RACINE — Penny Pollack was out eating Chinese food with friends in Chicago one evening when she first heard of Wells Brothers Italian Restaurant in Racine. Pollack, the dining editor for Chicago magazine, told her friends that she and a co-worker were writing a book about pizza and one of the friends began extolling the virtues of Wells Brothers’ pizza.
The friend, an Illinois resident who docks her boat at one of Racine’s marinas, insisted that Wells Brothers should be included in Pollack’s search for the country’s best pizza. The food writer was a bit skeptical at first, as she often disagrees with this friend when it comes to the subject of food. But, after listening to the Wells Brothers fan carry on about the family-owned Wisconsin restaurant, she decided to check it out for herself.
"She got this look on her face when she talked about the thin, thin, thin crispy crust of the pizza," Pollack said of her friend. "Her response was so dramatic and passionate, I figured I had to give it a try."
So, Pollack and her husband drove up to Racine and went to Wells Brothers, 2148 Mead St., unannounced. They ordered a pizza with sausage and garlic, and soon discovered the culinary bliss their friend described.
Pollack liked the pizza so much, that she took another pie back to Chicago for her co-author, Jeff Ruby, to try. Ruby, deputy dining editor for Chicago magazine, also gave the Wells Brothers pizza high marks — high enough to put the Racine restaurant on the list of "Top 10: The Best Pizzerias in America" in the authors’ recently published book "Everybody Loves Pizza."
Wells Brothers is No. 6 on the list, which also includes pizzerias on both coasts and places in between. The restaurant, which has been serving Racinians since 1921, is the only Wisconsin pizzeria included in the top 10.
What was it about Wells Brothers’ pizza that earned it such status?
"A lot of people use the term thin crust, and they use it to mean a variety of things," Pollack said. "But Wells Brothers crust is in a whole different category. It is almost paper thin, yet it is still pizza crust. It has character, body and crunch. And I want one right now!"
"I was eating it as leftovers, and it was still crispy," said Ruby. "I also remember the layer of garlic under the cheese."
What Pollack, Ruby and their readers have recently discovered is something Racine residents have known for some time. Wells Brothers started serving pizza in the 1940s — back when it was still called tomato pie, according to co-owners Paula Wells Huck and her cousin Bill Rivers (son of Rose Wells).
"We were the second place in Racine to serve pizza," said Huck, whose father, Guy Wells, ran the restaurant with his brother Tony until seven years ago. "There was a little place down the street called Charlie’s Club that had it first. I think that’s what gave our grandmother the idea."
Since then, generations of Wisconsin families have been coming to Wells Brothers to feast on the pizza and more.
"Everyone seems to like something different about it," Huck said of the pizza. "Some people say its the crust, for others it’s the sauce and for others it’s the meat."
"But, I think it’s the crust that really stands out," said Rivers, whose photograph appears next to the Wells Brothers listing in the book.
"People from out of town tell us they can’t get pizza like ours anywhere else," Huck said.
In fact, Wells Brothers has customers as far away as California and Alaska that have half-baked Wells Brothers pizzas shipped to them via overnight air service. Still, the restaurant is very much a basic, family-run business whose reputation has spread word-of-mouth.
"We don’t even have a Web site," said Rivers. "We just have a lot of wonderful customers."
Other than a coat or two of paint and a few more family photographs hung on the wall, the cousins have kept the restaurant much like it was when pizzas were first baked in its ovens 60-some years ago. Even the pizza recipe is exactly the same.
"We have to keep it that way," said Huck with a smile. "My dad and my uncle still come in and check up on us."
Even though they know they make a great pizza, the restaurant’s owners were surprised to learn that their little off-the-beaten path establishment had made the top-10 cut.
"It is unbelievable," said Rivers. "It really blew me away."
Along with descriptions and photos of the top 10 U.S pizzerias, "Everybody Loves Pizza" includes a wealth of information about what it says is America’s favorite food. There’s international pizza history and the story of how it became a U.S. staple; pizza recipes from famous chefs including Wolfgang Puck and Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef; instructions for making pizza at home; and a directory of 546 Great American Pizzerias, which includes 11 other Wisconsin establishments (Wells Brothers is the only Racine entry).
Not bad a bad showing for the dairy state, considering there are reportedly more than 60,000 pizza places in the country, according to the authors. And in their introduction, the writers not only tell how they went about finding the best pizza out there, but how pizza lovers everywhere helped them narrow the field.