Whiffs of Napoli at San Giorgio Pizzeria
Chicago or Sheboygan. Eight years ago, this was basically the Milwaukee menu for serious scorching-oven fare. The former’s wave of Neapolitan pizzas seemed to be peaking, highlighted when GQ’s Alan Richman dubbed Great Lake as the “Best Pizza in America.” (It mattered so little in the oceanic pie world of Chicago that the place would be closed within a couple years). The big city scene was rounded out by the likes of the excellent Spacca Napoli, exocticized by the fired coal offerings of Coal Fire. Meanwhile our small town neighbors to the north held every Milwaukee foodie’s favorite in-the-know secret: Il Ritrovo.
San Giorgio Pizzeria Napoletana
833 N. Old World 3rd St.
We had Piccolo. Also, maybe you could count whatever was happening at the short-lived efforts of Dick’s nightclub. Aside from that, well, it’s best not to think of the stone ages in today’s bustling scramble scene of catch-up. Now we have Wolf Peach—much more than a pizzeria, but still, some occasional Neapolitan-leaning gems can be found alongside bone marrow and such. There’s Anodyne, a coffee shop’s success meeting the owner’s backyard passion project, yielding a from-Italy oven, some figuring-it-out salad days, and now frequent pizza brilliance. There is Carini’s, the Shorewood meets Sicily stalwart having added a 900-degree Acunto fire-breather. More recent is Bay View’s Santino’s, whose food can best be summed up by the fact that the restaurant often feels like the set of The Sopranos. Earlier this summer Di Moda opened in the space of Trocadero, because out with the gastropubbery, in with the fancy pizza. There will certainly be more. While the best of the new school has been Zarletti Mequon—Brian Zarletti schooled by maestro Roberto Caporuscio, president of the Association of Neapolitan Pizzaiuoli in the hard streets of midtown Manhattan.
Amidst the wave it’d be easy to overlook San Giorgio, the new, next-door opening by the owners of Calderone Club. Especially considering it’s residence in the oft forgotten, by Milwaukeeans at least, downtown dining scene. Especially in the large shadow cast by Calderone Club itself, the much beloved, pretty ordinary spot for Milwaukee pub style pizza.
But, note the window placard on some walk by: “Vera Pizza Napoletana” it states atop the logo—a serious jester shrouded in white, pizza peel yielded like a most potent tool of war, his focus only on the red orb before him, it seeming to contain all importance in the world, even despite the steaming Vesuvius outline in the background. Or grab a spot at the “pizza bar”—a melding of the two greatest things made by man—and spot the same certificate hanging on the back wall. What it means: they are a member of the VPN, an official delegation that designates its members as making “true Neapolitan pizza.”
Admittance is based on, among other specifications, having a 900-degree wood-burning oven, using “certified” mozzarella, type “00” wheat flour, tomatoes yielded from the lush soil around Mount Vesuvius. There’s also plenty of minutia: intricate requirements such as “proper work surface (usually a marble slab),” and oregano that is "Origanum vulgare from the ‘Labiatae’ family.” But, what it means hanging here: San Giorgio joins the aforementioned Il Ritrovo, Sheboygan’s other pizza spot - Harry’s, and Madison’s Naples 15 as the only spots in the state for such certified ‘za.
Does any of this matter? Is such acronym salad but a marketing ploy? Is it misplaced rigidity? Isn’t adherence to tradition a bit overrated in comparison to, you know, taste? And, when you’re pizza-hungry, do you mind if, say, they're using a “low speed approved mixer”? Or if the pie is over the 11-inch maximum size? Are all of these just crusty stipulations, rules ordained by the hall monitors of technique?
These are the things to ponder as you sit in the considerable shadow of the blue tile beauty made in Naples—a Stefano Ferrara, or, basically, a Mercedes Benz of domed, high-temp ovens. And it burns just so, like a finely tuned, precision-engineered machine. Or you think it does, until maybe you hear one pizzaiolo tell the next, under his breathe, in a moment of heated frustration, "I'll kill you," and you realize, with the glimpse of one mistake, one disagreement, that it’s a very different kind of precision at work here. There’s something inherently temperamental at play, the world of careful cooking and fetishistic focus mixing with kitchen bullshitting and operatic southern Italian machismo right before you. There’s no setting a timer and walking away. There’s a constant checking of the temp with a gun, an indicator of the dynamic state, there’s a spinning of the pizza peel, like Federer flipping his racket, the easy familiarity with a tool, known through repetition, non-sentient friendship, a paint brush pointed toward doing serious life’s work.
The entire presentation feels more art than kitchen procedure. It’s also at least part pizza porn—what with the in-and-out of the long peel, penetrating and prodding. And it feels all aesthetic pleasure. Especially as the waitress whisks another fire-kissed pie of San Marzano tomatoes, and nostrils fill with the woody essence of charred flour, and there’s Italian marble under your elbows, and Louis Prima overhead.
For certain people, it feels special, essential - the kind of people that plan their honeymoon around making it to Naples, and then decide to spend the rest of their lives denigrating Rome and the Amalfi Coast, fiercely defending Napoli’s place as the actual greatest place in all of Italy, if not the world. For others, San Giorgio is simply a classy, laid back, downtown-y type place of which there are less and less downtown these days.
Whatever your personal baggage walking through the door, there’s not much getting around it: the way pizza freaks talk about pizza is awful. Like BBQ geeks, with their ridiculous wood preferences, the need to pepper convo’s with terms like “bark,” to let you know they know of what they speak. Or the way mixologists denigrate lesser bitters, with a scoff, like our president toward reality. Having said that, for those same certain people, Neapolitan style pizza, like Naples itself, is well deserving of a flight or two of poetic fancy.
To start, the style is a texture lover’s dream. A perfect synthesis of dough and char, of pillow and base, of stretching and body, of delightful little black air bubbles, popping up like corpuscles, hardened flakes mixing with softer pockets. What pizza nerds call “leoparding” happens underneath—dark spots bleeding through the golden crust, indicating a happy marriage between worlds of cool dough and extreme heat. It adds up to what might be the mouth’s version of getting into a really comfortable bed—memory foam melding into a just-firm-enough mattress.
Atop such framework, variations abound. There is the Margherita - wielding San Marzano tomatoes, fresh Fior di Latte mozzarella, Parmigiano, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil. (The “extra” is an extra stipulation, of course). Or there is the Margherita D.O.C. - the same but with Mozzarella di Bufala, the D.O.C. meaning “Denominazione di Origine Controllata,” another authentication, which also, yes, indicates designations within designations, wheels within wheels. Whichever, whatever, these are the most elemental, the best introduction, either would rightly act as a top notch representative - the bread, sauce, melted cheese combination sort that should be sent up in one of those space ships, along with Robert Johnson recordings and Michelangelo prints as a sort of message: “beat this, aliens.”
The “Calabrese” is the next, logical punch up. Along with San Marzano tomatoes, mozz, something called Caciocavallo Cheese, and red pepper flakes, it showcases soppressata, maybe the most criminally under-used aspect of Italian culture, which holds enough spice, enough zing to make pepperoni seem rote.
On the white pizza side, there is the “Quattro Formaggi,” which might very well translate to fat ‘Sconnie guy. It is smoked Provola cheese, fresh mozz, Fontina, Gorgonzola, and a bounty of fresh garlic. An oily, pungent punch of gooey melted cheese, sharpness mixing with smoothness, contrast and medley at once, it is a tongue and breath bop of rich saltiness and airy satisfaction. If going such a sans tomato route, the “Genovese” is built on a basil pesto sauce, popped by cherry tomatoes, with a Citterio Genoa salami that is good enough to make the over-gushing about soppressata seem a bit silly. It’s similar to what the crispy pancetta atop the “San Giorgio” does, this being another white pie offering with braised fennel, more fior di latte mozzarella, Pecorino Romano, baby arugula, a sunny side egg, and plenty of potential to kick start naptime.
Really, if you top any such carbohydrate beauty with shimmering, globby cheese chunks, any type of sauce whatsoever, there can be no wrong orders. The only mistake to be made here is filling up on burrata, or the arancini, or the excellent croquettes. Or, asking for a pizza to go, which San Giorgio prefers not to do, religiously adhering to the belief that the oven is part of the experience, that it needs to be eaten hot, fresh, immediately. Not reheated, like by a tasteless barbarian.
Pizza. But not pizza “to go.” And there you have it, the thing that somehow says it all: something both impossibly simple and elegant. The essence of elevated street food. But not in the hipster sense, in the 2000-year-old timeless fashion, where fire meets grain, there are few, but fresh, ingredients, carbs and proteins in a single bite, cooking done with man’s first and most basic invention, a reduction to essentials, an overwhelming sense of everything you want in your mouth—all at once, in one hot bite.
There is a street in Naples’ old district, where pizzerias abound, and mopeds whizz by, and there seems like an almost irresponsible number of corner cafes, and the cobblestone paths are packed and loud, and intimidating, if not just for the sheer volume of life. Within that first bite, between swills of Peroni, San Giorgio can feel like via Tribunali. Or at least as close to Naples as many might come. Despite being on Old World 3rd street, despite upbringing and the emotional bind of childhood pizza memory, and the reality that Midwest pizza might still be the appropriate everyday preference, and regardless of whatever VPN means or doesn’t mean, it’s nice, if for just a moment, to find that true taste, sense, of somewhere else.