By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 23, 2008 at 5:35 AM

Thanks to Miller Park, Potawatomi Bingo Casino and the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Menomonee Valley is becoming an entertainment strip. While you're down there, don't miss the pizza experience.

Although that experience is branded with one name -- Palermo's -- it comes in two flavors. If you're looking for lunch, the Palermo's Pizza factory, 3301 W. Canal St., has a public pizzeria that is among the city's best-kept dining secrets.

Dishing up pizza, calzones, salads, soup and other options, the little restaurant also sells olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pizza supplies, Palermo's souvenir clothing and, of course, frozen pizzas to take home.

But Palermo's, Milwaukee's only pizza manufacturer, also offers tours of its facility, which consolidated all of the company's operations in a single structure in late 2006.

The company -- started by Gaspare "Jack" Falluca and still run by the family -- entered the frozen food market in 1978 after having run the East Side Palermo Villa pizzeria since 1969. That business was born as a bakery five years earlier. The Palermo's brand has since become synonymous with Milwaukee.

"Palermo's has been in the frozen pizza business for years. We've been a brand here in Milwaukee forever," says Chris Dresselhuys, Palermo's director of marketing. "I used to sell Palermo's pizzas as a Cub Scout; when I was 8 years old. In 2001, they introduced the Primo Thin Margherita, which really launched the company into the stratosphere. (It) was the fastest growing frozen pizza brand in the market 2005-‘06 and I think we were number two in 2007."

Palermo's still sells pizzas via those grass roots methods, but it's also available across the country in supermarkets and retailers like Costco and is in the process of introducing a new upscale frozen pizza called Hearth Italia.

"Right now we have two products in the market, Primo Thin, of which there are 12 flavors, and the Rustico," says Dresselhuys. "Hearth Italia is a totally new product for us and a new product for the frozen pizza industry in America, in that it is an authentic hearth-baked crust ... made in an oven that was imported here from Italy that has a conveyer of quarried Italian marble. We have the only pizza oven like it in America."

The Hearth Italia line was introduced in the Twin Cities in February and should be available in the Milwaukee area in April.
You can see all of the pizzas being made on a Palermo's factory tour, offered Fridays at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. and by appointment Mondays through Thursdays. Although due to health department restrictions, visitors cannot walk the pizza line, a tour guide explains the processes as visitors watch production through the windows of an elevated walkway.

After a 20-minute video explaining the basics, visitors can see the crust being made in the bakery on the top floor and then watch as machines flatten it, squirt sauce and spread cheese and other toppings before the pizzas are sent into the flash-freeze chamber.

Watching the staff work in tandem to create a popular home-grown product in a family-owned setting conjures Milwaukee's proud past as a manufacturing center. Although back in the day workers made more heavy machinery than thin crust pizza.

Palermo's runs two shifts of pizza production and a third shift that comes into to completely clean the facility.

"Between the three shifts," Dresselhuys says, "(we employ) somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 to 325. That's the front office staff, the pizzeria and café staff, two shifts in production and the cleaning crew, but it is a lot of people and we continue to grow every day as we get more and more people turned on to the brand and we've had some good luck recently."

Tours also get to see the testing lab where new and long-standing products get baked and tested for consistency, flavor and more. Palermo's also employs a chef and a food scientist who work together to create new products.

Unsurprisingly, tours finish at the pizzeria and gift shop, but that's an appropriate return to the roots for the Falluca family, says Dresselhuys.

"The pizzeria and café," he notes, "came as a homage to where the company came from, starting as a pizzeria business. They make pizza down there the same way that Papa and Zina did for years and years at Villa Palermo on the East Side."

You don't have to take the tour to visit the pizzeria, but if you've got a little time, why not see how they make the pizza you've stopped in to enjoy?

Jeff Sherman & Andy Tarnoff contributed to this report. 

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.