My old next door neighbor, Eric Page, grew up in River Falls, WI , about 35 miles from the Twin Cities. He always talked about this pizza place called Steve's Pizza Palace in River Falls. He used to work there growing up and he said on many occasions to me, "It's the best pizza in the world. Yes, the world."
I was on my way up to Minneapolis from Milwaukee not long ago - a long drive, to say the least. What had me going was that I would be able to stop into Steve's for a pizza along the way as River Falls wasn't that far off the interstate.
River Falls is a nice little town. The University of Wisconsin-River Falls is located there and it's a pretty good school. The town had a certain "Main Street USA" feel to it.
I drove through town and into the downtown area of River Falls. I found Steve's pizza (see map) and pulled up in front of the place just ready to try this pizza. I could tell by the narrow width of the front of the building it wasn't a big place.
Steve's Pizza Palace actually began in 1964 in Platteville, WI when a Greek immigrant by the name of Steve Blatkos opened a pizza place. Steve and his wife, Stella, ran the business for four years before they sold the restaurant to Stella's brothers, John and Nick Zaimes. The Zaimes brothers ran Steve's for 12 years until they sold it to another brother, Patrick.
During all of this, Steve's opened a second location in River Falls and it was run by Paul Poulios. Poulios invited his sister and brother-in-law, Eleni and Panagiotis Patakos, to move over from Greece to join him in River Falls. The Patakos' and their two children, John and Niki, also made the move to River Falls.
John Patakos worked in the Steve's Pizza Palace from the age of 15 to 22. He went to school at UW-River Falls during the day and managed the Steve's Pizza Palace at night. John ended up buying the Steve's Pizza Palace in Platteville. Meanwhile, the Poulios family continue to run the Steve's in River Falls today.
The inside of Steve's isn't much. There's a small entry area next to the kitchen and then a small dining area with a number of 2 and 4 person booths and a few tables. There weren't many people in the place that evening. In fact, I got to looking around and I was the only male in the house.
A waitress came over to give me a menu and asked me for my drink order. I said, "Look, I already know what I want. A guy who used to work here said this place has the best pizza in the world."
She said, "Yeah, it's pretty good. At least a lot of people seem to think so."
I ordered a 12" sausage, mushroom and pepperoni and got a beer while I waited. And while I waited I text-messaged Eric and said, "Sitting at Steve's Pizza in River Falls."
He texted me back and asked, "Do they know me?"
I replied, "The only person I talked to so far is the waitress and she was probably in grade school when you worked here."
It was about a twenty minute wait for my pizza, long enough to down a couple beers after a long trip from Milwaukee. And when the waitress brought out the pizza, I could immediately see what Eric had been talking about.
It was a great thin crust pizza, just the way I like it. It wasn't crisp, nor was it chewy. And each of the cut squares had a large chunk of sausage on it. I let it cool down for a bit and then I took a bite. From the first taste I was hooked. It was fantastic! Was it the best I'd ever had? I don't know, but it was very, very good. The cheese and toppings were wonderful. And when I got into the "honey pot" pieces in the center, it was all I could do to keep the toppings on without them falling off.
I couldn't finish a whole pizza, but I made a serious dent in the thing. It was absolutely fabulous.
When I went up to pay, I told the girl who was ringing me up that a friend of mine used to work there. She said, "What's his name?"
I said, "Eric Page."
She said, "Oh, yeah. I know Eric. I'm best friends with his younger sister." It turned out that her name was Aleka and was the daughter of Paul Poulios. She manages Steve's Pizza Palace for her parents. She told me to tell Eric "hello".
After I got out of the place, I called Eric up and he said, "So, what did you think?"
I said, "It's damn good. Very damn good. You were right."
He said, "See? That's why every time we go back to River Falls to see the family, we always call and order a pizza from Steve's when we're about a half-hour out of town so we can have one when we get there."
He suggested that we go to the one in Platteville sometime. It might be kind of tough since his wife, Molly, is nearly 8 months pregnant. Maybe Eric and I will have to have a "Boys Day Out" sometime before the baby shows up. I can only hope the one in Platteville is as good as the one in River Falls. I'd love to get back there sometime.