Keeping the tradition of Milwaukee's first pizzeria alive
In this, the summer of Milwaukee's first $100 pizza, it's appropriate to consider where this all started. By this, I mean where the first slice of pizza was served in Milwaukee, who made it and how it tasted.
For many of us, pizza is one of the basic food groups, and it is difficult to imagine the American diet without it. But 60 years ago there was no frozen pizza aisle in the supermarkets where your parents or grandparents shopped.
Pizza Hut, Papa John's and Nick-N-Willy's were concepts still to be conceived. Nobody had ever heard of pepperoni.
Milwaukee's first slice was served in 1945 in the Historic Third Ward. John Caravella and Joe Todaro combined their energy and last names to open the Caradaro Club on the ground floor of a three-story building that stood on the site of the present Catalano Square. It looked like a tavern, and the upper floors were a boarding house.
After 25 years, ownership passed to Consiglio Cirillo, and when fire destroyed the Caradaro Club in the '70s, he moved the business out of the Third Ward. Using the name and recipes, Cirillo operated Caradaro Clubs in Muskego and on 81st and National before settling into a small carry-out and delivery-only Italian restaurant at 1417 S. 70th St.
On a summer night in 2002, Wally Kutch, who had been eating Caradaro pizza since his parents took him to the Third Ward location as a kid, stopped at the 70th St. restaurant with his girlfriend to pick up a pie. A manufacturing engineer with a degree from MSOE, he owned his own plane and a business that built complicated tools and machinery for everyone from Toyota to the Defense Department. His company designed and manufactured Koepsell's popcorn wagons.
Cirillo told Kutch he wanted to retire and sell the pizza business. "I told him I would buy it," Kutch recently recalled. "He thought I was kidding."
By the time the engineer left with his pizza, negotiations on the sale had begun. An earnest money check soon followed, and Kutch went from designing and building 80-ft. industrial and infrared ovens to spending his nights sliding pies into and out of pizza ovens. He sold his airplane, dissolved his engineering and manufacturing business, and assumed the mission of keeping the Caradaro Club name and recipes alive.
Kutch takes all of this very seriously, differentiating the "pizza guys" in the pizzeria industry from those who simply make and sell the stuff at a restaurant. "You have to be a pizza guy," he explained.
Consider it the priesthood of pizza. Wally Kutch probably qualifies as a bishop.
With business partner Judy Grimes, Kutch opened a second Caradaro Club location at 5010 W. Vliet St. last year. The pizza sold at both restaurants is authentic in taste, its paper-thin crust and the tavern-style square cut to what the founders of the Caradaro Club served in the Third Ward. The Vliet Street outlet includes seating for about 50.
Kutch's devotion to maintaining the purity of the Caradaro pizza tradition is intense. After buying the business, he shrunk the small menu, eliminating spaghetti and a fish fry. Pizzas come in 12, 14 and 18-inch sizes, and the most exotic topping you can order is anchovies.
"You've got to keep it simple and follow what you do best," the owner said. And what is the secret to the Caradaro taste?
"More tomato paste. Our sauce is more tomatoey. We do not add sugar."
The pizzeria does offer a lasagna dinner with garlic bread ($8), a meatball sandwich ($6.50), an Italian sausage sandwich ($6.50) and a chicken tenders dinner ($6.80). Six appetizers run from garlic bread ($1.80) to mozzarella marinara ($4.70).
A certain whimsy accompanies the loyalty that drives Kutch's passion for the Caradaro tradition. A giant coffee cup and saucer, left over from the days the Milwaukee Coffee Co. occupied the space, adorns the roof of the Vliet Street location. The only signage identifying the pizzeria is rather small lettering on its door.
The restaurant is plain and basic, with mix and match chairs for seating. We shouldn't expect fancy and splashy from a fellow who gave up a successful engineering career to join the pizza priesthood.
"I was tired of my life as an engineer," Kutch explains. "Why were we killing ourselves? When Consiglio told me he wanted to sell, I knew this was my perfect next opportunity. It was quite a relief.
"People smile with every pizza served. We do it one customer at a time, and everybody loves us.
"It's a neat lifestyle. You meet so many interesting people.
"There is a regular cash flow. It comes through the door in little pieces, but there is a joy in every $20 bill we get."
Wayno, read the plaque at Catalano Square. Don't believe everything you find on Google.
wayno | Aug. 16, 2011 at 7:48 a.m. (report)
swami: The reason that "details" need to be pointed out is... it makes one question whether anything else in the article is inaccurate. Besides, it's not like this was a difficult fact to verify. Using google, it took me all of 30 seconds to find a somewhat authoritative source.
I remember going to the Caradaro Club, and buying a pizza to go in the early 1950's on a cold winter night. My father and I took the Trolly car back to Bay View, and the pizza was frozen by the time we got home, so we had to reheat it. The next day I told my friends I had pizza for supper, and nobody knew what a pizza was!
Details, details! The author's use of Catalano Square gave me a reference point; who cares if it was 1/2 block one way or the other?! Maybe the square used to be a square instead of a triangle and maybe it was bigger back then...regardless you get an idea of where it was. SHEESH!
wayno | Aug. 15, 2011 at 11:14 a.m. (report)
I believe that the information about the Caradaro Club having been located on the site of the present Catalano Square may be incorrect. According to a help-wanted ad in the Milwaukee Sentinel - Jul 21, 1972 (courtesy of Google News Archives) the address of the Caradaro Club was 326 E. Erie. This is approximately one half block east of Catalano Square. In addition, Broadway (street) used to extend through what is now Catalano Square.
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