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I first dined at Balistreriâ€™s Italian American Ristorante, 812 N. 68th St., around 10 years ago when I was exploring my neighborhood for good places to eat. The Wauwatosa restaurant looks the same way now as it did when I first visited.
Dark green carpeting, green table tops, dark stained chairs, and beige colored walls displaying several mirrors and the Italian flag give the restaurant the feel of a neighborhood meeting place that you would have found 30 years ago on Milwaukeeâ€™s East Side on, or near, Brady Street.
The history of Balistreriâ€™s restaurants can be found on their website, but it starts with James "Jim" Balistreri working at his uncleâ€™s Bella Food Service in 1954. In 1958, he made pizzas at the Caradaro Club in the Third Ward until he was drafted in 1964.
Between 1966 and 1967, Balistreri opened three restaurants. Balistreriâ€™s Italian American Ristorante opened in 1968 as his fourth restaurant, located in its current site on 68th Street. Balistreriâ€™s Bluemound Inn, 6501 W. Bluemound Road, followed much later, in 1996, and remains one of the two restaurants still open, along with the Wauwatosa location.Â
Balistreriâ€™s Bluemound Inn provides a vastly different atmosphere than the Ristorante. Upon entering, youâ€™ll see a full bar, and tables topped with white linen and white butcher block paper providing a more upscale dining ambiance. Outside, a large wooden deck greets diners seeking an al fresco experience.
The menus are very different at the two restaurants, with Balistreriâ€™s Bluemound Inn offering more options. However, the pizza recipe at both locations is the same.
The menu at Balistreriâ€™s Italian American Ristorante includes appetizers, such as a baked French onion soup, not found on the other locationâ€™s menu. The menu also features salads, sandwiches, seafood entrees, "Old Italian Favorites" like veal parmesan and Sicilian style steak, pastas, pizza and a Friday cod fish fry.
As large as the restaurantâ€™s menu is, the Balistreriâ€™s Bluemound Inn menu offers an even bigger selection of pastas, salads, appetizers, panini, seafood dinners and various Italian preparations for veal, chicken, pork and beef.
The pizzas at both locations come in three sizes, a 10-inch round "junior," an 11-by-13 inch oval "medium," and a 14-by-16 inch oval "large." Cheese pizzas range from $12.20 to $18, with additional toppings ranging from 75 cents to $3.25 each.
Balistreriâ€™s allows diners to choose canned or fresh mushrooms for their pizza, but fresh mushrooms, as well as a few other premium toppings, will cost $1.50 to $2 more, resulting in the $3.25 topping charge I mentioned.
Diners can also order extra sauce and/or a thick crust at no additional charge.
The pizzas at the Italian American Ristorante are essentially build-your-own, while the Bluemound Inn offers the same build-your-own options at the same prices, but also offers gourmet pizzas ranging from $18 to $28.
The gourmet pizzas include Margherita, Pesto Shrimp, Chicken San Remo, White Pizza, a spicy Pizza Arrabbiata, and a Milwaukee Pizza topped with white cheddar, charbroiled bratwurst, polish sausage, red onions and caramelized sauerkraut.
When I arrived at the Ristorante around 4:20 on a Saturday afternoon, most of the tables were open. I was seated promptly and greeted by a very friendly server.
I ordered a sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza, and admired the pizzas arriving at the surrounding tables while I waited.
One thing I remember about Balistreriâ€™s pizzas is that the crust was often very soft. When my pizza arrived, it was just like I remembered. The outer half inch of the crust had a cracker crunch, the rest of the crust had a much softer texture.
The slices were cut into small squares, which made them easier to hold as they became flimsy and a bit messy.
I didnâ€™t really mind because the taste is more important. The spicy flavor of the sauce, combined with its somewhat thick texture, quickly made up for the flimsy pizza slices.
The large chunks of Italian sausage, which is made fresh by a local butcher, was delicious and had a subtle kick. The same is true of the pepperoni slices.
The one disappointment was the decision I made to go with canned mushrooms instead of paying the extra $1.50 for fresh mushrooms. The canned mushrooms almost ruined a great pizza. Thatâ€™s what I get for being cheap. At least I was eventually smart enough to take the mushrooms off. I wonâ€™t make that mistake again. Fresh mushrooms or bust.
Next time, Iâ€™ll skip the mushrooms and ask for a crispier crust. That would make the pizza almost perfect for me.
When I left 40 minutes later, every table in both dining rooms was taken except the one I just left, and customers were already walking up to the carry-out window outside the kitchen. So yeah, itâ€™s a popular place.
When I looked at the menu for Bluemound Inn and saw the gourmet pizzas, I figured I had to stop in on another day and try one. When I arrived, again I was seated promptly and greeted by a friendly server.
She told me the specials, but my mind was set on pizza. I decided on the Chicken San Remo, mainly because it sounded like it would photograph well. Luckily, it also tasted pretty good.
It arrived on a round, white porcelain platter. I believe the crust was brushed with olive oil, though the description didnâ€™t mention it. Then itâ€™s topped with goat cheese, roasted red peppers, portabella mushrooms, spinach and diced grilled chicken breast.
Some of the chicken was a bit dry, but it was well-seasoned. The red peppers provided a great layer of flavor, and the goat cheese didnâ€™t have the overpowering flavor it normally does. Just the right amount was applied.
The pizza was cut into triangular pie slices, and the crust was thin but thick enough to hold well without flopping over. I would order this pizza again.
One tasty pizza in two locations, all wrapped up in a package for you. Many of you have experienced Balistreriâ€™s. Those who like thin crust pizzas and have not been to Balistreriâ€™s might want to pay them a visit. You might have to ask them to make your crust crispy, but I think youâ€™ll like it.
If you find that the Wauwatosa location is full, you may want to try your luck at the Bluemound Inn. Just donâ€™t wear a tank top. Youâ€™ll find out why when you get there.
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