Like most of the best bars and restaurants in Wisconsin, Totero's in Racine looks like somebody's house, except it has a sign on it. You enter on the Mead Street side of the corner place, through a little breakfront. Surrounding the building are the bleak, bereft streets of the once-industrial, southern Racine neighborhood of Lakeside.
There is often a line, for this 72-year-old, family-run restaurant is only open Tuesday through Friday, and even then for just two hours, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The peculiar schedule harkens back to Totero's roots as a lunch place serving the working men in the area. There used to be dinner hours, but they were eliminated a number of years back. Despite—or maybe because of—the limited window of opportunity, Totero's packs them in. People take the time to visit in the middle of the day, queue up and load up on homemade, hearty Italian fare.
They only let in a few people at a time. Once you enter, it looks like this. It's basically on old bar with a handful of tables decked in red-and-white-checked tablecloths. The walls are covered with Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin Badgers paraphernalia.
There is no table service. You line up, pass the old coat rack, pass this ancient jukebox (it doesn't work, alas), enter a small side room that boasts a large round table (if you're a large party or family, this is the one you want) and step up to the kitchen doorway. Inside, members of the Totero family are busy cooking and serving up the dishes of the day, stirring huge pots of red sauce and (on the day I visited: Lasagna Day!) scooping out large cuts of lasagna.
There are very few things on the menu at Totero's. Aside from the special pasta of the day, you can get meatball heros and sausage "bombers" (heros). Everything's amazingly cheap and everything has meat in it. Tell them what you want and they hand a plate to you through the doorway. Silverware is to the side as you approach. When you're finished, you pay the bartender.
Totero's was founded by Calabrian immigrants Achille and Mary Totero as a tavern in 1939. It was subsequently run by their son Santo "Sam" Totero and his wife Virginia, and is still run by Sam's children Al and Angela. Al runs the bar, Angela the kitchen. Sam died in February 2011 at the age of 89. The building is a converted schoolhouse. The 36-foot bar was contributed by the Pabst brewery back during The Great Depression.
As nice as the tables looked, I decided to eat my lasagna (with a meatball and a sausage on the side) at the wonderful old wooden bar, which is fully stocked with liquor, in case you feel the need for a stiff drink at noon. I was surprised to find the taps completely up to date, sporting brews by the excellent Wisconsin micro-brewery New Glarus, as well as draft root beer (!) from Sprecher's brewery in Milwaukee.
The food is on the mild side. The sauce is pleasant, but not particularly zesty or flavorful. The sausage and meatball lacked spice and zip. But overall, the meal was satisfying; it was certainly made with love. And I had no problem cleaning my plate, despite the enormous amount of grub.
Being open only eight hours a week may not sound like good business. But I did a quick calculation in my head. If they cater to about 300 heads a day, as they seem to, each diner spending $20, the Torteros clear $1.25 million a year before taxes. I'm sure they own the building, and the materials needed to make those pasta dishes don't cost much. That's a hell of a business.
I was told that the Toteros are thinking of cutting back even further, and will soon no longer rent out the place for private parties. I hope they never stop serving lunch. This is a one of a kind place.