Calderone Club makes one of the best pizzas and some of the finest Italian food in the Milwaukee area. The Fazzari family's rooted in the restaurant and food business, and its Downtown Calderone Club is a go-to spot for both locals and convention-goers.
After recently closing a smaller, grab and go location in Shorewood, Calderone Club owner and chef Giorgino "Gino" Fazzari sat down with me to talk about the family's traditions, its two restaurants, pizza-making, Downtown Milwaukee and more in this latest edition of "Milwaukee Talks."
OnMilwaukee: Give us the quick 3-5 minute Gino Fazzari story?
Gino Fazzari: I was born in Milwaukee, but my parents came here (from Italy) in 1963. My mom’s first home was in Pittsburgh. She was there for a year until she sent for my dad in 1964. My dad came to America with my oldest brother and my oldest sister. So they were the first from their respective families to leave Italy, with the exception of my grandfather on my mom’s side.
There wasn't a lot of work back then, and Milwaukee had the breweries so my dad made his way here. He worked for Pabst, driving a forklift. He was doing that during the day and I believe at night he was laying flooring down. Italians are really good at laying marble, tile, whatever. So he was doing that and my mom was working a couple of jobs. She was working at The Pfister in house keeping, she was also working at a place called The Junior House as a seamstress.
A cousin, who was visiting my dad and my mom from Italy, befriended a guy by the name of Joe Todaro who was one of The Caradaro Club owners. Caradaro was on Erie Street in the Third Ward, and was the first pizza place in Milwaukee in 1945.
My cousin didn't know anything about the restaurant business and neither did my dad for that matter, but my dad was a pretty good cook and so was my mom. So, my cousin got my dad involved and my dad bought The Caradaro Club from Joe Todaro, the original owner in 1969. He had it until we went back to live in Italy in '73, when he sold it to my uncle. Then we ended up back in the United States again in 1975.
So, my parents have been in the restaurant business, pretty much even before I was born.
OnMilwaukee.com: Where'd you live?
Gino Fazzari: We lived on the East Side. Grew up on the East Side of Milwaukee not too far from where we live now. We were living on Oakland Avenue and I went to school on Maryland Avenue School for a little while before I went to Sts. Peter and Paul.
I traveled a lot, when I was younger (to Italy) – twice a year at least. You know, flights were very cheap then.
OMC: How many brothers and sisters?
GF: I have three brothers and one sister. We grew up a family of six, my oldest sister passed away some time ago, in 1978. So, there were a lot of mouths to feed.
OMC: Talk about your post-high school years a little bit. When did you know you wanted to get into the food business – was it the natural family thing to do?
GF: I knew going into high school. I was thinking about sports. I boxed for about 13 years and I actually was the state Golden Gloves champion in the super heavyweight division in 1993 and again in the heavyweight division in 1995.
But, I knew early on that I was going to be doing this. I knew when we lived above the restaurant on the East Side which is now the Red Dot at Bartlett and Bradford. On Saturday mornings my mom would be up early, and she'd be in the kitchen baking and singing. She has a great voice, she's a great singer. So I would hear my mom singing – she only sings when she bakes, not cooks, which is interesting.
I'd pop up out of bed and I'd run downstairs, and she’d prop me up on one of the work counters there and then I'd watch her. I'd say, "mom, that’s really cool." I'd watch her kneading bread, whatever, making cookies.
OMC: And this was all in the building that housed the first Calderone Club? Correct?
GF: Yes, in 1979. That’s when we opened. It was called the High Corner before my dad bought it in 1979. The whole family was working in that restaurant, so we were all involved: my dad, my mom, my brothers, my sister.
There were a lot of firsts at that restaurant. We had that beer garden the back there, and that was wonderful. I remember my dad going to the City and applying for a permit, and there weren't many beer gardens back then in the 70s. My dad says, "I want to do this Italian beer garden in the back." I remember him designing it and working with the inspectors, and it was interesting. A lot of fond memories.
OMC: Where does the name "Calderone Club" come from?
GF: That’s a great question. It's actually derived from two places. One is when we went back to Italy – after we sold the Caradaro Club to my uncle – we lived in Torvaianica, which is between Roma and Ostia. In that town there was a restaurant called Il Calderone. It was a very famous restaurant, and it means cauldron in Italian. My dad always liked that name. When we came back here to the United States, he was like, "Well, I can't use the Caradaro Club name," because he had sold that, but he really liked the Calderone name and it sort of sounded like Caradaro. It was a good fit for us.
OMC: Talk about culinary school and your classic cooking training.
GF: I got a lot of training watching my mom and my dad. They were never classically trained, but they had the best sort of training: necessity. They knew about ingredients since they were farmers and grew food. Watching the relationship that they had with ingredients was amazing to me. Natural ingredients, minimal augmentation, not trying to dress it up with sauces and stuff like that. I also learned a lot from my aunts in Italy. They were awesome cooks.
My cousin has a top 25 restaurant in Latina; it's called Vecchia Maremma. It's all Tuscan cuisine. I am his namesake. His name is Giorgino which became Giorgio for me. I go by my middle name, of course, Gino. He's fanatical about cooking. He'll go in the springtime and he'll check the feed that the farmers are giving to the hogs so that, when it comes fall and they're going to be slaughtered … I should say vice-versa, they get slaughtered in the spring … but he watches, he will watch the feed that they give them, because he'll pick out the hogs that he wants. He's that fanatical. He'll go and check on the sheep and see how they're doing, because that milk from the sheep is going to be used to make pecorino. He's phenomenal.
He actually came here and consulted with me back in 1998, and that’s when we developed the tomato sauce that we're using here at the restaurant. That sauce actually won … we entered it into a sauce competition at the ICC, and it won best in its category, meatless category … and there were, I don’t know, 25 to 30 restaurants or sauces in that competition … and it won. So we're No. 1 in the meatless category and No. 2 overall in the whole competition. It's a great sauce. He taught me that one, and we use that to this day.
My restaurant training started at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in hotel/restaurant (studies). My instructor, chef instructor, by the name of Gladys Earl, actually wrote some of our training manuals at the Culinary Institute of America. The pinnacle of the education for me was at the Culinary Institute of America. I was there for two years, graduated in 1997.
I also did a year and a half externship at the Little Palm Island in Little Torch Key, Fla., which, at the time, it was the No. 3 Relais and Chateaux resort in the world. The chef there, Michel Raymond, he was what we call in the industry a triple crown winner. He won the James Beard, the Ivy and the Silver Spoon. Those are three really good coveted awards. He's Swiss-born, French-trained, very good. I learned a lot there.
OMC: Were there any other Milwaukee area chefs in your class?
GF: Yeah. Marc Bianchini is a CIA grad, chef Sanford D'Amato is a CIA grad. There are others, of course, too.
OMC: How do you manage the day to day with your locations?
GF: My dad started the Calderone Club here on 3rd Street, and he started the one in Fox Point. My dad started both of these locations. I took this (Downtown) location over in '97 when I came back from New York, and my brother, Carmello, took over the Fox Point location for my dad about five or six years ago. We're independently running these two locations. We talk about a lot of strategies together. We try and get the brand as homogenous as we can so that we're not confusing people.
That being said, I'm in the kitchen here at Third Street, and Carmello, he's more a front of the house guy; so he goes in the kitchen but he doesn’t do any of the cooking. He oversees every aspect of that restaurant.
OMC: Your Shorewood location closed recently? Why?
GF: Our system of operations as far as running the restaurant is a very hands-on, owner-operated system. What we've done, and what I've concentrated here (Downtown), is to make myself an integral part of the brand. I need to be here. My brother does the same, if not more, in Fox Point. We found that we simply can't be at three places. I think people recognize the two locations as what they are, not that the location at Shorewood was bad and not like the pizza was bad, but there were other factors out of our control too so it's best to move on.
OMC: What makes a great pizza?
GF: That’s a subjective question. Yet, I think it would be hard for people to disagree that there are five things, I believe, that really define a great pizza.
The first one is the dough. You can put all the great toppings on a pizza you want, but if the dough isn't a good dough … and it doesn’t mean it has to be thin, doesn’t mean it has to be thick. It can be thin, thick, it can be hand-tossed, whatever, but it has to be a good dough. It has to be a product that’s handmade, a product that’s made onsite, not a pre-bought, pre-purchased crust, and it has to be made with quality ingredients. The dough is extremely important in a pizza. You’ve got nowhere to go if you don’t have a good dough.
I think the second thing is sauce. There are many restaurants out there that have a really good pizza, but could have a great pizza if they had a natural tomato sauce. There's people that are using tomato paste and Italian tomato puree, and all these other things, and adding all kinds of spices and garlic and oregano and a million other ingredients, and all of a sudden you get something else. Tomato sauce should be that. It should be whole. It should be made from whole peeled tomatoes, it should be a simple sauce, and it should be made from fresh, ripe tomatoes. I think a lot of people fall short because they want to put a million spices and herbs in their sauce. Anyway, but sauce is very important.
I think the cheese is critical, and we live in Wisconsin so there's really no excuse. We have some of the best cheese here, not only nationally but some of the best cheese internationally. We get a lot of customers from Italy, and I hear this on a regular basis, "Your cheese is as good if not better than the cheese I can get in Italy, in Naples, which is known in all of Italy to have some of the best cheese."
We use Grande, and here's a plug for them, but they deserve it but it's the best cheese. It's from Wisconsin, and we've won more pizza competitions and more awards because of the cheese. It's more expensive, but quality is, I believe, remembered far after the price is forgotten. The cheese has got to stretch, it's got the melt. Cheese is very important.
One of the last couple of things is the oven. You could get so many different styles of ovens out there, but the oven is very important. We use a gas oven. We run it really hot, almost 600 degrees, with a natural stone slate. You have some of the other pizza restaurants out there using what are called impinger ovens, or conveyor ovens, with a chain. I don’t know how you get good pizza off a chain. The oven makes a big difference on the quality.
Last is the pizza maker. You can have all the ingredients in the world, you can have the best oven in the world, but if the pizza maker doesn’t understand the ratio of ingredients and how they're to be put on or applied, you're not going to have a good pizza.
So it's dough, cheese, sauce, oven and pizza maker. I think those things make it.
OMC: What's the most popular pizza here?
GF: The most popular pizza, I think, in the world … or I should say in the United States is pepperoni pizza. There's more people that order just the regular cheese and pepperoni pizza than anything else.
Our second most popular pizza is the … we have a pizza called Margarita, which we sell. We use our dough recipe, but we do additional proofing. We get a little more air into the dough – proofing is just raising – so it rises for an additional couple of hours. We separate that dough. We use that dough for the Margarita pizzas. On that we don’t use a pizza sauce, we use just a crushed San Marzano tomato. We use the fior di latte Grande cheese on it, which is not the dried or aged mozzarella but the fresh mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil.
We use garden-fresh basil all year long except for the out of season in the winter. We get our basil from my mom, who has 10 acres in Mequon, although that’s probably going to change now because my mom is finding it tougher and tougher to do. She's got a farmer helping her, but she's in her 70s so she's supposed to be retired, so I don’t know if she wants to continue to provide our tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and, as I said, basil for the restaurant.
That’s a great pizza. We sell a lot of Margarita pizzas, and we add stuff to them, too. We add artichoke hearts or Kalamata olives or whatever on the Margarita. We do that, make other styles of pizza.
Milwaukee is kind of unique because the cheese, sausage, mushroom and onion is so popular, too. Pizza Man sells a bunch of those pizzas and there's a reason for it, because that’s a real good combination, classic combination in Milwaukee. I would say, though, the No. 1 pizza wherever you go in the United States is the cheese and pepperoni. We sell more cheese and pepperoni that anything else.
Jeff: What are some of the best pizzas you’ve had?
GF: I'll tell you what, the best pizza I've had and the best pizza I've had recently is in Madison, Wisconsin. It's called Naples 15. It's a VPN restaurant, which means it's Verace Pizzeria Napoletana which means it's a certified authentic Neapolitan pizzeria. In order to get that certification, the pizza maker, or pizzaiolo, has to go through a class, and then the association comes here and they go through your pizza-making process, measuring the dough at certain spots, measuring the temperature of the oven. You have to have a dome-shaped, wood-fired oven. You're allowed to use ingredients only specified for that pizza.
When I came back to Milwaukee from Hyde Park, N.Y., in 1997, there were only 11 VPN pizzerias in the United States, only 11. One of the 11 was right here in Wisconsin in Sheboygan, Stefano. There's a lot more than 11 VPN pizzerias in the United States now, obviously, but Salvatore Discala is the chef's name, and he does a great job in Madison. Phenomenal, phenomenal Neapolitan pizza. And, Stefano is great, too. But, Discala is the best pizzaiolo this side of Naples.
Another pizza that sticks out in my mind is a little pizzeria/trattoria in Trastevere which is the oldest area in Rome. Every time I'm back in Italy and I go to Rome, I go to this pizzeria (Pizzarium owned by Gabriele Bonci), I get pizza by the slice. This is a different pizza than the Neapolitan wood-fired pizza. They use a gas oven. Sometimes they use wood-fired ovens as well, but it's pizza by the slice, and they have a big sheet pan. One of my favorite pizzas is they do the pizza rustica which is potatoes, rosemary. I grab three or four slices, sit on the curb with them and a bottle of Peroni, and I just do my best.
OMC: What are some of the other dishes you're proud of here, some of the other signature dishes at Calderone?
GF: I'm proud of all of them. But there are three signature dishes that I get more compliments, constantly, and these are dishes that people tell me, "Hey, I've been everywhere, even in Italy, and I can't get this this good."
The first one is the penne salsiccia. I get more compliments on that, and that’s the spicy … basically it's a vodka sauce, a spicy vodka sauce, with Italian sausage, some San Marzano tomato cream sauce, penne pasta … it's delicious.
The other one is the rigatoni bolognese. That bolognese sauce was taught to be also by my cousin in Italy. We use 100 percent certified Angus beef. Any beef that comes in my restaurant has to be certified Angus beef. That means the beef we use to make the bolognese sauce which goes on lasagna, that means the beef that goes in our meatballs. That means our steaks, our filet, our New York Strip. That means the hamburgers we use for lunch. It's all certified Angus beef.
The penne salsiccia, the rigatoni bolognese, and the last one is the chicken Marsala. That’s a very unique dish, that chicken Marsala. The reason is … and Marsala is made in Sicily, that’s where the Marsala wine comes from. In the south they don’t use cream in their dishes, so chicken Marsala traditionally is a wine sauce with nothing else. Its got some stock, usually some stock or some juices from the chicken, but mostly it's wine and maybe even a little bit of water. So it's a thin sauce, very good but very thin.
This recipe comes from the Emilia-Romagna region, and I love that. That’s where Parma … that’s prosciutto hams, parmigiano cheese, and it has the addition of a little bit of heavy cream. It's not heavy at all, but it does something very unique with the Marsala wine, and it binds the sauce with the pasta. It binds it to the pasta in a very, very excellent way.
OMC: You probably don’t have a ton of time, but do you have a favorite TV show or series that you're watching, you and your wife?
GF: I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I'll tell you my favorite series if I … usually I get home late and I'm pretty tired out, and we have a newborn at home so there's a good chance, when I come home, my wife's feeding and there's no TV; the baby has to go back to sleep so my wife can get her two or three hours of sleep between feeding.
If I get a chance to watch TV, like everybody else, I'm addicted to the Food Network, and I love watching Guy Fieri – "Drive Ins, Diners and Dives" is one of my favorite shows. As far as series goes, I'm a big "Magnum PI" fan. If I can catch "Magnum" on a rerun somewhere, I love it. I also love Kevin James' "The King of Queens" is one of the funniest shows, I think, on TV. Obviously those series aren't running now, but you'll find them late night or on Netflix.
OMC: How about music. You a music fan?
GF: I'm a music fan, country and western. I love country music. I'm actually really big in the Gregorian chant right now, and it's really calming and peaceful, and so when I'm in the office trying to get caught up with some of my paperwork, I'll put Pandora on with the Gregorian chants, and it's relaxing and very peaceful.
OMC: Favorite concert of the past few years?
GF: Phil Vassar at Summerfest. No doubt about it.
OMC: How about going out to eat in the Milwaukee area, whether it's just you and your wife or you and the kids, any favorite restaurants?
GF: I've got favorite spots. I also have restaurateurs or operators that I really, really look up to and really respect.
My wife and I, when we go out … I mean, our first date was at Buckley's, and my wife is half Irish so I chose that because I figured she'd like that. Buckley's is a great place. I like Omar Shaikh at Carnevor. Omar is a great guy, runs a great restaurant. That’s a phenomenal restaurant. I like Tom Wackman's spots. Karl Kopp at Elsa's does a great job, and I love Elsa's. Year after year these guys are just producing incredible food, simple, so it's a burger, it's a sandwich, but nobody does it better than Karl. His story is a wonderful story.
Guys like Terry Romine. They used to be on Wisconsin Avenue down here, another second-generation restaurateur/tavern guy. He's now in the South Side of Milwaukee, but Terry does a great job; love going there.
Sean Burke and Shane Valenti, at Burke's Irish Castle (the old Derry Hegarty’s Pub). What Shane and Sean have done with that place is incredible, great operators. Shane's obviously a great chef. I've cooked with him before in competitions. The guy is self-taught, and I'll tell you, he's better than half the guys I went to school with. Great food.
R.C. Schmidt. He's another great operator. He's got wonderful places. I don’t go out and eat Italian just simply because … I'm very critical of Italian food. I'm very critical of food, but super critical of Italian. But R.C., at all of his restaurants, he does a great job. Jerry Cohen and Major Goolsby's. These guys are legends in Milwaukee, the stuff that these guys did. These guys saw the business through the '70s, the good times, the bad times … they still put out a fantastic ham and cheese sandwich or a great burger. Great place to go.
OMC: Obviously you’ve been in Downtown Milwaukee for a while, and you’ve seen the growth and how Downtown's continued to change. What are your general perceptions of the restaurant market, and then how important is the local consumer and the convention-goer to your business and to everyone's business?
GF: First of all, Downtown continues to grow. We have some great restaurants and some great food outlets in Milwaukee. I don't know if people realize how many great restaurants we have. It's tough to have a restaurant in Milwaukee. People always say, "You're a Milwaukee restaurant operator. What about Chicago? Could you make it in Chicago or New York?" I say, "If you can make in Milwaukee, you can make it anywhere."
This is one of the most frugal markets in the country, not because that’s just how Milwaukee people are. They just want value. These are hard-working people. They're not just going to throw money for the sake of spending money. It's not coincidence that Milwaukee is a test market for many of the big companies, even MillerCoors. They do the tests not because they're from Milwaukee but because it is a tough market; and if they make it go in Milwaukee, in this market, then chances are very good that they can get it to go elsewhere. We're frugal, we're prudent, and that’s not a bad thing.
It means you have to be really good at what you do. I know operators in Chicago, they don’t … there's lines out the door and not because they have the best product, just because people go out and spend money in Chicago. You ask any restaurant operator, and they can tell you customers that are from Chicago in a Milwaukee restaurant. They can tell you … the server can tell you, the bartender can tell you instantly because these people, again, they really, really spend a lot of money; obviously, they make a lot. I think income is more, and you just have more people there (Chicago). What I'm saying is Milwaukee, as a result, the operations of restaurants in Milwaukee has to be really good because the competition is really tough here. If you're not good here, you're not going to last.
What do I see for Milwaukee? I see Downtown continuing to grow. Obviously there's a little bit of anxiety because we don’t know what's going to happen with the BMO Harris Bradley Center / Bucks situation. I think that that’s not going to go away. I think that, if they redo the stadium and the facility, I think it has to stay Downtown.
Conventions are an important part of that. That business is great. I would say, 20 conventions, 15 or 20 conventions throughout the year are really, really big. Obviously, Northwestern Mutual and some of the other ones.
Your Downtown, as a barometer, represents how vibrant your community is because the Downtown is where the tourists go. The Downtown is where the hotels are. It's where the money is being generated for not only jobs … so not only are we talking about taxes, but I'm talking about money generated, people spending money Downtown in the city. Conventions are an integral part of that.
OMC: Anything new for the winter at Calderone in Downtown?
GF: Anything new? Yeah, we are launching our pizza and wine program. We have five artisan pizzas that we're doing, new artisan pizzas that we haven't done before, and we're pairing them with wine that we've selected precisely for this pizza.
What we did is we decided on the pizzas we wanted, and then what we did is we went after wines. Italian wines need food. That’s how the winemakers style them, and that’s how they … the grapes lend themselves to being made into a wine that they really show well when you put them with food.
We found the five pizzas that we wanted to make … and why five? Well, because we didn’t want to get crazy with letting this get out of control. We're going to start with five pizzas. We had over 100 wines to choose from, and we paired these wines with these specific pizzas. Quattro stagioni is one of the pizzas. We have a quattro formaggi, a four-cheese pizza. We have the traditional Margarita, but we've added prosciutto and arugula. Others, too.
OMC: Define success.
GF: I define success simply by not betraying my faith, not betraying my family and not betraying myself. If I can do that, that’s success. It's very easy in this world today to be tempted to do a lot of things.
A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.
He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.
Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.
He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.
He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.