Totino’s Italian Kitchen Closes – End of a Tradition

Ignoring the torrid temps my family and I set out last weekend for Totino’s, one of our favorite eateries.  En route to Moundsview we lamented the loss of our neighborhood restaurant now ensconced in the sterile suburbs.  We reminisced about the “old” Totinos, that rambling, cozy and unpretentious pillar of Northeast culture and cuisine.  Our memories and our appetites crashed when we arrived at the “new” Totinos, the smaller, fancier, modernized and not-quite-so-inviting strip site on Highway 10.

The historic bastion of good eating greeted us with a terse “we’re closing” notice on the very modern entry that bore no resemblance to the creaky wood door that led to the checkered table cloths, cramped booths and the irresistible aromas of the original Totino’s  of Northeast.  Facing the reality of an era at its end we moped through what was, in fact, a delicious last Totino’s meal with nostalgia and fond memories.

The sad tale of loss led me to dig into files I’d long ago collected so I could better understand and appreciate the Totino’s legacy.  It’s a grand story of a family, a powerful woman, an Italian heritage tapped for the public good, persistence, wealth, ethics, hospitality and, most of all, great food.   Memories and stories, whether apocryphal and true, abound – and they are all set in the Italian families and neighborhoods of Northeast Minneapolis were the Totinos lived and worked for so many decades.  The fragrant aroma of garlic, tomatoes sausage and fresh bread somehow enhance all of the stories.

There’s the story told by Mundale and Pine (1)  of the young Rose Cruciani who faced down Mayor George Leach and saved her father’s job with the city when he got laid off because he was not a “full fledged” (read documented) citizen.

Another oft-told tales is of Rose toiling at housework for $2.50 a week, of Rose and her husband Jim experimenting with pizza recipes till, using their old car as collateral, they floated a loan to open Totino’s Italian Kitchen at Central and East Hennepin.

There are stories of Rose and Jim Totino expanding from the restaurant business to frozen foods that ultimately triumphed over competitors because of their superior flavor – and their marketing – not so much business – acumen.  One of Rose’s favorite stories on herself concerns a call from a banker asking about the company’s cash flow.  As the story goes, Rose retorted “I can assure you, sir, I don’t see any cash flowing around here.”

One great tale involves Jim Totino’s introduction of technology to the mass production process.  In a tribute to her mother’s induction into the Minnesota Inventor’s Hall of Fame, daughter Bonnie Totino Brenny recalls that “my dad, who was formally educated through the 8th grade, put his inventive mind to work.  One day he came to work with an old phonograph turntable.  In the place of an arm was a plastic tube attached to a bucket of sauce.  Somehow he attached a foot pedal allowing the turntable to stop and go.  As the turntable evolved, sauce automatically topped the crust.  His invention was successful!”

The nostalgic tales of the entrepreneurial couple reflect a meteoric growth period in the 1960’s as Twin Cities “discovered” thin crust pizza – and wanted it close at hand in the new freezer.  Totino’s frozen pizza (“Nobody tops a pizza like Totino’s”) hit the charts.  Jim and Rose shrewdly patented their Crisp Crust frozen pizza.   When Pillsbury popped $22 million to acquire the frozen pizza line of Totino’s in 1975 Jim continued to run the Hennepin Avenue restaurant and Rose joined the corporate world – with gusto – as the company’s first female vice president.

Times change.  Jim and Rose became noted philanthropists, funding Totino-Grace High School in Fridley and the Totino Fine Arts Center at Northwestern College in Roseville.  Jim and Rose lived in Northeast Minneapolis until Jim died in 1981.  In time Rose migrated to Fridley where she died in 1994.

Jim and Rose’s grandson Steve Elwell took over management of the aging but inviting Hennepin Avenue restaurant which closed in 2007 and settled in Moundsview in 2008.  The “new” Totino’s created a suburban atmosphere and served a crowd that may have descended from but bore scant resemblance to Totino’s traditional Northeast diners.

The doors at the Moundsview site are closed, though the garlic smell will probably remain for decades.  The “old” Hennepin Avenue site still stands – empty, waiting for new tenants with fresh ideas, energy and the work ethic that created the Totino’s legend that will live in Northeast and in the memories of generations of good people who love good food and who may well have had their first taste of pizza at Totino’s.

Thanks to the Totino family for sixty good years of serving this community with gustatory delicacies and grace – and for sharing your family’s values in venues that range from the neighborhood eatery to the plush environs of the corporate boardroom.  Tante grazie!

(1) Pine, Carol and Mundale, Susan.  Self-made: The stories of 12 Minnesota entrepreneurs.  Dorn Books, 1982.

 

 

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