RACINE — For three generations of Racine County residents, June 26, 2014 was the culinary equivalent of “The Day the Music Died:” Totero’s, the iconic 75-year-old Italian restaurant at 2343 Mead St., Mount Pleasant, turned the lock for the final time on that day.
Long-mourning Totero’s fans, rejoice: Plans are underway for the beloved eatery’s resurrection as Nonna Totero’s inside Racine’s popular Christmas House Bed & Breakfast, 116 10th St.
Opened in 1939 by southern Italian immigrants Achille and Maria Totero near J.I. Case’s once-sprawling South Works complex, the intimate six- to eight-table restaurant passed to son and daughter-in-law Santo and Virginia Totero in 1958. Ownership in 1987 passed to grandchildren Angela and Albert Totero, who ran it until their 2014 retirement.
The closing of Totero’s was picked by Journal Times editorial staff as the fifth-biggest local news story of 2014, eclipsing passage of a $128 million, 15-year Racine Unified School District referendum among other headlining stories of note.
Even before the beloved eatery closed, hungry diners lined up down the block in the restaurant’s final days to pay their respects to Totero’s and bid their goodbyes to third-generation sibling owners Angela and Albert Totero, including one notable day when the crowd lined up 150-deep at the restaurant’s penultimate opening to get a final fix of Totero’s legendary gnocchi, ravioli, manicotti and popular meatball and Italian sausage “bomber” sandwiches.
Not much for pretension, what the converted Depression-era schoolhouse lacked in ambiance it more than made up for in the authentic, fragrant Old World Italian delicacies served up in Totero’s bustling kitchen, where diners lined up plate-in-hand for Angie Totero to serve them their entrée. Back in the day, you could tell the day of week not by consulting the calendar, but rather by the daily entrée at Totero’s — rigatoni Tuesdays, lasagna Wednesdays, spaghetti Thursdays and mostaccioli Fridays among them.
Among those attending the post-closure auction at Totero’s was frequent patron Pamela Deskins, a local realtor and vintage antiques aficionado who snagged several Totero’s cooking pots as nostalgic mementos of the beloved restaurant.
Fast forward to 2020, and those same cooking pots, now in the kitchen at Deskins’ popular Christmas House Bed & Breakfast, are poised to once again bubble with Totero’s Old World family recipe sauces with the planned launch of an 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m lunch eatery called Nonna Totero’s, in collaboration with “consultant” Marisa Totero, who currently lives in Madison and works at Fraboni’s Italian Specialties & Delicatessen in Monona.
“The premise will be modeled very similar to the very affordable and fresh ingredient version of the beloved Totero’s of the past — take-out with dine-in option to satisfy Racine’s lunch crowd,” Marisa Totero told The Journal Times. “Hopefully, this will be a reality very, very soon. We’re ready.”
A life steeped in cooking, both personally and professionally as a caterer and personal chef “to some prominent names” in California and Nashville, has prepared Totero for her latest culinary venture — reviving the family’s rich local restaurateuring legacy.
“I’m going to be hands-on for all the menus,” Totero said. “I’m going to be cooking everything. The recipes are very, very quiet. My aunt never divulged any recipes to anyone. My influence is both the Calabrese side, which is the Totero side from Calabria, and my grandmother is a D’Acquisto on my mom’s side of the family, which they’re from Sicily. It (Nonna Totero’s) is a blending of my Sicilian roots and my Calabrese roots. I feel qualified to take on my grandmother’s legacy, which has been passed down.”
Serendipity sparks collaboration
For Totero, the prospect of reviving the family’s restaurateuring legacy is a dream come true.
“This has been a dream of mine from childhood,” Totero said.
Totero’s childhood dream found a kindred spirit in Deskins, who had a lot of free time on her hands during the COVID-19 spurred shutdown of her popular bed and breakfast inn.
A social media post ago reminiscing about Totero’s on the “Retro Racine” Facebook page two months ago provided the conduit that connected Deskins with Totero.
“Marisa and I were talking together on Facebook about Totero’s,” Deskins said. “I said I went to the (auction) sale and bought all the big pots that Totero’s had. I said that every time I make spaghetti, I pray over that pot — that it’s gonna come out exactly like the Totero’s ladies would cook it. Then Marisa contacted me. I said, ‘Why don’t we just start it up again?’ She goes, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I’ll think about it.’
“She called me the next day and now we’re on our way to making our business plan, logos and menus, and now I just need all the permits from the local government.”
Added Totero, “Who knew a Facebook post would lead to a mutual dream? After speaking with other very supportive Totero cousins, the wheels went into motion. My cousin and I met with Pamela at the Christmas House and fell in love with the warm, cozy mansion. Immediately after that visit, we agreed to make the dream happen. It was a unanimous plan to make this a tribute to our soft-spoken, hard-working and strong matriarch, Nonna Totero.”
Christmas House has rich history, deep local ties
Built in 1893, the Colonial Revival-styled Christmas House is a major hospitality destination for the Racine area, drawing bed and breakfast guests from across the U.S. and around the world. A 2017 Discover Wisconsin “Choice Destination,” the Christmas House is steeped in Racine history.
Originally built by Henrietta Benstead, widow of former Racine Mayor and thrice-elected State Senator Robert H. Baker Sr., one of the incorporators of the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co., ownership of the home in 1905 passed to malted milk scion and 1907-11 Racine mayor Alexander J. Horlick.
Following Horlick’s 1950 death, ownership of the home passed to the St. Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing, which used it as a dormitory, Henrietta Benstead Hall, for nearly 33 years before its use as the residence for the hospital president and the site of various gala hospital fundraising functions.
The home was dubbed “Christmas House” for its pivotal 1987-95 role housing the hospital’s popular themed annual holiday fundraisers that raised nearly $1 million for the purchase of state-of-the-art equipment for the care of local cancer patients.
Later repurposed into a private bed-and-breakfast, the home sat vacant and deteriorating in foreclosure for eight years before current owner-innkeeper Deskins, also a local real estate broker, bought and restored the home in 2014 as Christmas House Bed & Breakfast, furnishing the hostelry with her vast collection of vintage furnishings and collectibles.
Reviving a tradition
Both Deskins and Totero are in agreement that Nonna Totero’s, when launched, will kindle anew the convivial spirit and authentic Old World Italian flavor that made the original Totero’s on Mead Street a three-generation local dining tradition.
“She (Marisa) is a Totero, so she knows how to cook from her grandma (“Nonna” in Italian),” Deskins said.
Securing all the required licensing is the next step to launching Nonna Totero’s.
“I need the support of the local government … with this venture…,” Deskins said, praising the city for its assistance with turning Christmas House Bed & Breakfast from a dream to a reality. “It’s going to be a wonderful thing for Racine … It would bring business and more employees to the city … I think it makes sense.”
IN PHOTOS: Christmas at the Mansions
RACINE — Tours of three historic mansions were featured in an event called Christmas at the Mansions on Wednesday, Dec. 18, and Sunday, Dec. 22.
Visitors toured the Racine Masonic Center (former Durand Mansion), 1012 Main St.; The Christmas House, 116 10th St., and The Lochnaiar Inn, 1121 Lake Ave. All are within walking distance of each other and are decorated for Christmas.
Proceeds will go to local charities.
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