there seemed to be some confusion as to who our server was—we counted three separate people helping us at different times—but again, this was the first shift of the first day. Consider it a smooth takeoff.
Milwaukee Record’s food: If the combination of the words “Riverwest” and “pizza” conjure up greasy, gut-busting images of a Pizza Shuttle West, you’re in for a (pleasant) surprise. Riverwest Pizza trades only in thin-crust, gourmet-style pies—sans the gourmet-style prices. Named after neighborhood streets and locations, and available in either 14” or 18” versions, the main selections include the free-range chicken-topped Holton ($16/$20), a balsamic glazed duck-filled Fratney ($15/$19), a ham/pineapple/jalapeños Dousman ($15/$19), and a white-sauce-and-veggie Gordon Park In The ’80s ($16/$20). Sandwiches include everything from a quinoa spinach burger ($9) to a salmon dock sandwich ($10); appetizers cover the usual suspects like bruschetta ($8), wings ($6/$11), and garlic bread ($5/$8). A healthy selection of draught, domestic, and imported beers—in both bottles and cans—cover the drink portion of the menu.
For starters, we ordered the baked Asparagus “Fries” ($7). Breaded with Panko crumbs and Parmesan cheese, the spears were the definition of “appetizers”: not overly breaded, not overly cooked, and not overly complicated. They were perfectly fine on their own—crisp and delicious—though a bit of house marinara dipping sauce ($.50) bumped them up to app perfection.
With the restaurant quickly filling up with a host of longtime Riverwest denizens, we decided to let our neighborhood-pride flag fly and order a Pierce ($15/$19). It was one of the more traditional pizzas on the menu—house red sauce, mozzarella, house fennel, sausage, pepperoni, olives, mushroom, onions—but we figured any pizza place is only as good as its most basic pie. And what can we say? It was pizza, and it was awesome. The house red sauce was tangy, the house fennel was stellar, and the toppings were killer. Slightly burnt edges had us concerned, but there was nothing to fear: the crust was crisp and gloriously grease-free. It was a perfect thin-crust pizza, and easily one of the best we’d had in a while—in Riverwest or otherwise.
The verdict: Don’t let the Internet’s obsession with jokey pizza memes fool you: Riverwest Pizza is grown-up pizza done right, pure and simple. It’s a much-needed addition to the neighborhood, and a destination spot for those living outside the neighborhood. Even better, happy-hour slices are reportedly on their way. Congrats, Milwaukee, you have a new favorite pizza place.