Every college town in the U.S. is known for at least one pizzeria that makes alumni mouths water years later.
Nearly every small town is known for at least one family-owned restaurant.
Steve’s Pizza Palace, the first pizzeria in Grant County, combines both attributes.
Steve’s Pizza has been owned by the same family, if you count in-laws, since it opened in 1963. In fact, members of the families of Katherine Zaimes and John Patakos, the current owners, grew up in the same part of Greece, in the foothills between Mount Olympus and the Aegean Sea.
Stella Blatzas, Zaimes’ aunt, and her husband Steve opened Steve’s Pizza in 1963, eight years after they immigrated from Greece to the Duluth, Minn., area. They owned it until 1974, when they sold it to Stella’s brothers, John and Nick Zaimes.
“Steve sold it and opened up Steve’s Pizza in River Falls,” said Patakos. “In 1979, I came to the U.S. and worked at Steve’s Pizza in River Falls. Our family kind of knew each other.”
Patakos began managing the River Falls Steve’s Pizza at age 15, despite knowing little English.
John and Nick Zaimes sold the Platteville Steve’s Pizza to Zaimes’ parents, Patrick and Nina, in 1980, when Katherine was 1½ years old. They then sold it to Patakos’ parents, Panagiotis and Eleni, in 1988, and John became the manager while completing his history degree at UW–Platteville, to which he transferred from UW–River Falls.
Zaimes doesn’t remember the first time she met Patakos, because, he said, “The first time I met her was at her baptism.”
“I vaguely remember him,” she said. “I left for Greece when I was 8. When I came back to university, we came back to Platteville” and stayed with Patakos’ parents because they were the only other Greek-speaking people in Platteville.
Zaimes went to UW–Platteville for one year before transferring to Iowa State University.
“I went non-smoking right away in ’88, so we were 20 years ahead of the state” and its smoking ban in bars and restaurants, said Patakos. “I expanded the menu, because when we started it was only pizza, pop and beer. I got a liquor license, and I opened a bar to compliment the restaurant.”
“They came literally with nothing on their back, just the clothes they were wearing,” said Zaimes. “And for a lot of them what worked out the best for them was the restaurant business. And since that had worked well for them, they didn’t want to take any chances — none of them took the risk to expand.
“John’s different from others — he’s a very visionary person. He thinks about what will work out for the business.”
The original 1,200-square-foot restaurant at 15 S. Fourth St. grew to 9,000 square feet. A new bar, The Perfect Pint, opened in 1999. Patakos built a game room and then another bar, Captain’s Cove.
Some of Steve’s more popular customers were Chicago Bears players when the Bears held their training camp at UW–Platteville. Patakos recalls one who ordered three extra large pizzas for himself.
Zaimes, meanwhile, was teaching, when they came to a crossroads in the business.
“We reached a point where we were kind of forced to move,” she said.
Patakos had wanted to buy the building on the southeast corner of West Main and Chestnut streets for 15 years. The building was formerly Montgomery Ward, then Heiser’s Ace Hardware, then Discount Mattress.
Patakos purchased the building in 2008, and after six months of first-floor work that he laid out and she designed, moved in in 2009.
“It was his dream come true,” said Zaimes. “We literally left nothing in this building except the interior walls.”
“It was tough, but we knew we could do it,” said Patakos. “We had the bank asking us a lot of questions, and we were able to satisfy them.”
The new location got off to an interesting start when the first night it opened, windows were blown out by high winds after a tornado was reported outside Platteville.
“Our poor staff — it’s usually when we go on vacation that things happen,” said Zaimes.
The restaurant employs 40 to 50 people depending on the time of year. It opens at 4 p.m., but will open earlier for lunch around UW–Platteville events such as Homecoming and Parents Weekend, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and large groups.
The desire to satisfy customers who started booking the restaurant for larger-scale events forced them to move up their second-floor renovation plans. The second floor has room for business meetings, with an overhead projector and screen. Steve’s can supply breakfast and lunch. The second floor also hosts Zaimes’ ballroom dance classes.
The result is a restaurant with three bars, capacity 400, that caters to “families, families with kids, couples, college students, and you can bring everybody in here,” said Patakos.
“We wanted to create a unique environment, not something you’d find anywhere,” said Zaimes.
“We like to monkey around,” said Patakos. “I like to create different things,” such as his Mediterranean pizza, chicken fajita and Cajun pizzas, and the Kyle Special, named for a cook who worked there for eight years. The Katarina Special features a pesto basil sauce, mushrooms, tomatoes, and feta and Parmesan cheese.
“We have pizzas for everybody,” he said. “We have at least 40 different toppings. Most of the pizzas we sell now are specialty pizzas.”
Steve’s sells gluten-free beer and will make gluten-free pizzas for those with gluten intolerance.
The restaurant also sells take-and-bake pizzas, which have been frozen and shipped as far as Israel, Russia, China and Italy.
Zaimes works on the dining side, creating drinks; “the staff really looks forward to when I put the drink specials up,” she says.
Steve’s Pizza hosts UW–Platteville Trivia Nights and Halloween costume parties “to bring people in here,” said Zaimes.
One of the restaurant’s more unusual events was a reception following a funeral at the request of the woman’s family. When her husband died two years later, his funeral reception was also held at Steve’s.
Grant County’s other Steve’s Pizza is in Cuba City, owned by a former Steve’s employee in what Patakos describes as a “franchise-like” arrangement.
Patakos and Zaimes are considering other expansion possibilities. Zaimes mentioned the possibility of adding to the restaurant’s large selection of beers by brewing their own.
“Everything about business is personality,” said Patakos. “Now that I know the business is stable — we just finished our third year here — we can look at other opportunities.”
Patakos won’t say how Steve’s Pizza will celebrate its 50th anniversary, except that “it’ll be a surprise.”