When troops from Minneapolis began returning home after World War II, they discovered they missed one thing about Europe. Sliding into booths at the Casino Cafe on North 7th, they’d ask owner and chef James Graziano if he could make them a pizza.
Graziano had begun his cooking career while in the service, feeding troops going through boot camp at Fort Snelling. He wanted to oblige the returning soldiers, so he began trying to make pizza worthy of his Sicilian heritage.
“He burned out a couple of standard ovens that couldn’t stay hot enough,” said his son, Daniel, of the necessary 500-plus degrees. Undaunted, Graziano traveled to a Chicago trade show and returned with an authentic pizza oven. In 1945, his cafe became the first in Minneapolis to serve pizza.
“That’s what we were always told, anyway,” Daniel said of his father, who died Dec. 13 in Minneapolis, a month short of turning 100.
Graziano’s pizzas were unusual in that he shaped them as rectangles, and he also was known for the meatball sandwiches, antipasto salad and platters of baked mostaccioli that emerged from his kitchen.
The Casino Cafe, which he’d opened in 1943 at 12 N. 7th St., merged in 1955 with the nearby Venice Cafe. For the next 28 years, Graziano fed crowds who came downtown for a movie at the World Theater next door, or for shows and concerts at venues up and down Hennepin Avenue.
Police ate there for free, “which was one of the reasons the place always was very well-behaved,” said another son, Vincent.
Graziano was born Jan. 16, 1916, in Portland, Ore., to parents who’d immigrated from Sicily. They soon moved to Minneapolis, settling in the Italian neighborhood around Morgan Avenue and Olson Highway. He graduated from North High School and enlisted in the service, but bad knees kept him in Minneapolis, and led to his career as a restaurateur. “He was at the cafe six days a week,” Vincent recalled. “He was home Tuesday nights, which is really the only way you can run a restaurant.”
Daniel recalled “Graz” as “an extremely social creature. People gravitated to him, and he showed a lot of loyalty to his employees, and they in turn to him. Some were there for 30 years.”
Graziano also made pizzas for delivery, and for a short time sold frozen pizzas in Red Owl grocery stores. By that time, Vincent said, more people had gotten into the pizza business and he let that venture go.
Graziano was an avid sports fan and had season tickets for the Minnesota Vikings from the first year of the franchise on. “He went to all four Super Bowls they were in,” Daniel said. “In the early days at Met Stadium, he’d go down in the minivan of the day — a station wagon — and bring food out and put it on the tailgate,” thus becoming part of another long tradition. He’d grill meat and serve it with baked mostaccioli, creating one of the more enticing tailgating gatherings.
The Venice Cafe closed in 1983, when downtown became less attractive to families coming for dinner.
Yet even up until two months ago, Daniel said, “he would mix up meatballs and sauce. He still made spaghetti dinners for churches. He really loved life.”
He is survived by daughters Linda Lannon Graziano, St. Paul, and Maryann Graziano, Plymouth; sons Vincent Graziano, St. Paul, Dr. Stephen Graziano, Syracuse, N.Y., Daniel Graziano, Golden Valley; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; brother Richard Graziano, Minnetonka; sister Rosemarie Barringer, Edina; and the mother of his children, Shirley Graziano, Plymouth. Services have been held.