Mom and pop pizza shop in Milton named among tops in state, nation
MILTON Until very recently, Georgio's Pizza in Milton was lucky to see a dozen customers a night.
The restaurant's owners, Lake Geneva couple Cheryl Ryan and George Rakidzich, say things have been slow and getting slower at the restaurant in downtown Milton since 2007, when the Great Recession began to take hold.
That's why it seemed crazy when last week, the 10-table dine-in/carryout restaurant got a phone message at 6:30 a.m. from someone in California who'd read about Georgio's mild, sweet pizza sauce and crispy homemade crust.
Then Georgio's started getting reservations from TV news reporters and travelers from as far away as central Illinois.
Business at Georgio's is booming—and all it took was a travel article published Nov. 6 in the newspaper USA Today, which named the pizza parlor one of Wisconsin's great pizza parlors and among the 51 greatest pizza places in the country.
Until recently, the owners of the cozy little restaurant at 301 Parkview Dr. have toiled in relative obscurity.
Cheryl, 59, and her husband, George, 50, commute from Lake Geneva to Georgio's six days a week. The restaurant typically opens at 5 p.m., but closing time floats based on customer flow. The restaurant hasn't done deliveries since the economy tanked.
In the depths of the recession, the couple say they weathered nights without a single dine-in customer. But since the USA Today story popped, business at the restaurant has spiked.
In 13 years of running Georgio's, George said he's never seen the restaurant this packed.
"We've been having 90 or 100 customers a night, and that doesn't count carryout," he says.
Cheryl says visitors who've seen media reports and want to try one of the state's best pizzas have been pouring into Georgio's from distances that seem, well, ludicrous.
Take Travis Radke, who lives in New London, a town north of Appleton and nearly a three-hour drive from Milton. Radke read a newspaper story about Georgio's national pizza honor this week and promptly called the restaurant for a reservation.
The 280-mile round trip will cost Radke about $35 in gas, but he figures it'll be worth it.
"I heard their pizza's that good," Radke told the Gazette.
Travel writer Mary Bergin, who USA Today tapped to find the best pizza place in Wisconsin for the paper's "Great American Bites" contest, said she chose Georgio's because its pizza is handcrafted.
"I'm not a food critic, but I know mindful work and care for quality when I see it. So many (other) restaurants order commodity ingredients without much thought," Bergin wrote in an e-mail.
Georgio's award-winning pizza is made using hand-rolled dough and sweet, 12-spice sauce—both of which George makes from scratch. The pizza's X-factor: It's loaded with mozzarella cheese that's full-test, not skim.
"It's the crust. It's the sauce. It's the cheese. It's all three elements. You've got to have all of them come together," George says.
It's an ethereal mix that George said took three years to perfect. Yet in a twist of irony, business recently is booming so much that Georgio's is struggling to keep its signature ingredients in house.
The kitchen literally is cranking out pizzas faster than suppliers can fill the restaurant's freezers.
One night last week, George had to send an employee to a local store for more ingredients. The problem: Georgio's was completely and utterly out of cheese.
Meanwhile, George is tweaking his pizza prep schedule to balance dine-in and carryout orders amid Georgio's unprecedented customer crush. He's considering extending hours at the restaurant to accommodate a customer flow he says has tripled.
How long might this deluge of curious, pizza-craving visitors continue? Cheryl smiles and say's she's not sure.
"We're got leaves piling up in the gutters at home," Cheryl says. "And George has been pacing around the house a lot. It's been crazy."
The restaurant's help has had to buck up, too.
Brandyn Rein, 16, of Janesville normally handles mostaccioli, spaghetti and dishwashing details at Georgio's, but lately he's had to man the phones and help with pizzas, too.
Rein and Georgio's waitress Krystal Moore, 20, of Johnstown Center, a student at UW-Whitewater, say they've seen a boost in hours and tips since crowds at the restaurant have mushroomed.
"I'm loving it. I've been getting a lot more experience in a lot less time," Rein says.
Despite the challenges fueled by the laws of supply, demand and the endless throngs of pizza connoisseurs, Georgio's owners are thrilled and honored to own the state's top pizza joint.
George, who every day wears a T-shirt from his favorite TV series, crab fishing reality show "The Deadliest Catch," says he'd like to have a reality series about pizza filmed at Georgio's.
Call the show "Un-Humble Pie."
"I want to go for the top 10 in the U.S. for pizza. You've always got to have something else," George says.
Cheryl remembers a time not long ago when the restaurant and its till were nearly empty at the end of long, nearly customer-less nights. She said it was painful driving home past the packed parking lots at big chain restaurants.
"It never got to the point where we were going to quit, but you wondered sometimes. You really wondered," she said.
No matter how popular Georgio's becomes, the couple says the restaurant couldn't have made it without its most loyal customers. Despite hard times, Georgio's regulars never went away, Cheryl says. And now they're showing up with congratulations, waving copies of USA Today.
"They've been telling us 'We told you so,'" Cheryl says.