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Pizza Man serves up a new beginning

Mike Amidzich figures that he made more than 10,700 people happy when he reopened Pizza Man, the iconic Milwaukee restaurant that burned to the ground in early 2010.

That number reflects the current followers of Pizza Man’s Facebook page. When Amidzich announced earlier this year that he planned on reopening, the number of “likes” nearly doubled from 6,000.

The original Pizza Man, located at 1800 E. North Ave., was considered an East Side landmark. Incorrect information posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page forced it to open at its new location, 2597 N. Downer Ave., on July 30 – two weeks prior to its scheduled Aug. 15 grand opening.

“I’ve been at the restaurant day and night for the past three months,” said Amidzich, 71, who woke up at 11:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday morning for a phone interview. “I think I will go back to bed after we finish.”

Pizza Man, founded in 1970 as the East Side’s first late-night pizza delivery service, was destroyed in a five-alarm blaze on Jan. 19, 2010. Feras Rahman, who owned Black and White Café, which was located in the same building, was found not guilty of charges that he’d set fire to his business to collect $135,000 in insurance.

Rahman was sentenced to 2½ years in prison and three years supervised probation for lying to investigating officials, a sentence he’s appealing. In addition to the two restaurants, the building destroyed in the $3 million blaze also housed the Greek restaurant Grecian Delight, the Cush Lounge and 10 second-floor apartments.

Hippy-dippy beginnings

But Pizza Man’s legacy began long before the fire. In fact, Amidzich, who grew up in the city’s Walker’s Point neighborhood, traces his food service roots to the outdoor rock concerts of the late 1960s that followed in the wake of Woodstock. After purchasing a franchise from West Allis-based Joe Dragon, the “King of Barbecue,” Amidzich began offering food to hungry fest-goers at concerts in Iola and Poynette and other events in the Midwest. After going bust at a show in Iowa, Amidzich returned to Milwaukee in search of a job.

The young entrepreneur was offered work as a pizza cook, but the opportunity went to someone else. However, he learned about Rudy’s Pizzeria, a bankrupt takeout place at the corner of Oakland and North avenues. In 1970, with a $2,800 bank loan for which his parents co-signed, the 28-year-old bought Rudy’s and renamed it Pizza Man.

Amidzich’s counterculture connections and the restaurant’s iconic logo of a long-haired, mustached super hero stepping over a mushroom paved the way for Pizza Man’s success. At the time, no pizzerias delivered past 10 p.m. on weeknights or midnights on weekends, times when the parties on Milwaukee’s vibrant East Side just got underway. Knowing its potential clients would be looking to satisfy hunger brought on by their smoke-filled activities, Pizza Man delivered until 3 a.m. on weeknights and 4 a.m. on weekends and included a free quart of Pepsi-Cola with each pie.

“We went through 200 cases of Pepsi each week, making me one of the largest independent Pepsi accounts in the state,” Amidzich says. “Appetites were very robust in the early morning hours.”

Amidzich used Rudy’s pizza recipes, but traded up to all fresh ingredients, which boosted sales. A year after opening his delivery-only enterprise, Amidzich asked his neighbors who operated Frank’s Cycle Shop next door if they would mind moving a few doors down so he could add a dining room to his operation, which became the Pizza Man restaurant.

Time for wine

With the new dining room in place, Pizza Man added a bar with a full line of scotches, aperitifs and liquors. The effort didn’t quite catch on and Amidzich soon replaced the back bar with wine racks to cater to his love for the grape.

“I asked a sommelier how to win an award for my wine list, and he suggested stocking a lot of wines with names I couldn’t pronounce,” Amidzich said. “I said what if I stocked only California wines and served every one of them by the glass? He said, ‘That will win you an award.’”

It wasn’t long before Pizza Man had built one of Milwaukee’s most impressive wine lists, earning the restaurant a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in the process. At its height, the restaurant offered more than 600 wines by the glass, making it one of the world’s largest wine bars, Amidzich says.

Pizza Man’s wine cellar was hard hit by the fire. Amidzich lost $110,000 in wine inventory after the bottles had been doused by water and exposed to potential bacteria contamination. He also lost irreplaceable antiques and heirlooms to the blaze. He did manage to salvage part of the bar, which was refurbished and retrofitted to match the new restaurant.

New digs for a new era

The new Pizza Man may not have the characteristic “wavy brick” designed by Layton School of Art student Dick Dufenhorst that confounded more than one stoned diner in the first restaurant, but the new space  carries over many of the original restaurant’s architectural themes, its owner says.

“The new restaurant is retro-Pizza Man with a dash of hipness thrown in,” Amidzich says. “It’s a sight to be seen.”

The new place has replicas of the original doors, created from barn wood and so heavy that Amidzich had to create counter-weights of rocks in an onion bag because no commercial hardware was strong enough to control them. The demand from customers that those doors be installed in the new restaurant was as pronounced as the complaints about the originals, he says.

The new restaurant, arrayed over two floors, seats about 250 compared to the original’s 55-customer capacity. There also is an outdoor roof patio and balcony that may be the only one in the city, Amidzich says.

As for wines, the new restaurant currently stocks about 250 by the glass and the wine list is now overseen by certified sommelier Heather Korte, formerly of the Mason Street Grill. Amidzich says he will keep adding wines he likes to the list, but doubts he will reach his previous level.

“I don’t think I will live that long,” he adds.

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