Milwaukee’s first and, so far, only food tour is a welcome addition to the city. A bonus is that the tour guide, Theresa Nemetz of Milwaukee Food Tours, also informs the group about much of the colorful history of the two areas covered, even though many of the actual physical traces no longer exist.
Since Milwaukee’s downtown, as most large cities, was populated before the suburbs, the bulk of the history of the area is in what used to be the German ghetto and the Italian ghetto. (“Ghetto” is used not to denote slum areas, as the word has come to mean, but in the older, traditional sense – an area where people of a certain, common ethnic origin reside.)
Our tour started near the upper end of Brady Street with a meet in front of Zaffiro’s Pizza on Farwell Avenue, a few steps away from the “Five Corners” area. We were a group of about 20, most of us from the local area, the remaining few within 50 miles of Milwaukee. Theresa has had foodies from all over, though, including many areas in the United States and Europe, and a few from the remainder of the world, including South America. The tour is still new. Given sufficient time for the word to spread, I guarantee it’ll grow.
Zaffiro’s sits on the very edge of what used to be the Italian section of town, which includes Brady Street. Brady Street used to be the center of the counterculture when it was still called that back in the 1960s. Looking for a sit-in, a be-in, a happening, or a protest? It was all here on Brady Street, any day of the week, back in the day.
I moved to Milwaukee in late 1999, and as I do in every city, I took a bus tour. Then I bought a pass for the city buses and just rode all over the area, deciding where I wanted to plant my feet for a lengthier stay. When the bus started up from Water Street at the bottom of the hill leading to Brady Street, I sensed an immediate change in the texture and tempo of the city. By the time we’d traversed half of Brady’s short span, perhaps eight blocks, I’d decided that this was where I’d get my apartment. Even though it was nearing the end of a long decline from the heyday of the 60s, it was still a neat, funky, homey, friendly, no pretense area. My kinda place!
Theresa started the tour with a quick overview of the two areas we’d be traveling through. Our first stop was less than five steps away. We went into Zaffiro’s, where they were expecting us. After a brief flurry of servers bringing trays of Zaffiro’s signature pizza and drinks for everyone, we tucked in for the absolute best pizza in the city, and the area as far as I’ve explored. Two traits identify their signature dish: Ultra-thin crust, and the pizza is cut into squares rather than slices.
Zaffiro’s began in 1956 when the family took over a former barbershop. Little has changed inside over the years except for the staff. The pizza and other Italian dishes are made with the same recipes as the original. Zaffiro’s had just announced that week that a Milwaukee company, the Marcus Corporation, will be taking the restaurant through the franchising and syndication process, so we had the honor of feasting at the original.
During our meal, and in the following walk to the next stop, Theresa regaled us with historical vignettes of certain highlights in our walk. She told us about the origin of the “Margherita” pizza, the origins of the dish, the Midwest tradition of the square cut and cracker-thinness of the crust, some of the Prohibition and speakeasy tales that have circulated, as well as the origins of the area’s original Italian immigrants, which include Theresa’s own great-grandparents, who came from Sicily.
The next stop on the Brady Street tour included Sciortino’s Bakery, where we sampled cannoli. Sciortino’s has been in the same location for over 60 years, and was bought ten years ago by another Italian family, although the name has remained. Sciortino’s is a tiny shop, crammed full of homemade goodies, so we did our sampling on the street as Theresa gave us the history of the immediate area, which includes the charming story of how Three Holy Women Catholic Parish got its name. From there we passed a landmark that’s not included in the tour, Art Smart’s Dart Mart and Juggling Emporium. Even if you don’t care much for darts and juggling, tell me how you can resist the place.
Just a half-block down the street is Glorioso Brothers Grocery, our next stop, where we sampled varieties of Italian olives. (Don’t tell anybody, but they also carry Greek olives.) Joe is the capo de tutti capi of the Brady Street Italian neighborhood. He’s been honored many times for not only his civic and business contributions to the area; Joe is also one of the founders of Milwaukee’s Festa Italiana and the Italian Community Center.
Joe was indeed in residence at his usual table in front of the grocery store, holding court with one of his brothers and a couple of local shoppers. Saturday at Glorioso’s is not for the faint of heart. Like most highly popular, small ethnic shops, it probably does as much business on Saturday as it does the other five days of the week they’re open combined. At Glorioso’s, we again congregated in the street due to space.
Farther down the street, nearing the end of what’s left of the Italian neighborhood is Regano’s Roman Coin, originally a Pabst Brewery tavern built in 1890. During that era, breweries sponsored taverns, and on this particular corner, there once stood a different brewery’s tavern on each of the four corners. During Prohibition, the four were secretly interconnected by unfinished, underground passageways, the remains of which still exist in some areas.
When the Feds or the police raided one of the taverns, the owners usually got a few minutes warning from sharp-eyed runners on the street. The owners would hustle the customers downstairs to the cellars and on through to the other taverns. They’d quickly stash all the contraband alcoholic drinks and the law would usually find a peaceful and busy, but empty, room. If they checked the cellar, they’d find a boarded up section that was easily removed – if you knew the trick.
Following Glorioso’s we had a several block walk through some of the older residential sections, where Theresa regaled us with stories of some of the founding business fathers, including John Jacob Astor, America’s first millionaire. Astor made his fortune in fur trading, and his empire in the US stretched from New York to the Great Lakes. We were walking along a street named in his honor while Theresa told us about the burned-out Irish section, and the fictional home of Laverne and Shirley, from the Happy Days era. The city will soon be unveiling a statue of The Fonz, too.
Our final stop in the Italian neighborhood was Buca di Beppo, one of Milwaukee’s more renowned Italian restaurants, where we had a quick break in the air-conditioning while Theresa took us throughout the interior, as we sipped our wines. In addition to being a fine restaurant, Buca could also pass as a photography gallery, since the walls are covered almost top to bottom with photos of many of the famous and not-so-famous who’ve graced their tables. Appropriately, in the restrooms, the walls are covered with nudes and nearly nudes of all eras, from Classical Rome to more recent shots of “mooners.”
Theresa also told us about the boon in condo development, with more than 3,000 new condos being built in the past several years, ranging in price all the way to million-dollar residences. She threw out facts about the enormous amount of office space used today in areas previously known for its tanneries and breweries, as well as businesses associated with Milwaukee’s other two main industries in the late 1800s, grain and meat packing.
She told us about the Blatz Brewery, the first in the nation to sell their brew nationally, whose buildings are now owned by the Milwaukee School of Engineering, one the many prominent learning institutions in the city. Pabst was originally called Best Beer, and it got the Blue Ribbon moniker during the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, when a blue ribbon was tied around the bottleneck of the winning brew.
More recently, Milwaukee is home to eight of the companies on the Fortune 500, and in its beginnings, the city’s name was taken from a Native phrase meaning “a gathering place by the waters,” since it sits at the confluence of three rivers. The entire area was mostly swampland, and several of the buildings we sighted are still resting on cedar pilings, elevating them from the waters. One building is sited on 6,000 cedar pilings and sits atop Lake Emily, and a part of the building’s maintenance includes a daily check of the pilings. If the pilings were to dry out, the building would be in danger of toppling.
We crossed one of the 28 bridges in the city on our way to our next stop, the Wisconsin Cheese Mart. My only complaint about the tour came here. The following stop after the Cheese Mart was Usinger’s Famous Sausage. The Cheese Mart and Usinger’s should have been combined to make a beer/cheese/sausage stop! Just kidding, Theresa!
The itinerary included information about Père Marquette, RiverWalk, Milwaukee City Hall being the third tallest building in the US at the time it was built, that German names still comprise nearly half of those in the city phonebook, with 43 pages of those whose names begin with “Sch.” Concurrently with the influx of Germans, the first foreign immigrants to the area, was the printing of seven German-language newspapers in the city, while at the same time there were only two English-language papers.
Old World Third Street, our next stop, is like stepping back into the Old World, Europe, and particularly Germany, and there are still German-language signs in some of the shops, advertising that English is spoken! The Cheese Mart offers over 700 different cheese items, including an exquisite 12-year-old cheddar, while Usinger’s offers over 70 different types of sausages, most still made by the original recipes, as well as newer varieties, such as Cajun. While at Usinger’s, just be sure you don’t enter a door marked “Elves Only!” That’s a part of the tour you’ll have to have Theresa tell you about.
The next stop was Mader’s Restaurant, one of the better local German restaurants, where we sampled mini-Reuben sandwiches, one of their many Teutonic specialties, washing it down with a fine local brew, a Maibock. The restaurant is third-generation, and Mader’s was one of the stops when Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany was brought here by President Clinton.
Our final stop was, appropriately, dessert, when we stopped at The Chocolate Tree. We’ve all heard of German Chocolate Cake, but how many people know it came from Milwaukee? The cake took its name from Sam German, a local chocolatier who developed what later became Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate, and still later changed to Baker’s German Sweet Chocolate. We sampled their Ambrosia Chocolate, using the recipe named after the chocolate factory that once stood on this very street, and which made the original. Ambrosia is still found, although mostly in bakery supply stores.
This was a fun and interesting tour, and we probably walked far enough to work off most of those scrumptious calories we ingested. I can’t wait for my next tour!