Wells Brothers Restaurant is one of those old time pizza places that I just love to find. The business has been around for nearly 90 years and third generation family members continue to run the restaurant today. For years, Wells Brothers has been getting awards and recognition for their pizza - an ultra-thin cornmeal crust pizza topped with fresh toppings with caramelized cheese edges. In 2005, they were named as having the sixth best pizza in the U.S. in the book "Everybody Loves Pizza"; and in 2006, USA Today gave Wells Brothers more recognition in an article featuring the top ten pizza places in the U.S. I visited a dealer in nearby Kenosha one afternoon, then decided to stop into Wells Brothers for a pizza on my way up the road to an overnight stay in Milwaukee.
There were five Wells brothers in Racine in the early 1900's - one ran the Wells Brothers supermarket, one ran the Wells Brothers shoe store, another ran the Wells Brothers barber shop, while brothers James and Dominic ran the Wells Brothers restaurant. The restaurant first opened in 1921 and served Italian and American food from recipes passed down from family members over the years. In fact, the restaurant is still housed in the original building that James and Dominic bought to open their restaurant. The building has survived two fires in the mid-to-late 70's that completely gutted the building.
In the 1940's, James Wells began to serve what was called a "tomato pie", the forerunner of the modern day pizza. The dough was passed through an industrial roller giving it a very thin crust. The same roller and the original gas-fired pizza ovens are still in existence in Wells Brothers kitchen today.
After James Wells died in 1944, his sons Tony and Guy took over the business. They ran it for 55 years before passing the reins on to Guy's daughter Paula and her cousin, Bill Rivers, whose mother was the sister of Tony and Guy. Tony and Guy are still around, coming in on a daily basis to check up on things and to kibbutz with the loyal patrons. Not much has changed over the years at Wells Brothers. Well, that is, except for the neighborhood.
The area surrounding Wells Brothers at the corner of 22nd and Mead in Racine (see map) has slowly fallen into decay. The most apt description of the neighborhood could be simply stated as "The 'hood". But there is a lighted parking lot across the street to the south of the restaurant. And to keep the local riff-raff and ne'er-do-wells from upsetting their customers, Wells Brothers hires a uniformed Racine County deputy sheriff to stand watch outside during business hours. They're open Tuesday thru Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Wells brothers also closes each summer for two weeks to allow their employees some time off.
I parked in the nearly full lot across the street from Wells Brothers and walked toward the front door. The deputy sheriff standing guard was talking with a gentleman who had parked a vintage 60's car on the street next to Wells Brothers. I walked into the restaurant, through the packed bar area up front and around to the dining area in the back. It, too, was full of people with a small line of people waiting for a table to open up. I went back to the bar and took the last open chair between a couple that was finishing up a large pizza and a guy who had just ordered a pizza to go.
The bar area wasn't all that big but they did have a lot of beer on tap, as well as a number of coolers full of bottled beer. The bartender gave me a menu and put down a coaster in front of me, then he walked away. He didn't even take my beer order, which I needed so desperately at that point in the day. After a couple minutes I finally got his attention. He sort of shook his head and said, "I'm sorry, man. I got distracted and left you hangin'. What can I get you?"
I ordered a cold Miller High Life - hey, when in Wisconsin, especially the Milwaukee area, support the local brewery.
While the menu at Wells Brothers features items such as pasta and a Friday night fish fry, pizza is the king at the restaurant. Although, I will say that I was almost tempted to try their "Sicilian Steak Bomber" sandwich that a couple guys two seats down from my left got. It was basically Wells Brothers interpretation of a Chicago-style Italian sandwich, only much bigger and it smelled heavenly. When I was ready to order, the bartender had a waitress come over to get my order. I ordered a small (10") sausage, pepperoni and mushroom - my staple reference pizza.
In the meantime, the waitress brought the pizza-to-go for the guy next to me and the couple had gotten what was left of their pizza boxed up and they were getting ready to take off. It cleared up a lot of room around me and by the time my pizza showed up there were only about seven people at the bar. People come early at Wells Brothers and when it gets to be 8 p.m., the place sort of starts to wind down for the day.
Being that the pizza is so thin, it was less than 15 minutes from the time I placed my order to the time it showed up to me at the bar. Cut into party-cut squares, it sort of looked a little over-cooked with heavily caramelized edges. But from the first bite, I knew it was perfectly cooked.
Oh, man. Was it good. The sausage was fresh and had a nice tangy kick to it, the mushrooms were also fresh and not out of a can like some other pizza joints will do, and the pepperoni was plentiful across the top of the pizza. I'm not big on corn meal crust for pizza, but this crust was actually pretty good. The crust wasn't crisp, nor was it mushy. I was overly impressed with this pizza. I have to say it was truly one of the best thin crust pizzas I've ever tried.
I easily finished up the pizza and got the bill from the waitress. I had three beers that evening, but the bartender only charged me for two. "That first one was on the house," he said, apologizing once again for not taking my order right away as I sat down.
With the tip and a couple beers, my meal at Wells Brothers came to $20 bucks and change. It was everything I hoped for since first learning about Wells Brothers from various places on line and in print. The pizza was outstanding and very worthy of the multitudes of praise it has received over the years. If there was just some way to get the Wells family to move their pizza ovens to the Quad Cities, then life would be great.