At 41, Rose Totino traveled two hours north of Rome for her first visit to Scopoli — the Italian birthplace of her late mother, Armeta.

It was 1956, and the pizza joint she ran with her husband in northeast Minneapolis was in its fifth year. Two decades later, she would sell her business for more than $20 million to Pillsbury, becoming that corporation’s first female vice president and making Totino’s the dominant brand in frozen pizza snacks from the 1970s until today.

But in Italy in 1956, Rose Totino saw women washing clothes in a stream — just as her mother did 50 years earlier. Some homes still lacked electricity and some residents had never seen an automobile like the Fiat the Totinos had rented.

“It was so primitive,” said her daughter Joanne Elwell, 80, who was 18 and celebrating her high school graduation on that trip to Italy. “She was just thrilled to find her mother’s house and the window she sneaked out of to visit Grandpa.”

Armeta and Peter Cruciani married and emigrated from that Italian village in 1910. Peter worked the mines in Pennsylvania before the couple moved to Minneapolis where Armeta’s sister lived. The fourth of seven children, Rosenella Winifred “Rose” Cruciani was born in Minneapolis on Jan. 16, 1915. She grew up in Depression poverty, often lingering on the playground after recess to suck orange peels other kids discarded. Her one orange a year came on Christmas Eve.

Rose dropped out of Edison High School at 16, earning $2.50 a week doing housework and helping with the pigs, chickens and cows her folks kept in a northeast Minneapolis barn. At 19, she married Jim Totino, who’d dropped out of school in ninth grade to work as a baker.

“Even though she was cleaning houses, she was always there when I came home from school for lunch,” Elwell said.

A 4-foot-11 dynamo, Rose learned about pizza from her dad’s relatives in Pennsylvania and started serving it to friends after school and at church meetings.

Those friends persuaded her to open a little shop, but pizza was still obscure in the 1950s Midwest. Bankers shrugged when the pair tried to borrow $1,500, using their car as collateral. So she baked a pizza and brought it to the bank. Loan secured, they opened Totino’s Italian Kitchen on NE. Central Avenue — adding card tables to handle the growing hordes.

“We had no intentions of setting the world on fire,” she said. “We were so worn out at night that we didn’t even count the money — we just put it in a bag.”

When they paid the milk, flour and cheese suppliers in the morning, and noticed money still in the bag, “we knew we were making it.”

That early success encouraged them to dive into frozen pizza. But after building a plant in St. Louis Park in 1962, business sputtered, debts mounted to $150,000 and they considered bankruptcy.

That’s when Rose Totino found God in 1965. A devout Catholic, she tuned her car radio to a religious station emanating from Northwestern College in Roseville. The sermon about God’s ability to ease people’s problems prompted her to pull over on Hwy. 100 in St. Louis Park and say: “Lord, if you help me out of this mess, I’ll serve you for the rest of my life.”

A $50,000 loan from the Small Business Administration suddenly appeared, financing equipment to put toppings on frozen pizzas and package them. Debt-free and profitable again, they moved operations to Fridley in 1971.

By 1975, they ranked No. 2 nationally in frozen pizza sales, employed 375 people and boasted $40 million in annual sales. Pillsbury came knocking — offering $16 million. Rose Totino told them “it was God’s will” that she get $20 million.

“We didn’t know how to handle that,” Pillsbury’s negotiator Jerry Levin said. “So we gave her the $20 million.”

The deal totaled $22.2 million, including more than 220,000 shares of Pillsbury stock worth $9 million for Rose. Despite being named vice president of frozen foods, she kept cleaning and cooking in the northeast Minneapolis house she’d moved into at 4.

“Money never changed her,” said daughter Bonnie Brenny.

And Rose wasn’t done yet. She’d always considered their frozen pizza crusts a weakness that tasted like “cardboard.” So along with Pillsbury experts, she helped create a factory-fried crust instead of prebaked ones. Totino’s “Crisp Crust” pizzas soared in popularity and earned Rose Totino a spot in the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame.

Delivering the invocation at the 1980 Pillsbury annual meeting, Totino praised the Lord for nearly five minutes before stepping away and then abruptly returning to the lectern: “Oh, and Lord, I forgot to thank you for crisp crust.”

Rose died 25 years ago from cancer at 79, 13 years after Jim’s fatal heart attack in 1981. Their philanthropy became their legacy with donations of $3.8 million to Northwestern College, $1.5 million to Fridley’s re-christened Totino-Grace High School, $500,000 for a homeless shelter, and money for new church pews and a new school back where it all began, in Scopoli.

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com.