On Dec. 4, 2002, Carlo Pedone opened Trattoria di Carlo restaurant in Oak Creek with five seats at the bar and 14 tables.
Almost instantly, waits for a table at the authentic Italian restaurant reached an hour to two hours. Couples came to the restaurant for first dates, engagements, wedding parties and baby showers.
Families celebrated birthdays; business leaders shared ideas over lunch. Many others ordered food for pick-up, or got meals catered in.
Business was so great that di Carlo expanded in 2007 to a bigger dining room and bar area. In 2010, Pedone expanded again, this time south of the border after the investment group that bought Meadowbrook Country Club in Mount Pleasant got him to agree to open another di Carlo location there.
And ten years to the day after he swung open his doors, Pedone and business manager Amy Plennes, who has been at di Carlo since the beginning, sat at a table near the bar and reflected on how the restaurant became an Oak Creek staple.
"We take great pride in our customers that have been here for 10 years, our new customers that are coming now," Pedone said. "We've had a great core of employees here that have been with us ... since day one. That's where the family and honesty and the willingness to provide great food and service to the city of Oak Creek (comes from).
"And I think the city of Oak Creek feels that and appreciates that."
Good food is in his blood
If you want to understand how the place got so popular, you must first look at Pedone and his family history.
Pedone was weaned on the industry at Napoli's, the Burlington restaurant owned by his parents. That's where his father taught him how to cook and gave him his passion about food.
Just as important, his father passed down recipes that have made their way onto the di Carlo menu.
The restaurant's signature red sauce, for example? That was passed down by Pedone's father, who got it from his Sicily-born father.
"I can't even put a date when that recipe was created. My dad had it, his parents had it—who knows how far back that recipe goes?" Pedone said. "I could, for sure, date it 100 years."
Some of the food even has ingredients Pedone grows himself, like the tomatoes used for the sauce.
"We put our hearts in the dish. We don't just put food in a dish," Pedone said.
Added Plennes, "It does make such a difference because we care about the end product. We have a certain standard that we reach and we won't jeapordize that for anything."
His family didn't just influence the food, but the atmosphere at di Carlo as well. A family atmosphere wasn't the goal, Pedone says. It was just something that came naturally, and Pedone believes it's a big part of why the business has been so successful.
"Without my family, I wouldn't be here right now," he said.
And not just immediate family, either. It's possible di Carlo wouldn't be where it is without Pedone's father-in-law, who owned the building that now houses di Carlo and Family Vision.
Pretty fortuitous for Pedone, who counted the location in the heart of Oak Creek as another contributor to the business' success.
But perhaps more so for residents in Oak Creek and the surrounding area.
It was clear to Pedone and others involved at the restaurant that people on Milwaukee County's south side were hungry for something like his Italian restaurant.
The waiting area was much smaller than it is now, but despite the cold temperatures and snow on the ground, people were willing to stick it out—even if it meant standing outside.
"Winter in Wisconsin and people were outside waiting," Pennes said. "It was definitely a strong, quick response."
Its popularity didn't wane. After three years of customers steadily pouring into the restaurant, Pedone bought the adjacent property for a future expansion.
Work began in late spring of 2007 and customers began enjoying the extra space on Dec. 5, almost five years to the day of the restaurant's opening (Pedone says the timing was coincidental).
Many of the same customers have returned, as di Carlo employees watched them move into different phases of their life.
Sometimes right in front of them.
"We've had people who have come here on their first date, they got engaged here, they had their rehearsal dinner here, they had their baby shower here, they had their first kid's baptism here," Plennes said.