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Why Is Cheese, Sausage, Mushroom & Onion Pizza So Popular In Milwaukee?

Audrey Nowakowski
Cheese, sausage, mushroom and onion pizza is a staple menu item at most Milwaukee pizzerias. And, some old-school restaurants still choose to put canned mushrooms on top. Ned's Pizza (pictured) uses fresh mushrooms.

For this week’s Bubbler Talk, listener Greg Gniotczynski inquired about Milwaukee’s favorite pizza toppings: cheese, sausage, mushroom and onion.

Now is CSMO, or a Sausage Special, or however you order it really our favorite? While I can only rely on my taste buds to confirm, I did reach out to some other experts on the topic — like food writer Ann Christenson of Milwaukee Magazine.

“I do think it probably is the most popular, but I don't have any numbers to back me up except to say every place I go to that seems to be such a staple of their menu,” she says.

READ: A Look Into The History Of Milwaukee Style Pizza

Why? Christenson says it's simply because these toppings go well together.

“First of all, onion — you get that little bit of bite on the pizza [that] just gives you a little bit of a burst of flavor. Obviously the creamy cheese, the sausage with a little bit of fresh fennel in it, which again gives you a little bit more flavor or flavor to the sausage, and then mushrooms. And interestingly enough there’s some old-school Milwaukee restaurants that would put canned mushrooms on their pizza," she explains.

There are a few theories as to why this combination is so popular here, and Christenson believes it’s an offshoot of Milwaukee’s Italian heritage.

“If you think about some of the pizzerias that have grown and popped up, you know, near the Brady Street area where a lot of Italian immigrants settled and where we have an Italian grocery store, Glorioso’s, where they make sausage," she notes. "And there have been other small little butcher shops, Italian owned, that make their own sausage. I think that's where it comes from.”

Leanne Grano, owner of Ned's Pizza on South 27th Street does think the CSMO is Milwaukee's favorite. Ned's has been in business since 1969 and they call it a "Sausage Special" on their menu, which is sausage and mushroom, but it's their policy that you can add onions to it for free.

“Maybe with or without the onion, but sausage/mushroom is definitely, I think, Milwaukee’s signature topping pizza of choice,” she says.

Grano thinks the pizza topping's popularity has something to do with Milwaukee’s German and Polish heritage.

“You know, a lot of German people, with Usinger’s and .... bratwurst and all sorts of types of different sausage and Polish sausage and everything, so I would think that yeah, this probably has something to do with it. Because we sell a lot more sausage pizzas than I would say than we do pepperoni — and pepperoni is quite popular,” she says.

Grano also says that Ned's goes through mushrooms like crazy.

“We go through, I'd say, at least three times, maybe four times as many mushrooms as we do black olives or onions. Definitely way more than green peppers. Green pepper is like a polarizing pizza topping," she says. "Either you love them or you hate them.”

Image courtesy of Pizza Man
Pizza Man uses fresh mushrooms on their "Milwaukee" or "cheese-mo" pizza.

Pizza Man is another longtime go-to place for pizza in the city, and their menu calls the cheese, sausage, mushroom and onion combination a "Milwaukee." Pizza Man co-owner CJ Krawczyk says they also call it a "cheese-mo."

"It is very common ... I just googled CSMO to see if it is more widespread, and I think I saw medical terminology? I don’t know how far it goes beyond Milwaukee, but it is definitely a thing here in Milwaukee," he says.

Krawczyk's theory as to why we like this pizza is because, well, we like cheap food.

"I think in Milwaukee, we tend to still kind of take to the cues of our ancestors and some of what our ethnic food is based on here in Milwaukee is what is both delicious and inexpensive. And you know, there's so much food that is kind of derived from peasant roots, and I think the same can be said for our pizza choices,” he explains.

The Milwaukee is also Pizza Man’s most popular combination, according to Krawczyk. “If you’re pushing out 80 or 100 pizzas a night, you know you’re probably looking at 20 or so that are going to be cheese-mo," he expains.

So whether it’s the Italian, German or Polish heritage in Milwaukee, or because we like a good deal — all of these theories still point to a delicious flavor combination. So take this as a sign to order and enjoy a cheese, sausage, mushroom and onion pizza.

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.
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