Family traditions keep Italian favorites fresh at Tosi’s
At one time, the whole stretch of Ridge Road running parallel to Lake Michigan in Stevensville, MI, was lined with numerous Italian resorts, restaurants and cottages. Vacationers seeking to escape the heat of a Chicago summer were drawn by the waters of Lake Michigan, and residents relished the conviviality of being with others from their native country.
Among those businesses was Tosi’s, a rambling resort that opened in the 1930s and was known for its large communal dining room where Henrietta Tosi prepared big pots and pans of food using old family recipes.
Now in its 77th year, Tosi’s, situated on 10 acres, is the only Italian place left on Ridge Road, and its resort business has long since closed. Henrietta’s son Emil turned the place into a high-end eatery decorated with expensive art from Italy. For years he lived next door and at night walked the floors of the restaurant, greeting customers by name. After he sold the business in the ’80s and later passed away, regulars wondered if the family-like ambience would disappear.
But Tosi’s continues on as an intergenerational family business. Marge Wiatrowski, who started as a server in 1968, bought the place 40 years later with her husband, Arnie. Recently, Marge’s daughter and son-in-law Lori Wiatrowski and Dan McCrery purchased the restaurant from her. Call it all in the family, but that’s nothing new for Tosi’s.
“I began working here 28 years ago as a dishwasher, and when I started off my Great-Great-Aunt Nell was doing laundry in the basement, and her daughter Marge Jeffries waited tables here for half a century,” says Dan McCrery, now general manager of the sprawling restaurant. His wife, Lori, has clocked in more than three decades, and several of their children work there as well.
Executive chef Mike McCrery, whose wife, Tagin, is a server at the restaurant, has worked at Tosi’s for 23 years.
This intermingling of past and present is so very Tosi’s. Several of Henrietta’s handwritten recipes still grace the menu or run as specials, including manicaretti (sheets of pasta layered with ham, Swiss cheese and tortellini then baked in béchamel sauce), malfatti (spinach and ricotta dumplings), fried squash blossoms and the unique minestrone that, despite competitors’ attempts, has never been replicated.
Downstairs in the pasta room, ribbons of house-made dough in various shapes and sizes are rolled out and then carefully laid across wooden racks to dry before being placed on large metal trays and carried up the stairs to be used in such Tosi dinners as lasagna, cannelloni, and hay and straw (green and yellow noodles). Making pasta is a Tosi’s tradition and so is the G. Toresani Co. pasta machine they use. Back in the 1940s, Emil Tosi bought it used in Milan, Italy, carried it back to Stevensville and taught his staff how to use it. It is more than 100 years old.
“We’re not going to change much,” says Dan, “but we are going with the trend of torn pasta and making that as well.”
They’ve also extended the availability of their fried squash blossoms, a Tosi staple since the very beginning, when no one outside of Italy or New York knew anything about such a dish. They originally grew their own in the garden with the season lasting about three weeks. Now they work with a local farmer who grows squash blossoms in a nearby greenhouse to extend
“We sold 1,900 orders this summer,” says Mike.
Though Tosi’s can seat some 800 people on a busy Saturday night, and a busy weekend often means 400 orders all going at once with each of the kitchen’s 16 gas burners firing under sauté pans, both brothers describe it as a mom-and-pop place.
“We want change for the millennials but the classics for those who have been coming here for 50 years,” says Mike.
They’re planning on putting a chef’s table in the kitchen, reopening the cigar room on the second floor to serve port and dessert, and possibly establishing dining in their Italian garden with its fountain and gazebo. Desserts, as always, come from the award-winning Bit of Swiss bakery next door.
If a favorite is off the menu, Dan says, all people have to do is ask.
“If we have the time and the ingredients, we’ll make it,” he says. “For those who liked the chicken rosemary, we have the rosemary, we have the chicken, we can cook it.”
4337 Ridge Rd.