July 26, 2021

Titus Ruscitti

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The Midwest’s Best Tavern-Style Pizza is in Wisconsin

At Wells Brothers, not much has changed since the 1950s

If you ask me, the best pizza in the country isn’t in New York or Chicago. I’m a born-and-raised Chicagoan, prideful as they come, but no pizza has made an impression on me like the tavern-style pie at Wells Brothers in Racine, Wisconsin.

You might know the rules of tavern-style by now, but just in case, here’s a refresher: Tavern-style pizza, first created as a bar snack, should be cut into squares instead of slices. It should be thinner than your typical “thin-crust” pizza and crisp near the edges. The best spots can make even the middle pieces sturdy enough that they don’t flop in your hand. You can’t use too much cheese or sauce. Other toppings vary, but sausage is the meat of choice. It should come in irregular bits, ensuring that it wasn’t factory-made, and be heavy on the fennel.

Ask most folks in Chicago to describe their favorite pizza, and they’ll describe that, more or less, and then be surprised when I refer to them to a neighborhood Italian restaurant an hour and a half up Lake Michigan.

Wells Brothers has been open since 1921, but they didn’t introduce pizza until shortly after World War II, influenced by relatives from Chicago. They haven’t changed their recipe since. The rolling pin they use is older than the third-generation owner, and they still make their sausage in-house. The old-school restaurant is as much about the experience as the food, but make no mistake: The cracker-thin, cornmeal-coated pizza will keep you coming back. I learned that last summer, when I drove up for takeout and was told that the wait could be as long as two hours. I can’t wait to sit at the bar, where I always sit, and feel the energy on a Friday night, which I imagine hasn’t changed much since the 1950s.

Although I never visited as a kid, it feels like the kinds of pizza parlors we loved when I was growing up. There’s just something about eating tavern-style pizza in an old corner tavern with an ice-cold—Wisconsin-brewed—Spotted Cow. No one can be unhappy eating those square-cut slices. It’s one of my favorite dining experiences in the Midwest.


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