12 January 2012

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: Totero's

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.


Just Sayin said...

That looks awesome. Love the old school italian joints like that where the proprietors probably lived upstairs or in the back.

Ken Mac said...

I'd love to see inside that joint. What a great looking place

Ed said...

Don't get me wrong, this place sounds great, but aside from the fact that the family charges what is apparently a low price to eat there, how is this a restaurant?

A family feeds people during lunch eight hours a week in their own home, and there is no table service.

But I understand they make a profit. They own the building and are using it anyway to live there. No employees, all labor is family labor and off the books. The only expense is the cheap ingredients. I assume they pay property taxes on their home, as they would anyway, but has anyone tried to collect taxes on what they charge for lunch?

Its actually pretty inspiring given the economic climate how people can get together, keep costs pared to the bone, and do well by taking in small amounts providing some sort of hand-made good or service. Expect to see more of this in the future, though not in New York City where the police or the Department of Health would come up with some reason to shut a place like this down.

upstate Johnny G said...

Gee Ed, I don't want to get you wrong so let's see if I've got your position straight.....your main theme is that Totero's is not a restaurant, it's some kind of tax evasive scam run by people who have lost their jobs and are desperate to make enough money to survive. That's right, isn't it? And all of this is based on.....assumptions, isn't it? I started to make this reply a cogent analysis of all of the baseless assumptions underlying your position, but my fingers got tired of typing. And then it occurred to me that you may just be a troll, and I remembered an old saying: "never wrestle with a pig. You just get filthy and the pig loves it." On the other hand, if you're not a troll, try reading the piece before you post comments. The whole piece. Yes, really.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Ed: Totero's is a restaurant. They serve food, which customers pay for and sit down to eat. It's listed, advertised and written about, and has been for 70 years. Nothing in my post suggested there was anything untoward going on there.

Proud NIMBY said...

Although there is no table service, when I was there I noticed people tipping the busboy who cleared the plates while he garrulously would relate the history of the place.

Oh, the busboy is close to 80.

Having listened to countless Italian-Americans talk here in NYC, what I found amusing is to hear the Wisconsin Italians speak like, well, Wisconsinites, with their pronounced "R"s and broad "O"s and "A"s, and not the typical Italian-American we hear.

Madon! Fuhgeddaboudit!

Dave - Everywhere said...

When I lived in Syracuse there was a similar place on Burnet Ave called "Angotti's". The restaurant was a cement block addition to the front of an old house and only had one employee - Carmine Angotti. No menu per se - lunch and dinner were whatever Carmine felt like making and no prices. You told Carmine what you felt like eating, he told you what he could make and when you were done, he would tell you the price. I once had a bowl of pasta e fagioli (pasta fazool for you non-Italians) that cost $3and could have easily fed 3 people.

No liquor license but if Carmine liked you, there was always a little aperitif glass of "home-made vino fino" to wash down your lunch. We went there occasionally for lunch and one or twice for dinner. I miss that place.

Mtotero said...

Johnny G... Thank you for your comments spoken toward "Ed",because I don't think I would've been so kind...
ED...do your homework before you speak. My grandparents started this business in 1938, and was carried on by my aunt & uncle and now, my cousins that put their heart and soul and ultimately their lives into this business.
Yes...they have catered to the community and beyond through bad economical times, including the Great Depression.. Not very many businesses can say that in their tenure.
Enough said... because, as Johnny says, I'd be wrestling with a pig...Just do your research, Ed, before you make your assumptions!

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Hey, Montero progeny! Thanks for commenting. Love your restaurant.

Dr of Gonzo said...

Hey Ed, try slipping out of your sweatpants and t-shirt and push away from your computer and head over to Totero's for most incredible Italian food around.
You have no idea what you are talking about.
Maybe you should leave the sweatpants on the portions are incredible as is the quality.
Better yet - you would not fit in, stay home - there's always a wonderful friendly crowd there.

Unknown said...


I am the daughter of the owner, Al Totero. I have grown up in this restaurant and its food. I can speak to some items stated in this article and even within the comment section.

I don't believe that entertaining the comments by "Ed" are needed. I think that he speaks for himself. There are families and Wisconsinites that have been faithfully coming to this restaurant since the late 1930s. Not many restaurants can stand by that.

Truth be told, my father continues to keep his business running despite sacrificing components such as raising prices (i.e., and...he does NOT cheap on the quality might I say. He shops at Tenuta's for all of his ingredients as his father before him. We have a relationship with Ralph Tenuta and his crew in Kenosha. Tenuta's sells great items). My father is very dedicated and picky when it comes to the products he chooses to use. Trust me...I saw him test and turn away MANY salesmen who tried to scam my Dad with "deals" and poor quality ingredients. He buys from the same liquor/local beer salesmen since I have been alive, too!

My father believes in the core value of treating everyone that walks into that tavern like a family member. Which, is why, it is only 7-8 dollars for a massive plate of home-cooked, homemade Italian food. NO WAY are people paying $20/person! That is not accurate at all. Unless you're getting extras! Multiple sausages, meatballs, etc.

Yes, you serve yourself but that is a part of the charm. It isn't laziness or lack of effort. It has been this way forever. Working men have come into this restaurant for years. I know a lot of them! I am pretty sure that they generally don't like being catered to! They want to get the good grub for a good price with a good beer, and they leave! In and out to perfection.

I won't speak to the business aspect. My father can attend to that. When it comes down to...there are not places like this anymore. People are selling out, shutting down, and Olive Gardens are unfortunately winning over quality Italian food. Tis' a shame. It was amusing to read assumptive comments about "scam"-related concerns. Especially when we have chains taking over and monopolizing cities all over the world. It embarrasses me as an American and as a daughter of a small business owner to read that.

Above all: You won't find a place like Totero's. And I hear many returning customers say that not just because I am biased! People come back because Totero's Tavern is rare. It has culture, charm, and family. And it is one of the last small businesses in Racine.

Oh and as for the comments about the sauce? That is the first time I have seen or heard anything but, "I could drink this." To each their own! What I know? I am proud to be a Totero. My father is so far from a "scammer." If he was? He would have sold his sauce, recipes, and restaurant to last 100 people who have asked him in the last ten years. I can promise you that.

Gayle jonas said...

Love Torero's. Mainstay of the south side. My former husband asked me to marry him after dinner back in 1971. Angie Totero came out from the kitchen and announced to the patrons, "this beautiful girl just got a ring"! How do I remember those words? Because they came from a beautiful gal who was passionate about the food she so lovingly made. Thanks Al and Angie and all the Toteros before you that put your heart and soul into the family business...and for all the great food I've had there. And...BTW, when they were open for dinner, there was table service. Gayle Jonas