From the outside it could be any other bar or restaurant. Fontecchio's Liberty Bell Chalet in Hurley, Wisconsin is non-descript except for the wooden sign hanging above the entrance. But step inside and...
It's like stepping back in time. At least for me. The red awnings over the bar's liquor shelf, the dark wood that makes you feel as though you've entered a Swiss Alpen hut, the lack of any windows in the entire restaurant which make it darker still, the massive crowning chandelier, the local patrons crowding around enormous pizzas and Betty's famous ceasar salad, and the same jukebox (with much of the same music) bubbling and glowing in the corner. This is the first time I've been to the Bell since 1990 and the only thing that looks different is me - kids in tow.
It is also the first time I have been here in the summer. Once just the "Liberty Bell", the Fontecchio's added the "Chalet" at the end in deference to the skiers who come from as far as Chicago and all over Wisconsin and Minnesota to ski at Blackjack and Indianhead, two ski hills in Bessemer and Wakefield, in the Upper Peninsula or U.P. (der hey) of Michigan.
After a long day on the slopes, we would saunter into the Bell Chalet, sometimes still in ski boots, snow melting off our collars at the sight of the big fireplace. Our cheeks rosy with minus 30 degree wind chill would soon become rosy with a warm seat by the fire and a huge piece of pizza.
The self-proclaimed "world famous" pizza.
The story goes that Bernadino and Carmella Fontecchio were an Italian couple who had migrated to the area from Capastrano Italy in the early 1900s. The iron deposits and thick forests attracted miners and lumberjacks. Bernadino would work the mines all day while Carmella would prepare Italian food for the miners and lumberjacks next to the little tavern below their apartment. Carmella soon turned her free meals into a business, converting the tavern into a bar and restaurant of the same name, the Liberty Bell. It was 1923.
Today, the Fontecchio's three children still run the operation. One of the daughters, Betty, has patented her salad dressing recipe for their famous ceasar salad and apparently very few people are privy to the actual ingredients. Frozen Fontecchio's pizzas are shipped around the country they claim; they are that good. And while the pizzas are delicious, I would venture to guess that shipping a frozen pizza from Wisconsin to Arizona has more to do with nostalgia than a craving.
Not to harp on this point again, but lil' Hanky is the king of picky eaters. We specifically ordered the children's portion of ravioli, i.e. it was the perfect size for him and it was exactly what he has eaten with gusto a thousand times - pasta filled with cheese, covered in tomato sauce. And he took one look at it and promptly pushed it across the table. Pasta. Cheese. Tomato sauce. What's up, kid? HOWEVER, he then proceeded to polish off half of my mom's linguine with clams. CLAMS. The kid won't eat ravioli but now he's a connoisseur of clams. I can't win.