By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Dec 27, 2011 at 9:02 AM

Aren't you amazed at the steady parade of new restaurants that open every month, even in a sputtering economy?

We all know how difficult it is to be successful in the dining industry, but that doesn't discourage everyone from the Bartolottas to food cart operators from starting new ventures. Against big odds, they bet they can persuade you and me to choose them when we have a craving for a rare steak or a crispy egg roll.

This perhaps irrational optimism underscores the fact that the dining business is about people as much as it is about saute pans and field to fork produce. If you regularly write about restaurants, you are telling people stories, and I want to go back and recall some of those from my coverage of state eateries this year.

Don't worry, I'm not going to ignore food. Here are the most intriguing folks and features from 12 months on the restaurant beat in 2011.

The most colorful kitchen character: Two pizza chefs whose product and style are very different win this category.

Wally Kutch is an MSOE grad who once owned a company that manufactured complicated tools and machinery for Toyota and the Defense Department, but he chucked it all to buy and operate the Caradaro Club, which has the distinction of having served the first slice of pizza in Milwaukee, in 1945. The restaurant, which now has two locations, is long gone from its original Historic Third Ward address, but Kutch is the dedicated keeper of the Caradaro flame, using the original recipes and only traditional pizza toppings.

Although he likes to wear Hawaiian shirts, he wouldn't be caught dead with a piece of pineapple on one of his pies.

With a big personality and an uncensored zest for speaking his mind, Vasyl Lemberskyy says he was famous in his native Ukraine for his pizza-making skill. He and his wife moved to Milwaukee 10 years ago, and Lemberskyy is the executive chef at Transfer Pizzeria Cafe, where he makes 45 different varieties of pizza with ingredients like salmon, blue cheese and pan-fried potatoes. He thinks Americans settle for poor quality in restaurants.

Most unusual sight outside of a restaurant: The quarter-acre garden adjacent to Parkside 23 in Brookfield.

Every serious restaurant today is claiming to use fresh and local ingredients in its cooking. Parkside 23 walks the walk. When a line chef needed peppers, brussels sprouts or swiss chard during the summer, he grabbed a knife and hustled out to the garden to harvest the bounty.

Most unexpected comfort food item on a menu: Fried bologna with fried onions sandwich at Mrs. Sippy's Coffee in Elm Grove.

If you grew up in Milwaukee in the '50s and '60s, the chances are good your mother made fried bologna sandwiches. Try finding them on a menu now. Mrs. Sippy's owner Carol Svehlek serves the sammy on Texas toast, and it doesn't disappoint.

Most unusual item on a menu: The $100 individual pizza at Dick's Pizza and Pleasure on Milwaukee Street.

Admittedly a gimmick, the pie is topped with foie gras, sliced Kobe beef, truffles and creamy burrata cheese, and a split of Veuve Clicquot champagne accompanies it. Dick's has sold a few of them.

Most inspirational personal story: Two winners here, Sebastian Ludena of Mr. Sebass on National Avenue and the Jauregui brothers of the Summer Kitchen in Door County.

Although we are a nation of immigrants, newcomers to our country have become political pinatas. These stories reflect the American dream.

Ludena is a high energy 19-year-old Peruvian immigrant and recent graduate of New Berlin West High School who opened his 20-seat cafe in September. It features his native country's cuisine. Ludena learned the restaurant business working full time at McDonald's while going to school full time.

Nino and Armando Jauregui grew up on a farm near Guadalajara, Mexico and settled in Door County after taking jobs at the high profile Summer Kitchen, famous for its soup bar. Nino waited tables while Armando cooked breakfast and lunch. After the lunch rush, the latter worked the dinner shift at the historic Greenwood Supper Club, where he was head chef.

On his only day off a week, Armando mowed grass. The brothers saved their money, and when the Summer Kitchen went up for sale in 2008, they bought it and added Mexican items to the menu.

A restaurant you should sample in 2012: Kafe Kultura.

This stylish pan-Latin bistro a block south of Conejito's blends casual elegance with appetizers, small plates and entrees from a broad range of cuisines – Cuban, Puerto Rican, Costa Rican, Dominican, Colombian, Peruvian, Venezuelan and Mexican. The food is excellent, the ambiance is understated chic and the price is right. The most expensive menu item is $15.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.