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In Dining

Jimmy Rucci set up shop in Waukesha in 1946.

In Dining

The Ponza Rotta is the Grotto's signature dish.

In Dining

The restaurant moved into its current location, just across the street from the original, in 1991.

Jimmy's Grotto stands test of time in Waukesha


It was the summer of 1986, shortly after the BoDeans released their critically acclaimed debut record, "Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams," when Jimmy's Grotto began to receive attention from the Milwaukee media.

BoDeans founding members Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas, both Waukesha natives, were huge fans of the venerable pizza shack then located in a tiny 352-square foot building at 314 E. Main St.

When the band, which often grabbed food from Jimmy's after its early gigs, thanked the restaurant in the liner notes of the record, local reporters jumped on the story and made Jimmy's something of an overnight sensation -- a legend that was merely 40 years in the making.

According to the story ...

Jimmy Rucci was a bartender in Downtown Waukesha when he and his wife, Rosie, decided to give the restaurant business a try. In 1946, the Ruccis tore the upper level off their brick home, reassembled it next to the house and began selling Italian sausages, pizza and other delectables.

In the late 1950s, right about the time that the Braves were facing the Yankees in the World Series, Jimmy turned the business over to his son-in-law, Rocky Werning, who then turned it over to his brother, Dick, and his wife, Bobby.

Dick and Bobby soon took on Dick Obodowsky and his wife, Lucy, as partners and the restaurant carried on its tradition.

It was in the mid-1970s, though, that things began to take off.

Rosie Rucci often stopped by the Grotto to have employees sample some test recipes. One of their favorites was a pasty / calzone-type dish that contained tomato sauce and cheese in a flaky crust.

The Ponza Rotta was born.

And, so was the legend.

Through the 1980s, Jimmy's opened a location on Grand Avenue (which closed in 2002) and sold thousands of Ponza Rottas -- both in the restaurants and in the frozen food section of local supermarkets. In 1991, the iconic shack closed and the business moved across the street to its current location at 314 E. Main St.

The current owner, Doug Ciampa, a former delivery man / manager who took over when the Werning / Obodowski group retired seven years ago, uses the same ponza recipe. Ponza Rottas are made by hand, filled with toppings of choice, deep fried and presented to diners in about 20 minutes.

The basic cheese ponza costs $3.60. Each additional topping costs 75 cents. The taco ponza costs $5.60; the veggie costs $6.60 and the deluxe -- cheese, Italian sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, black olives, onions and green peppers -- runs $8.10.

Although the Ponza Rotta is the top seller, Jimmy's is also known for pizzas, the Italian sausage sandwich ($3.50), spaghetti ($5.60 plain; $6.85 with meatballs or sausage), toasted ravioli ($5.35), wings ($6.50 for 12) and other staples from bar food and Italian menus.

But, the Ponza Rotta is the star of the show.

"We get people coming from all over to try them," an employee said last weekend. "They either tried them years ago or they heard about them over the years."

Some customers say that Jimmy's Grotto is "old school," because little has changed at the restaurant over the years. Others call it "a dive," but they do so with affection and not disdain.

There isn't anything special about the booths or tables, but nearly everyone who grew up in Waukesha has ingested a memorable meal at Jimmy's. They had pizza after Stubby's 300 game. They ate a Ponza Rotta before (or after) a long night of drinking. They sampled Italian sausage during study sessions at Carroll University. Or, they took grandma out to eat during Thanksgiving weekend.

The history drips from the place like grease from the last bite of a Ponza Rotta. It hasn't changed. It isn't likely to change. And, the loyal customers wouldn't have it any other way.


Talkbacks

Citygirl64 | Feb. 14, 2012 at 3:06 p.m. (report)

While Jimmy Grotto's has always been a favorite of mine, I must say, the last Ponza I had was a tad soggy, even though I asked for it well done, and the last pizza I ordered pepperoni.. barely had ONE piece of pepperoni per slice.. I attempted to go to their website to complain but could not leave a message. I will got back because maybe it was just a fluke... I am hoping!

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High_Life_Man | May 27, 2010 at 9:57 a.m. (report)

Champp's made an announcement that they were closing some time ago. I think it is changing into a Mexican place.

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devidia | May 26, 2010 at 9:09 a.m. (report)

I know this is off subject, but does anyone know what's going on with Champps Americana in Greenfield?? I went past it the other day and the signage is all taken down. OMC could be the first to break the story on what the new place is.

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alba | May 26, 2010 at 8:34 a.m. (report)

Ponza Rotta's are great. I'm guessing they're 3000 calories though.

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boozehound | May 25, 2010 at 10:36 p.m. (report)

man.... i like greasy stuff but the ponza rottas here are the greasiest thing you'll ever lay your hands on. very salty too. maybe great if you're wasted

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