Totino’s customers get ravioli reprieve


Central Avenue stalwart delays closing.

Perhaps it was the weather-beaten awning. That maybe Totino’s roots weren’t as deep in Old St. Anthony as in days past. Why throw money at a new one if you were packing it in? Adding to the mystery were those lines of customers extending out the door — Totino’s hadn’t seen crowds like this for a while.

Was it possible? No more signature red spaghetti sauce. No more plump cheese ravioli. No meatball sandwiches, heroes, hoagies, wedges, subs, however you learned to say it. No more of those legendary square pizzas that inspired Pillsbury to purchase the name and put out their own frozen version. And no more of the best-darned spumoni around.

Then I saw it, on the side of the red brick building, “Closing August 4th. Thanks to all our customers.” A few days later, I saw a group of Totinophiles posing for bittersweet pictures in front of that very sign.

Then I heard of a reprieve of sorts. There is a god of ravioli!

Steve Elwell, current owner and grandson of the original owners of Totino’s, has delayed closing until at least the end of September. Why? That will give him to reopen in Mounds View. “The response was overwhelming” said Elwell, of the reprieve, even if it’s only for a few more months.

Elwell has known for some time his lease wasn’t being renewed. so he decided to relocate to familiar territory. As with any move, there’s been a few complications, which explains Steve decision’s to stay open a while longer in Old St. Anthony. In the very space where the new Totino’s will open, currently an Original Mattress Factory store, was another legendary Minnesota eatery, a Bridgeman’s Ice Cream Shoppe.

Totino’s celebrated a half-century in business a few years ago. Started in 1951 by Jim and Rose Totino as a take-out only establishment, it quickly became the eat-in restaurant it is today built on 18-hour days of hard work and 400-500 pizzas baked on a typical weekend.

At Totino’s, I was greeted by servers Pam Zmuda, who’d been there for 22 years, Dawn Swart (17 years), and Mary Schroedl (35 years). What kept these Northeast natives — who acted just like sisters, at Totino’s, even as they had kids, as the world changed around them and the neighborhood too? They answered almost in unison, “It’s like family here!”

Schroedl fondly recalled Rose Totino, as “very sweet, always very generous.” She pointed to the huge photo of Rose above the cash register. “That was for the American Express ‘Do you know my name?’ campaign. It was taken by Annie Leibovitz”, Mary said proudly.

Sitting in the booth next to mine, Todd Andrusko from Anoka and his friend Julia were enjoying a late lunch. Todd said, “I grew up on Totino’s — birthday parties, you know.”

Zmuda tells me that over the years she’s had requests to send Totino’s sauce and ravioli, and pizza, to such far flung destinations as Florida, Hawaii and New York.

In the kitchen, I watch the cheese being scooped into dough pockets that will become Totino’s ravioli. Swart mentions the “secret ingredient” mixed in with the cheese, information she’ll no doubt carry to the grave.

What will they miss the most? Almost in unison again, they say “the customers, the stories, the location.” “It holds a lot of memories,” says Zmuda. Speaking of memories, a group from Marshall High’s class of 1958, was scheduled to come for one last meal.

A couple of regulars wistfully mentioned the shopping district that included Sears and Kresge (now Kmart) stores. They said the neighborhood bustled with activity for years before the inevitable economic downturn that hit most areas in the 70s. Totino’s remained, a beacon of sorts, a reminder that good times could return to Old St. Anthony.

Editor’s note: Speaking of, watch for O’Brien’s companion piece about Brasa Rotisserie, Alex Robert’s new restaurant.