After 40 years and four locations, Port restaurant remains all about tradition
The march of time is traditionally marked with clocks or calendars, but for John’s Pizzaria it can be traced on a map.
Original owners “Papa” John and Louise Crowley found a home for their first pizza parlor at the corner of Grand Avenue and Milwaukee Street in Port Washington, the current home of Tello’s Mexican restaurant.
That was in May of 1976.
Up until that time, only The Pasta Shoppe was serving Italian fare in town.
Family lore has it that John was a longtime pizza aficionado who bought the recipe for his signature entree from the owner of Dequardo’s Pizza in Menomonee Falls.
After five years, John’s moved to the remodeled lower level of dentist Steve Carini’s building on North Franklin Street.
That setting drew throngs of families craving their favorite pizza for 14 years.
Next, the restaurant moved into another downstairs setting, this time in the lower level of what was the Regatta Lanes bowling alley on Main Street — now Willie’s Lakefront Lanes.
That was home to John’s until January 2005, when the business moved into what the owners call their “permanent” location at 221 N. Franklin St.
That hop-scotching around town adds up to more than 40 years.
The restaurant’s latest milestone, however, is one of management change rather than geography.
While John and Louise Crowley are enjoying retired life in Fort Myers, Fla., their son Mike and daughter-in-law Julie Crowley have purchased the business from Karen Stoffel, John and Louise’s daughter, who had been managing the restaurant.
“Technically, Mike and Julie say they are keeping me on as an adviser … but there hasn’t been any talk about what my pay is going to be,” Stoffel joked.
Despite working together for so many years, it is important to know that Stoffel and her brother are still very close and Julie is her best friend. The women are also the primary cooks.
“We all started at the ground floor, washing dishes,” Mike said.
That same hands-on training is now the regimen for new employees.
“All our new people start by washing dishes and taking orders over the phone. They learn pretty quickly how important it is to get it right with those phone orders,” Mike said.
That rudimentary training has proven to be an effective bonding experience.
“We get a lot of students who come here as their first job, and they become like family to us,” Julie said.
That sense of closeness is also what has allowed the business to thrive.
“We have been blessed with a lot of really loyal customers,” Julie said.
One of the things that keep diners coming back is the restaurant’s steadfast attention to quality and freshness.
“We make our own dough, get our meats from Bernie’s Fine Meats and our wine from Vines to Cellar,” Julie said.
Like most Port Washington businesses, the restaurant staff knows when it is tourist season because more customers tend to wander in off the street.
Still, business is pretty steady throughout the year.
“We can get really busy on weekends, and then it tapers off a bit during the week,” Mike said.
Those popular weekend nights can sometimes push the restaurant’s 65-person seating capacity.
“I can’t tell you how many customers have said their parents used to bring them to John’s, and now they are bringing their own kids,” Julie said.
In part because of the clandestine nature of its former underground settings, the restaurant used to do a huge business with the post-bar time crowd.
“That was a lot of fun — and we drew a lot of interesting customers,” Karen said.
While the business does have a license to sell beer and wine with meals, she said nobody at the restaurant has any interest in staying open that late any more.
Instead, the emphasis now is on providing a family friendly setting — with youngsters encouraged to play games while they enjoy their meal.
Diet fads come and go, but the owners of John’s say pizza tastes have remained relatively constant over the decades.
“The favorite, hands down, has to be the Chismo — which is pizza talk for cheese, sausage, mushroom and onions,” Julie said.
“I would guess the next favorite is the Original EBA — which stands for Everything But Anchovies. And then there are cheese curds and garlic bread — those are always popular.”
Growing up on pizza, Mike said he has developed a fondness for something a bit unorthodox the pineapple and Canadian bacon pie — a selection neither Julie nor Karen admit having even tried.
Although a self-proclaimed pizzaria, John’s also sells Italian and American sandwiches, pasta, chicken and seafood, as well as homemade desserts.
The Crowleys have a good time running the restaurant, but say there is a serious message behind the business.
“We really believe this is the Lord’s business and we are just managing it for Him,” Julie said.
Even after four decades as a family business, the Crowleys said they realize making a living in the restaurant trade is no simple task. It is a painful lesson for many start-up restaurant owners.
“If we were just starting out, I am not sure I would get into the restaurant business. It is a lot of work,” Karen said.
That sentiment was echoed by Julie.
“I don’t know if I am qualified to offer anyone advice, but if I did it would be to start out by doing all of the little jobs. That is the only way to get to know what the business is all about,” she said.
Photo Credit: MIKE AND JULIE CROWLEY (right) have purchased John’s Pizzaria in Port Washington from Mike’s sister, Karen Stoffel (left). Photo Credit: Mark Jaeger