That’s Amore: Enduring Restaurant Puts the Italian in Eau Claire

On a hill above Highway 53, stands a landmark of enduring ethnic collaboration, and a model for both business success and homage to tradition.

For 35 years, the name “Draganetti’s” has served as trademark for Italian in Eau Claire. But “Draganetti” – if you don’t know it by now – is not the family name. It’s a hybrid of the very Polish paternal Draganowski and the full-flavored-maternal-Italian Micaletti. Capisce?

With all due respect to Polish pride, it’s pure-blooded Italian that’s spoken on the menu at Draganetti’s.

“After our parents moved to Wisconsin from Chicago,” Joanne explains, “the balance of our childhood was an experience where we basically lived where we worked, our home was attached to the restaurant both up north at the resort and in Rice Lake while our parents were getting that location off the ground.”

“Mom would always cook a separate family meal for all of us before the restaurant opened,” said Claudia, “so we had a chance to be together and she was sure we all ate well. (You know, typical Italian mom thinking we’d starve to death otherwise)”

 

“She was an amazing cook.  Mom learned to cook back in Chicago, a combination of instruction from a great neighbor and also one of our Aunts, Mom’s older sister.  Grandma — mom’s mom — was working a lot outside the home in those days.   

“One thing we could always count on was a very special family meal on Sundays, when often company would drop by as well. Mom would usually cook Italian on that day, something like hand-breaded Chicken Parmesan.             

“During Lent we ate a lot of pasta with peas, no meat on Wednesdays and Fridays.  On holidays we observed traditional Italian customs, such as only seafood on Christmas Eve. One thing mom and dad were adamant about — and that we have preserved — is that we close on the holidays of Christmas Eve, Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving.  No business, only family on those days.”

John Draganowski is the third pillar of the family business. The division of labor established between the three siblings is as natural as tomatoes in pasta sauce. 

“Essentially Claudia oversees anything kitchen-related or as we say in the industry, ‘Back of the House,’ says Joanne. “John watches over the Bar area and is our “Mr. Fix-it.” He is always getting a ‘honey-do list’ from us and he graciously accepts it and tackles whatever is needed. 

“In the beginning I was hosting, serving, bartending, bookkeeping and now over time as we’ve added locations I am more off-premise for the majority of my time, taking care of the ‘Front of the House’ issues such as HR, marketing, and training.

“It all works well because we still share feedback constantly.  If one of us has pizza and the sauce tastes a little different that time for example, we’ll cook one up, all taste it, try to determine what if anything was changed and then ensure it goes back to the way it’s supposed to be. It’s always a team effort –and a chance to eat pizza together.”

Pizza is one of the most popular foods in America, and its creative variations are limitless. The “Draganetti’s style” hails from its Italian – and Chicago — roots.

“Mom always made a thin crust, something she learned from her mother who came from around Bari in Italy,” said Claudia. 

As for unique topping choices, Claudia recalls being asked to oddities like squid or spam on pizza.

“I remember a gentleman who came in with his own hot peppers and wanted us to make a pizza with them. He told me that they were the hottest peppers in the world. I had to wear gloves and scrub the surface of the cutting board after preparing them. I got to sample the pizza and it was ‘off the charts’ hot.”

Customers might attribute the restaurant’s longevity to the quality of the food, but the “Drag’s Sisters” credit their success to enduring community support.

“Since our family started all of this 65 years ago, we are so fortunate to have seen many of our customers come in as children and return with children and grandchildren over the years,” Joanne said. 

“The main thing is to just enjoy what you do, respect one-another and share and appreciate every moment.  Being in the hospitality business, we are so fortunate to be able to receive people at all times in their lives. When they enter our establishments we don’t necessarily always know if they are coming in to celebrate and event, joining us after grieving the loss of a loved-one, if they had a great day at home or work or one of the worst days of their lives.  We try to help nourish and sometimes just listen. It’s a great way to make a living. We’re also very grateful that our parents took the risks they did and endured the struggles they did on our behalf. We are happy to be able to continue that tradition.”

And the most popular topping on a Draganetti’s pizza, other than mozzarella cheese? Pepperoni, ovviamente.

Steve Betchkal

Chief Videojournalist

CVCTV