9 long-gone drive-ins, actor hangouts and Mafia restaurants
For the ninth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee, presented by the restaurants of Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, dining guides, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as voting for your "Best of Dining 2015."
It may have been that I was young, newly married and broke as as a fragile toy the day after Christmas, but the restaurants I miss seem to be a lot less high end than dining is now.
And It's not just cost that I'm talking about.
Back when I was a millennial, well before the millennium, dining out was not nearly the adventure it is now. There are so many more options now, so much food that is healthier, such a variety of cost points and so many different ethnic offerings that it sometimes makes it difficult to consider where you want to eat.
But half a century ago, when I was but a callow youth, there were places where I was part of the devoted following. Here are nine of them.
Kalt's was a German restaurant on Oakland Avenue just south of Locust. The food was good, but it was the other stuff that I loved. First of all it was right next to the Fred Miller Theatre, the first home of the Milwaukee Repertory Company, so actors hung out there. It was also the place where ComedySportz started in 1984. It was a mixture of Germans, actors and comedians. How do you beat a crowd like that?
Drive-Ins were popular places when I was a young man and there were two competing places on Port Washington Road south of Silver Spring. On the west side of the street you had the Milky Way (site of the current Kopp's). Across the street was the Redwood. They both served food and ice cream and had carhops. For some reason Whitefish Bay students (like me) gathered at "The Milk" and students of arch-rival Shorewood (like my wife) gathered at the Redwood. We weren't the Sharks and Jets, but we occasionally threw spitballs across the road at each other.
Just south of the Redwood was one of the most unique restaurants ever seen in Milwaukee, the Port Silver Diner. It was constructed out of a railway car and had narrow booths and a counter. It was also one of the first places to feature "charcoal broiled food." You could smell things from hundreds of yards away. This was also a popular hangout for actors who were in community theater plays.
One place I'll always remember for a specific dish was the old Shorewood Inn on the west side of Oakland just south of Kensington. It was a moderately fancy place and students went there for prom dinner dates. The Shorewood Inn featured a tenderloin steak sandwich that to this day is the best I ever had.
I think it's amusing, at best, that two of the restaurants I used to visit most and miss the most are both places with associations with Frank Balistrieri, the head of the Mafia in Milwaukee.
One was Sally's in the Knickerbocker Hotel. It was run by Sally Papia, who did a couple of stints in jail herself, one for extortion. She fostered the image of a mob boss herself and was always at her hostess station. A hug and a peck on the cheek greeted anyone who had been there before and she wandered among the tables, shaking hands and patting you on the head. The food was wonderful and her signature dish was a small tenderloin buried in a mountain of fried onions.
The other mob place was Giovanni's, at the corner of Van Buren and Brady Streets. This one was run by Max Adonis, a short, almost 300-pound one-armed host. If he didn't like you or the way you looked, he would turn you away at the door. The place was famous for its veal chop that came from Provimi Veal in Green Bay. Provimi's Aat Groenevalt, who lived in Milwaukee, was known for the best veal in the country. Adonis was shot to death in the doorway of his restaurant, adding to the legend and sealing the soon-to-come end of the place.
Also near the top of my list is the old Caradaro Club at Buffalo and Erie. It was the first place I ever had thin crust pizza and remains in my memory bank forever.
There is a restaurant that was a gathering place for me and all my friends during the winter months when the drive-ins were closed. Marc's Big Boy was on Port Washington between Hampton and Silver Spring. I could walk in there almost any afternoon or evening and see dozens of friends in the back, gathered around tables, being young people. The Big Boy sandwich, the precursor of the Big Mac, was second only to the Brawny Lad, a burger of chopped sirloin, topped with a big slce of raw onion on a rye roll.
Finally there is a little space that I went to dozens and dozens of times. Albanese's on Keefe was a tiny place that was like the stereotype of an Italian restaurant, complete with red checked tablecloths and Chianti bottles with melted wax from the candles on each table.
The restaurant was run by the two Albanese sisters and served the best spaghetti sauce in Milwaukee. But the thing it was most famous for was the spiedini, rolls of beef and Romano cheese and, in its own special touch, tangy prosciutto added.
All of these great places sere, as it turns out, harbingers of the gastronomic delight that Milwaukee would become.
You have good taste. I remember almost all of them fondly. I could go for a Brawny Lad right now and I know I am not alone.
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