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Edited by Mario Quadracci With Dawn M. Behr, Mindy Benham, Ryan Bray, Kurt Chandler, Ann Christenson, Natalie Dorman, Judith Ann Moriarty, Charlene Mills, Patricia Murphy, Kevin J. Miyazaki and Mary Van de Kamp Nohl We’ve been at it for 25 years, combing the scene for people, places and things that warrant a pat on the back for standing […]

Edited by Mario Quadracci With Dawn M. Behr, Mindy Benham, Ryan Bray, Kurt Chandler, Ann Christenson, Natalie Dorman, Judith Ann Moriarty, Charlene Mills, Patricia Murphy, Kevin J. Miyazaki and Mary Van de Kamp Nohl

We’ve been at it for 25 years, combing the scene for people, places and things that warrant a pat on the back for standing apart. Each year, we approach Best Of with the hope that it will be better than the year before – dare we say the best ever? This year, we left no Cream City rock unturned. From apples, bikes and Franciscans to flowers, beers and Olympians, this is the…

Grace Under Pressure

Paul Hamm should have been able to bask in the glory of being the first American to win the men’s All-Around Gymnastics Olympic Gold Medal. It was, after all, the payoff for a lifetime of hard work, determination and astounding ability, not to mention one of the most amazing comebacks in Olympic history. When it looked as if he were out of medal contention, Hamm battled back, proving that to be “The Best,” you often have to do better than your best under incredible pressure. But that crucible was only the first. Instead of  laurels and cereal box covers, the 21-year-old kid from Waukesha – who’d honed his skills in a Wisconsin barn using a rock for a pommel horse and two stair railings for parallel bars – found himself in the middle of an international judging controversy. Never mind that he had played by the rules and won by the rules or that you don’t change the rules after the game. Officials ducking their own responsibility and commentators with a misplaced sense of justice wanted the Waukesha South High School grad to give back the Gold. But Hamm held his ground. A world-champion gymnast has to be able to “stick,” as they say – come off the bar and land without wavering. And Hamm did just that. A role model also has to find the courage to stand firm, even when the whole world seems to be against him. And Paul Hamm did that, too.

Tourist Two-wheelers

Four years back, we tipped our helmets to Hotel Metro for offering the free use of bicycles to its guests. In keeping with its stylish way, the hotel has upgraded the fleet to include two ultra-hip recumbent bikes. Fully adjustable for all sizes of visitor, these head-turners are equipped with a side bag for your laptop or groceries, as well as a digital clock you will have no problem ignoring. Convention? What convention? (411 E. Mason St.).

Display of Ingenuity

In budget-cutting times, Milwaukee County lacked the dough to keep the 30-acre House of Correction farm in Franklin operating this year. A new contract with an outside food vendor eliminated the need for the farm’s produce at the prison and county jail. But the need was great at Hunger Task Force, which had been receiving the leftovers. Close the facility? Nah. County Executive Scott Walker’s office worked with the Private Industry Council to secure job-training funds to keep it running and provide the inmates with job skills. And Hunger Task Force is now the lucky recipient of the whole windfall of fresh-grown food to supply its network of pantries. Winners all around.

Indie Flick Rentals

Family owned and operated for 20 years, RSE Video Discount Superstore (118 E. Dakota St.) revels in its own world of cinematic romanticism, offering everything (and we mean everything – VHS, DVDs, CDs, video games) from Disney to adult films. And while RSE offers films both big and small, the store has a soft spot for the hard-to-find or out-of-print – the indie films movie buffs crave. With 8,000 releases for rent and 10,000 for sale, it’s the place to go for the Crippled Masters fan in all of us.

Unlikely Capitalist

Sereno Baiardi’s success story has been repeated a million times in this country. Like many immigrants, Baiardi succeeded beyond all ­expectations. Unlike many others, he’s never kept one cent for himself. Baiardi is an Italian-born Franciscan brother and quite literally a man with a mission. His Waterford-based Franciscan Missions Inc. has given millions to more than 800 causes, primarily in Third World countries. The 63-year-old business dynamo vows that “promotion is the key to success.” And promote he does, with daily mailings of 20,000 pieces. It works. Baiardi’s enterprise is the largest fundraiser in the ­Franciscan order. His marketing miracle is a wooden birdhouse topped by a handmade ­figure of – who else? – St. Francis of Assisi. So far, he’s sold more than 33,000.

Locally Grown Apples

“Want to try the best apple you’ll ever taste?” asked a discoverer of the ­Honey Crisps at Barthel Fruit Farm. Sweet, tangy, crunchy Honey Crisps aren’t easy to grow or harvest, and because the fruit doesn’t ripen evenly, the ­general population is not allowed to pick from Barthel’s 5,000 Honey Crisp trees. They’re also more expensive ($15 a peck compared to $9-$10 for others), but they’re well worth it (12246 N. Farmdale Rd., Mequon).

Electronic Music Label

Listening to a release on 5-year-old Milwaukee-based Wobblyhead Records is not a passive activity. It’s impossible to pop Casino Vs. Japan, Signaldrift or String Theory into the CD player (partially because many Wobblyhead releases are vinyl only) and go about your business. The music sucks you into a morphing world of resounding ambiance, luring your attention from one fleeting palette of sonic illusion to the next. Processed but never cold, the Wobblyhead aesthetic is human feeling expressed via circuits, wires and microchips. This is intelligent music created for anyone with an open mind and some time to dim the lights and let go (www.wobblyhead.com).

Rugby Singer

The Sin Bin is a ­National Avenue bar owned by the Milwaukee Westside Harlequins, an amateur rugby team that was a ­national runner-up in 2001. Win or lose, post-game tradition means entertaining the crowd with drinking songs. Semi-official lead singer is player Chris “Otto” Kenth, a 36-year-old computer geek. The team’s general manager claims “Otto isn’t the best singer, but he knows all the, uh, best songs.” Otto’s fave: “While Once in the Libyan Desert.” One of the cleaner ­verses goes like this: “Beer is best, it makes you fit! It makes you strong! It puts more muscles on your old ding dong!” Any crooner who blows the lyrics must sip from the fetid cleats of fellow players.

Jewelry Art Dealer

Fashion is an art form at 3rd Ward Jewelry (241 N. Broadway). Owner Rita Hulstedt features more than 75 local, national and international jewelry artists in her hip Third Ward gallery. Prices range from $40 to $10,000, with most works falling in the $200 to $300 range. Recent eyebrow-raising pieces were a metal beetle pendant with Day-Glo green and yellow wings, a black beaded “tentacle-like” necklace and earrings made of film negatives depicting a grizzled old man behind the wheel of a ship. Caution: Don’t wear them all at once.

Urban Campfire

The city may have sidewalks, parallel parking and historic buildings, but it lies under the same stars gazed on over country campfires somewhere out there. Why not huddle around a fire just 100 feet or so from a city street in Riverside Park? On one Friday evening a month, the Urban Ecology ­Center mesmerizes kids who may have never popped popcorn or roasted ­marshmallows over an outdoor fire. Campfire songs are provided by local musicians. The fires will move to the fireplace in the center’s new building if the winter weather warrants it ($5/person; $10/family; free to members; www.urbanecologycenter.org).

Flan

It’s waiting for you at Rey Sol (2338 W. Forest Home Ave.). The restaurant’s silky flan, the Spanish baked custard served with its requisite cascading caramel sauce, goes down scarily easily. Watch out, waistline! $4.15 or included in $6.95 lunch deal.

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Archery Range

Tired of wasting good apples targeting them off the heads of friends? Buck Rub Outfitters LTD allows you to hone your archery skills on squirrels, rabbits, wild boars, alligators and just about every other beast this side of a French poodle. Let fly into the rump of a bear on the multi-stationed, bi-level indoor range; tame the African bush on the video range; or head outdoors for 14 stations of wooded carnage. Oh yeah, all the animals are fake (N13 W28400 Silvernail Rd., Pewaukee; $5-$35).

Martini Olive

“True beauty is on the inside” is not just something said at the bottom of the ugly tree. Lake Park Bistro (3133 E. Newberry Blvd.) unclichés the cliché with its blue cheese-stuffed martini olives. They start with an admirably sized green olive, then transform it, upon order, into an exquisite hand-stuffed vessel for importing aged French blue cheese straight to the taste buds. Allow to marinate for a minute in an icy, extra-dry martini. Sacre bleu!

Indoor Concert Venue

For years, the city’s indoor concert scene was dominated by – curse, spit – the Rave. Many a bright-eyed ­concertgoer’s hopes have been torn along with their tickets at this echoing, $18-per-car, $7-per-beer concrete bunker. Security alone can leave you feeling like you should be wearing stripes. But an unlikely hall is offering safe haven for live-music refugees. The Pabst Theater (144 E. Wells St.) is importing some of the hippest bands in the world. From jazz masters (Pat Martino) to intellectual rock (David Byrne), world music legends to operatic experimental death metal (Sleepytime ­Gorilla Museum), the Pabst delivers the goods.

Functional Re-use

Remodeling a kitchen or bath often means pulling out cabinets, sinks or fixtures that are perfectly functional but just don’t fit your new look. HomeSource, run by Lisbon Avenue Neighborhood Development, accepts home-related donations and sells them for a song to nearby homeowners. Pickups can be arranged (3701 W. Lisbon Ave.).

Remedy for Skating Spills

Any experienced ice skater knows there’s no such thing as weak ankles, only weak ice skates. But for the recreational skater, sturdy rental boots are hard to come by at indoor rinks. We searched for a figure skate with full support and a sharp blade absent of rust and dull patches, which can set skaters flat on their butts. Our winner? Wilson Park Ice Arena (4001 S. 20th St.; $2), where the hefty boots (with enough give to comfortably snuggle your ankles) and razor-sharp blades could compete with even a beginner’s owned pair.

Bells and Whistles

Mark Wentzel was attending the University of Sierra Leone in 1969 when he acquired his first African musical instrument – a Lobi flute. This year, in Tanzania, he added a Kwere harp. His collection now numbers 50-plus, some of which were exhibited recently at Cardinal Stritch University, where Wentzel is an assistant dean. ­Wentzel deems approximately 70 percent of his trove as “­museum quality,” meaning they combine significant age with actual ritual tribal usage.

Best New Word

lautenschlagered [lau-ten-schlag´-ered] v. past tense. The act of overindulgence involving intoxicants, producing a wobbly walk, deer-in-the-headlights gaze and a predilection for making preposterous statements. Usually accompanied by slurred speech. If you go out and get lautenschlagered, you may repeatedly find the front of your car damaged by a phantom hit-and-run driver. (Colloquial: tie one on, get smashed.)

Spicy Buffalo Wings

Club Garabaldi’s chicken wings arrive slapped in sauce both red and blistery (2501 S. Superior St.). Cool off your singed lips with a side of celery and blue cheese dressing. On Wednesdays, the messy, high-maintenance eat goes for 30 cents a wing. On other days, as an appetizer, it’s $5.75 for 10.

Hypochondria Inducer

Wake up with a scratchy throat? Feeling nauseous? Gums bleeding? You could be suffering from “What’s ­Going Around,” and we’re not talking about a virus, infection, parasite or bacteria. The regular health segment on the TMJ4 10 p.m. news tells of more plague than the Old Testament. Warning: Watching it may truly be hazardous to your health.

Fuel Per Quarter Mile

­Washington Avenue in Cedarburg, with its old-world sidewalk charm, is a great choice for a fall stroll. There are certainly enough antiques stores, galleries and specialty shops to keep you on your toes. The street also boasts three independent coffeehouses, all within sipping distance. Java House is the strip’s ­oldest. ­Cedarburg Coffee Company (our favorite for its homemade sweets) and Dancing Goat Espresso Bar & Café are next-door neighbors. Rivalries? None detected. ­After all, who can’t use more locally owned coffeehouses these days? Tread slowly and carry a big latte.

Creative Box Lunch

Chips and coleslaw or a pickled egg and turkey gizzard? Hmm. Tough decision, but the egg and gizzard win. Frauchiger’s Cheese Store (724 N. Milwaukee St.), whose menu lists such nummies as braunschweiger and Swiss on white, serves a “Mwaukee” box lunch you don’t find every day. Order your sandwich with two sides. You could have creamy potato salad and Grandma’s cookies, but why be normal? M

Auction of Obscure Items

So Junior’s requesting a fire truck for Christmas. How about getting Dad one to match? Santa should monitor the City of Milwaukee’s online auction, home of cast-off municipal gems like real fire trucks (averaging $1,500), boats, leather police jackets and the occasional helicopter. Those who complain about government waste should know that the Web site, which began four years ago, has sold more than 2,200 items and raised more than $132,000 for the city. Sure, the site posts mundane items, too, like computers and office furniture. But you never know what you’ll find – recent items have included a kayak, go-cart, hubcaps, a mail truck and a pair of CPR mannequins (www.­milwaukee.gov; click on View Auction Items for Sale).

Chicken Panino

The hot pressed Italian sandwich called, in singular form, panino is everywhere. Fillings run across the board, too, so we picked one that crops up often: chicken breast. On our hit list: Tosa’s Pizzeria ­Piccola (7606 W. State St.), which slaps pesto mayo between two slices of ciabatta bread, then layers on Asiago cheese, sliced tomato and a juicy wood-roasted breast ($6.75). The finished product is a crispy, oozy, grilled love-to-love-you baby.

Hang Gliding Center

Icarus’ problem wasn’t flying too close to the sun – it was that he had cruddy technology. Now we have all sorts of super-strong synthetics to take us aloft. We also have the premier hang gliding center in the Midwest to teach us how to use them. Whitewater’s Raven Sky Sports offers beginner classes seven days a week (April 1-December 1). Learn how to get airborne under your own power in the “Hill Flying Class” ($149) or go for the “Tandem High-Altitude Flight Lesson” ($149), where you and an instructor will be towed and released into the wild blue yonder by an airplane. Too close to the sun? No such thing (www.hanggliding.com; 262-473-8800).

Swashbuckler

Atlanta, 1996. A century after fencing entered Olympic competition, Misha Shepshelevich was an alternate on the Russian men’s team. Six years later, the trim 30-year-old is married to a local woman and operating the Milwaukee Fencers Club, keeping the flame of this lightning-quick sport (a blade can move at 210 mph) burning. Born in St. Petersburg, he was en garde at age 7 with his father, a Russian team coach. Over the years, Shepshelevich has collected a few dueling scars, but he still claims fencing is safer than most American sports, which should be reassuring to his clients, among them an octogenarian and doctors and lawyers who thrust and ­parry for “stress relief.” Shepshelevich’s father also lives in Milwaukee, and according to Misha, looks forward to the day when little Maksim, his 2-year-old grandson, can handle a foil. Touché.

Time Travel

If you’re a retro at heart, Blast From the Past (4177 S. Howell Ave. ) can help with your decorating or collecting fantasies. Owners Judy and Earl Barwick have spent five years scouring estate sales to find the treasures in their 9,000-square-foot store. Whatever you fancy in whichever era (’30s-’70s) – from blond wood sectionals and funky lamps (how about a working 1930s Philco radio or a ’50s Jet Pilot bicycle) to chrome-legged, red Formica “boomerang”-topped tables and soda fountain booths to enough “brewmania” to redo your rec room – it all awaits appreciative new owners.

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Way to make the sports page

Age is no barrier to gracing the sports pages if you’re a skilled lawn bowler. Norma Harrington, 79, proved that this summer by winning the U.S. Central Division Lawn Bowling Triples Championship. A British game closer to curling than bocce ball, the sport itself may be one of the city’s best-kept secrets even though you can get a free lesson any Wednesday evening in Upper Lake Park courtesy of the Milwaukee Lake Park Lawn Bowling Association (262-242-2099). In this game, being close is the only thing that counts, and it’s as easy as tossing an egg-shaped billiard ball onto a green, says Harrington.

Beer for the Occasion

Chosen by some of the city’s most scrupulous drinkers.

From ball games to breakfast, beer is the cornerstone of any great event. But not every brew is suitable for every happening. We set out to extract the best local microbeers from the frothy pack – to decide which ale is right for which moment. We asked brewmeisters at Sprecher Brewing Company, Lakefront Brewing Company, Milwaukee Ale House, Waterstreet Brewery and Onopa Brewing Company to submit their most prized concoctions to compete in four occasion-specific categories and one Best of the Best category. A crack team of expert judges, assembled for this selfless undertaking, decided the winners. – Mario Quadracci

The Judges

Brad Lowry: owner, Wauwatosa’s Homebrewing Depot.

Sue Thompson: sensory manager, Miller Brewing Company. In other words, she tastes beer for a living and is a judge for major national beer festivals.

Paul Tinsen: president, Beer Barons of Milwaukee, the largest organized group of beer enthusiasts in Wisconsin.

Biff: Marquette University college student.

The Categories

While Watching a Football Game

Sprecher Special Amber: “Balanced, with a nice butterscotch flavor,” concludes Lowry.

Drinking in the Sun: Tie.

Lakefront Cattail Ale: “A good, crisp, clean beer. Very refreshing,” says Tinsen.

Milwaukee Ale House Belgian Wit: “Fruity aroma with pear notes; a lingering aftertaste but very pleasant,” says Thompson.

With Aged Wisconsin Cheddar

Lakefront East Side Dark: Biff’s reaction: “Usually I don’t sit around and eat a brick of cheese and drink beer, but next time I do, I’m going with this one.”

By the Fire on a Cold Night

Sprecher Black Bavarian: “Malty roasted flavors, very smooth mouth feel. A well balanced, awesome beer!” comments Thompson.

Best of the Best

Onopa Porter: “Damn good! Packed with flavor but drinkable,” says Lowry.

Toy Try-outs

Milwaukee County library cardholders have privileges at the Toy Lending Library in the Franklin Public Library (9151 W. Loomis Rd.), where 70-plus educational toys can be checked out one at a time for a week – enough time to know whether your kid is already tired of the toy or it’s a good one to purchase for keeps. The toys are approved and donated by Toy Tips, a locally run Web site with a national reputation (www.toytips.com).

Best $50 Bouquet

Who can you trust to craft the perfect arrangement?

Sending flowers sight unseen is a risky undertaking. How can you minimize the ­chances of making a floral faux pas? Our plan was to put $50 in the hands of five of the area’s better-known florists and have their creations delivered to the same place on the same day. So when we called the florists (deliveries were made to a nearby business to keep the test secretive), our instructions were clear. Recipient: “my sister.” Occasion: her birthday. We asked for a simple vase (square or cylinder) for someone who likes roses and snapdragons, hates mums and carnations and prefers pastel colors. The card’s message (always ask for it to be ­handwritten): “Happy Birthday to the best sister in the world!”

Grades were based on initial appearance and value, plus the bouquets’ longevity over the next seven days. The lesson? Whichever floral source you use, it pays to be specific.

– Mindy Benham and Mario Quadracci

Investigative TV Reporting

It’s usually a contradiction in terms to say “investigative reporting” and “broadcast news” in the same breath, but WITI-TV6’s Bob Segall’s relentless reporting resulting in the recent revocation of Dr. Stuart Suster’s medical license is an example of TV journalism at its best. In a state ranking 49th nationally in disciplining bad doctors, you can’t have enough watchdogs like Segall, who credits station management. “I am… blessed,” he says. “At most stations, you can’t get five minutes to tell a story.”

Best Zoo Animal

For 30 years, the title of “best animal” at the Milwaukee County Zoo was undisputed. Samson, the giant lowland gorilla, was so beloved that he’s immortalized (in skeletal form) at the Milwaukee Public Museum. But since 1981, the title of Best Zoo Animal has gone unclaimed. Until now.

We brought in the experts – a half-dozen kids – to change that. Zookeepers ­selected 17 finalists, and armed with safari hats, binoculars and scorecards, our judges went to work, rating the animals on charm, congeniality and exotic appeal.

The koala, Moondanie, dropped to last place when he appeared to be an inanimate tree-hugger. Lucy, the African elephant, had impressive talent. Throwing dirt onto her back and waving her giant ears, she captured third place. Lady, the sea lion, swam like Esther Williams, securing a second place tie with Zero, the polar bear.

But in the end, the winner was a relative unknown, an endangered species originally from the Himalayas: He-ping, a 6-year-old red panda. The size of a large house cat – with the coat of a fox, yet looking more like a raccoon than his more famous relative, the giant panda – He-ping was a charmer who greeted the judges with a cocked head and inquisitive gazes, wiggled around to get a better view and offered what could only be a Cheshire smile. Even “American Idol’s” ­Simon Cowell would have been touched

— Mary Van de Kamp Nohl

Motorcycle Road Course

On ­Sunday mornings from March through October, riding Wisconsin’s backroads is a ritual. A favorite ride is the Holy Hill Side Trip, 23 miles of blacktop – narrow, canopied and stomach-droppingly hilly – in the Washington County town of Erin. Winding past verdant meadows on highways named Shamrock and Donegal, you’d think you were transported to the Emerald Isle itself. Take Highway 167 west to St. Augustine Road, turn south, pick up Emerald Road, and there you are. For details of this and other curvy-lined day trips, read Sunday Rides on Two Wheels: Motorcycling in Southern Wisconsin by Barbara Barber.

Finger-lickin’ Pastry

It flakes in your mouth and in your hands. Tear off ­pieces of an almond ring from Le Parve Bakery (6813 N. Green Bay Ave.) and chew them slowly. Wow. Your hands will be sticky from the white glaze, but what’s a little icing on your steering wheel? It’s worth it, burrowing through the soft-crisp layers of this single-serving strudel-like pastry ($1.50 each or 2 for $2).

Portable Ice Cream

Seeking levity for your next big office meeting? Hot fudge sundaes for everyone! Chocolate Factory offers “The Traveling Sundae Factory” for picnics, school events and, um, business meetings. The cooler-size package holds a two-and-a-half gallon tub of its Blommer’s ice cream, plus hot fudge or strawberry topping, whipped cream and cherries. Scoop about 50 servings (dishes, spoons and scooper provided) for up to five hours with no plug-in or ice required. $69.95, plus refundable deposit (eight locations; www.subsandicecream.com).

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