Coco’s husband, Bob, also remembers his mother-in-law’s table fondly. “You could bring anyone to Dina’s house.” He tells about the Thanksgiving when Coco brought him and a friend who was alone in Green Bay. “There was a huge crowd, with extra tables on each end. Big Italian boys, all ready to eat. There’s the turkey, the red wine’s poured, everything’s on the table and everyone’s just drooling, but no one is making a move for it. Right in the center of the table, there’s this huge open spot, and I’m thinking ‘Is this some weird religious thing they have going on here?’ All of a sudden they bring the cheese rav and the meat rav, and then everyone began. Dina couldn’t have a meal without the meat rav and the cheese rav, even Thanksgiving.”
Dina taught her daughter well. Coco has company up this weekend, so she made up a few ravioli ahead: 188 cheese and 144 meat, just to be safe.
It’s exactly because of the high standards of good home-Italian cooks like Carubini and the Capra sisters that the Italian restaurants in Iron Mountain thrive. Who goes out for meatballs when you can make better ones at home? Expectation is where quality resides. And because Iron Mountain is a working-class town, diners want to spend little, but expect impeccable flavor, and the flavors that they know.
It’s come-as-you-are at Romagnoli’s on the Northside, and so the place is filled with beer drinkers in Packers sweatshirts, white-haired couples snug on the same side of their booth, cocktail-dress–frocked 20-somethings on dates, all here for the home-cooked Italian. It’s hard to resist Grandfather Tulio’s costatella con sugo, tender pork baby-back ribs in a well-seasoned sauce, but we dine on a hand-cut, butter-tender beef filet with garlic drawn butter (for a mere $24), with salad and homemade bread—dense and delicious—and gnocchi bathed in a slowly-simmered, slightly tart red sauce.
The next day’s sky is gorgeous big blue, so we head to the Crispigna family’s yellow-stucco market to pick up a picnic. The market, established in 1924, is owned by second-generation Italians Tony and Patti Savarin. Patti’s parents, Philly and Lona Crispigna, still make all the meat ravioli and cheese ravioli by hand, one by one, slow cooking the sauces with secret spices and stuffing the fresh pork sausages.
While a family inside is loading up coolers of pork sausage to take back to Wisconsin, we eye the beautiful baby orbs of fresh mozzarella with herbs, the prosciutto, the tortellini-peas-and-pesto salad. We’ll have to come back for our homemade red sauces—meat and mushroom—and frozen cheese ravs. We order sandwiches on crusty homemade rolls, lush, firm Sicilian olives and the last slice of sky-high tiramisu, and sneak away for a heavenly few hours on the banks of spring-fed Lake Antoine (even Iron Mountain’s lake is Italian) filled with swimming, eating and people-watching.
That night we end back at Bimbo’s. Two older guys with gorgeous, carefully slicked-back gray hair come in and take seats at the bar. The bartender slides two paper plates in front of them. “Here’s your two porkettas, piping hot.” The men finish those and ask for two more.
After savoring his next sandwich, in a moment of obvious restraint, the man on the right gives his belly a loving pat and declares, “All good things come to an end.”
But with any luck, or enough Italian pluck, the great kitchens of Iron Mountain’s Northside never will.