This chapter of the quest is about the two “Martino’s” I found in Wisconsin and while we didn’t discover any “relatives” on this journey, we did get to meet two remarkable men and hear two very interesting and personal stories. I can’t help but wonder what’s around the next corner as these experiences just get more fascinating as we go along.
Martino’s Restaurant, Milwaukee, WI
When we arrived at Martino’s just after 11:00am on a Monday in September, there was already a flurry of activity in the open kitchen and we were greeted before we reached the counter to place our order. Since I had visited the Martino’s site and watched the Travel Channel video feature on the restaurant, I recognized owner T.J. Anderson as he was orchestrating the preparation for the lunch crowd. I had not “warned” T.J. of our visit but he graciously spent nearly an hour with us, giving us some deep insight into the eatery’s history as well as his family background...one that was very familiar to me as you’ll see if you read on.
In 1974, T.J. and his mother Mary got the idea to open a stand at the annual four-day St. Martin’s Fair in Frankin, WI, showcasing some of the foods that T.J. grew up on. His parents were from Chicago and Mary, a first generation Italian-American, had raised T.J. and his siblings on hot dogs and Italian beef. The little lean-to stand they erected that first year sold out the first day. Even though they quadrupled the stock the second year, they were sold out again before the end of day two. This went on for one more year before Mary had the idea to operate a permanent stand in Milwaukee and in 1977, Martino’s officially opened with a small building in the middle of the current location, seasonally offering hot dogs, Italian sausage and Italian beef. As they continued to grow, it became clear that the small stand with no tables simply would no longer do, so in 1983, they built the current building, retaining the “hot dog stand” feel but with a nice dining area and expanded menu. Incidentally, this “Martino’s” got its name from the St. Martin’s Fair, a nice homage to the venture’s humble beginnings. Because of T.J.’s Italian background, the “O” was added to give it the nice Italian sound and the rest is history.
Mary and T.J. shared the cooking responsibilities and for the next twenty-five years, Martino’s developed a stellar reputation, becoming the largest user of Vienna sausage in Wisconsin. T.J. is currently arranging for his sausage and Italian beef to be marketed locally in retail stores. Based on the Italian combo that Carol and I shared for lunch the day we visited, I suspect that venture will prove to be quite successful.
In 2000, Mary was ready to retire so T.J. and wife Cathy bought the restaurant, continuing in Mary’s footsteps and following her philosophy...everything is made with love...a tenet that still lives on at Martino’s. By 2006, Mary’s health began to deteriorate and she passed in 2009. Mary’s impact on T.J. and his family is evident and her picture, which hangs over the ordering counter, is symbolic of her continuing presence in the business. The recipes and the love are Mary’s...she’s still at Martino’s every day.
Besides a love of great Italian food and an undying regard for our mothers, T.J. Anderson and I have one other important thing in common. We were both raised with a multi-generational influence and instilled with pride in our Italian heritage. When telling us about his mother Mary, T.J. mentioned a very familiar discipline trait that brought back strong memories from my own youth. When T.J. and his siblings needed a reminder to behave properly, Mary would deliver that message with a wooden spoon across the backside of the offending child. My dad was the disciplinarian in our family and his “weapon” of choice was his belt. T.J. told us that after a while, just the sound of the spoon drawer opening around his house was enough to convince everyone to settle down...just as the sight of Dad loosening his belt at our house did.
Though there were no “Martinos” at this quest stop, I felt a strong bond with T.J. and his regard for his mother and her simple philosophy of love. Businesses come and go but I don’t believe that the longevity of this Martino’s Restaurant is an accident. I believe that Mary’s vision and her family’s desire to carry it on have much to do with the success of this great little restaurant. And I guess it doesn’t hurt that the food is fantastic. Don’t visit Milwaukee without a stop at Martino’s.
Check out the Martino’s website by clicking HERE.
Martino’s Restaurante, Stanley, WI
Nine years ago, Ron Haas was printing labels on McDonalds Happy Meal containers for a living, which gave him time to wonder if this was really what he should be doing with his life. Around that time, he attended a wedding in Chicago and found that his brother-in-law had just closed down his pizza restaurant and was looking to sell the equipment. Call it fate if you will, that conversation changed the trajectory of Ron’s life and greatly improved the gastronomical lives of the folks living in and around Stanley, Wisconsin.
Growing up on a farm in rural Wisconsin, Ron felt at home in the kitchen from his earliest memories. So when the opportunity to get into the restaurant business presented itself, he was not remotely intimidated and confidently took steps to move the newly found pizza equipment to Stanley and open Martino’s. The Italian name is derived from a very important person in Ron’s life...his late father-in-law Martin, a man for whom Ron had a high regard. Nine years later, Martino’s is a fixture in the Chippewa County/Clark County area, drawing patrons from Eau Claire and other surrounding towns.
But Ron and wife Karen have brought much more than great food to Stanley. Foster parents for years, they are raising two adopted children, foregoing the empty nest to start a second family. And the generosity doesn’t end at home. Each year, Martino’s hosts a benefit for local volunteer fire departments, donating 100% of the proceeds to the organizations. Firemen from the units prepare the pizzas and families enjoy games, special events and of course some very tasty food.
When we visited Martino’s in September 2013, Ron was able to spend some time with us after we enjoyed the lunch buffet. We learned that chef Deb Winger has developed the recipes for most of the dishes served at this Italian eatery but Ron has also contributed a few of their most popular offerings. His “Ron’s Original”, which is typically a part of the buffet, is a tasty twist on a supreme pizza with the very welcome addition of a layer of bacon. Another of Ron’s seasonal specialties was on the buffet the day we visited...an Octoberfest pizza. Layered with sauerkraut, bratwurst slices and Wisconsin cheeses, this white sauce pizza is very unique and I found it to be absolutely delicious. In fact, all the pizza varieties we were able to sample at Martino’s were wonderful and it’s easy to see why the lunch buffet is a popular option for locals. Carol is already looking forward to a return visit for Ron’s Chicken Dumpling Soup. We will need to exercise good planning, though, because this soup is rotated with several others as the Martino’s “soup of the day”. You can be sure we’ll be making a phone call to assure ourselves that it will be available upon our return.
While this quest began as a fairly narcissistic adventure, we did hold out hope that we might meet some long lost relatives in the process. What we didn’t expect, was that we would meet these incredible folks operating these diverse establishments. In addition to the name “Martino”, we’ve found one other binding tie among the thirteen we’ve visited to date...a passion for the food and a devotion to their customers. Though I have absolutely no right to feel this way, I’m proud that I share my name with these restaurants. This adventure just keeps getting more and more wonderful. Thanks to T.J., Ron and all the folks at these two great Wisconsin eateries for sharing their stories with us...and for the great food, too!
Visit the Martino’s website HERE.