A pepperoni, cheese and sausage pizza - also called The Cranky - from Cranky Al's.
A pepperoni, cheese and sausage pizza - also called The Cranky - from Cranky Al's.
Rick called Cranky Al's garlic bread "among the best" he's had on his pizza questing.
Rick called Cranky Al's garlic bread "among the best" he's had on his pizza questing.
The Susie's Special, featuring baby organic spinach, ricotta and fresh garlic over mozzarella and romano cheese.
The Susie's Special, featuring baby organic spinach, ricotta and fresh garlic over mozzarella and romano cheese.

In search of the perfect pizza: Cranky Al's

My first experience with Cranky Al’s, 6901 W. North Ave., was during the Chili’n on the Ave event in Wauwatosa a few years back. Since then, I’ve been hearing about their pizza and their doughnuts – the crullers in particular.

I finally got to try the famous cruller when a friend brought a box of Cranky Al’s doughnuts to another friend’s house for brunch. I liked it, but since I don’t drink coffee, I didn’t get to enjoy it properly, at least that’s what my friends told me.

A few months ago, I was with friends at Camp Bar in Wauwatosa, and we ordered a couple of pizzas. Camp Bar in Wauwatosa serves Cranky Al’s pizza, but my friends told me they preferred the pizza at Cranky Al’s. I thought the pizza at Camp Bar was pretty good with a nice thin and crispy crust. If my friends like the pizza at Cranky Al’s better, then I really needed to try it.

We agreed that night to schedule a visit to Cranky Al’s soon and made that happen a few weeks ago. My friends were regulars, so the general manager came over to greet them, and I was introduced.

The general manager is Joey Carioti, the nephew of owners Alex ("Al") and Susie Brkich. After graduating college four years ago and returning from a back-packing trip through Europe, Carioti was asked to help his aunt and uncle for a couple of weeks. He grew to love the business so much, he is still there after almost four years and has no plans to leave any time soon.

A summary of the story that Carioti shared with me explains that Al Brkich worked at a bakery in Wauwatosa after a stint as a crab cake specialist with Crabby Al’s. Susie Brkich wanted to open a coffee shop and told Al she wanted him to make doughnuts for the coffee shop since he knew the bakery business.

He was reluctant and said he would consider it if they got "a sign." Shortly after that, they assisted a motorist and were offered a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts as a form or gratitude. That was "the sign" they needed, and Cranky Al’s doughnut and coffee shop was opened in 2006.

Al Brkich was a fan of pizzas and decided he would start making them rather than order out for them, considering he already had the equipment. People loved the pizzas, so Cranky Al’s added pizza to the business, too. The rest is history.

If you’ve never visited Cranky Al’s before, there are rules for you to know. When you walk in, look to the chalk boards on the wall on your left for Doughnut Etiquette for the morning hours and Pizza Etiquette for the evening hours. Etiquette includes the process for ordering and payment. 

The morning menu includes breakfast sandwiches, a breakfast pizza, quiche, doughnuts, muffins, scones and other treats. The evening menu includes appetizers, salad, pizza and specials such as a Friday fish fry featuring hand breaded cod and Cranky Wings and a Cranky Burger available Fridays and Saturdays only. Hot ham and rolls are available on Sundays.

Wing sauces include garlic barbecue, garlic parmesan, orange teriyaki, buffalo and a Guinness barbecue sauce that also includes a seasonal stout beer in the sauce recipe. The wings are fried and finished on the grill.

The burger patty is made from a tri-tip, brisket and Angus beef blend, grilled over an open flame and served on a toasted brioche bun with a side of crispy battered fries.

Pizzas are served on a soft hand-tossed crust made from scratch using a bread dough and available in 10, 14, and 16 inches. Build-your-own and specialty pies range from $8.50 to $22.

Specialty pizzas include the Super Cranky with sausage, pepperoni, and Canadian bacon; the Chicka-Chicka with grilled chicken, barbecue sauce and red onions; the Nikki-Knak with artichoke hearts, goat cheese and fresh garlic; and Susie’s Special, which is topped with baby organic spinach, ricotta and fresh garlic over premium mozzarella and romano cheeses.

My friends and I started with an order of garlic bread, and it was among the best garlic bread I’ve ever had. I thought the balance of garlic and butter was right on, and the bread was crispy with a soft center.

The first pizza we ordered was a build-your-own with cheese, sausage and pepperoni, although I noticed later that this combination is listed as a specialty pie called The Cranky. The crust had a crispy cracker crunch around the perimeter, but the rest of it was soft and slightly dense in some spots, as bread dough crusts tend to be.

The crust was not at all like the thin crust version I found at Camp Bar, but the sauce and toppings were the same. Carioti explained that they wanted to provide a different version of Cranky Al’s pizza to Camp Bar by altering the crust recipe a bit, but it is Cranky Al’s pizza.

The sauce had a slightly thick texture, and I enjoyed the spicy flavor, which also seemed to have a subtle sweetness to it. Cranky Al’s generously applies the cheese, which they source from Grande Cheese in Lomira, and the large chunks of Italian sausage from Greco and pepperoni from Prize Meats were spicy and delicious.

Cranky Al’s values relationships with its customers and its vendors, so local vendors are used wherever possible, and they’re willing to pay a little more to keep those vendor relationships intact. 

My friends were regulars and recommended Susie’s Special, so we capped our evening with that pie. I always prefer a pizza with meat on it, but I thought this one was delicious. The combination of flavors from the garlic, ricotta, mozzarella and Romano cheese was very pleasant.

However all of those cheeses, combined with the spinach, resulted in an overall texture that was just too soft for me. While the edge of the crust had the cracker crunch, a much crisper crust throughout or the addition of green or red peppers could have helped provide the contrasting texture that I prefer.

I went back recently on a Saturday evening to try the Cranky Wings and the Cranky Burger and enjoyed them both. I will definitely visit again to try the Friday fish fry after learning that the fish is hand breaded cod as opposed to the more common, yet often poorly executed, beer-battered cod found at many establishments around town.

While the chalk boards listing the steps for ordering etiquette may seem a bit cranky, the many families I saw dining on my visits and the way Carioti engages the customers give Cranky Al’s the warm neighborhood atmosphere one would hope to find when visiting. In fact, on my most recent visit, Carioti’s family was dining in, including his mother and his aunt Susie Brkich.

If you haven’t been to Cranky Al’s yet, go see for yourself. The hours are unique, so take note. Bakery hours end at noon Tuesday through Sunday, and the business reopens from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday for pizza. If you’re not an early riser, maybe you’ll be lucky to find some doughnuts left over during your pizza visit, so you can taste what Alton Brown raved about on Twitter recently.

Talkbacks

TosaJim | March 4, 2015 at 5:16 p.m. (report)

Great coffee...Delicious donuts...wonderful pizza (try the Jimbob...it's named after me) and Joey, Al & Susie as well as the rest of the staff are friendly and make the whole experience a lot of fun!

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