On an unseasonably warm late fall night, the door to Old Town Serbian Gourmet Restaurant (522 W. Lincoln Ave.), is propped open, a welcoming gesture though the place isn’t exactly hopping. It’s been several years since I’ve entered this dining room, but its stucco-like walls, emblems and old paintings, crimson carpet and white linen-topped tables are just as I’d remembered them. I might even be seated at the same table. After more than 50 years, Old Town is showing some wear, but there’s charm in that. The Radicevich family built this restaurant as an homage to the dishes they missed from their Serbian homeland they were forced to flee, and those recipes continue to enchant.
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Owner Natalia Radicevich, daughter of founder Alexander, says she hasn’t strayed from the old-school cooking methods she learned from her mother, who told her, “You will never cook like me. It’s your own hands that will show you your style of cooking.” In the kitchen where Radicevich says she does “most of everything” – not by choice, she struggles to find staff – she turns back the clock and spins the globe with every plate that leaves the kitchen. In Serbian cuisine, you’ll see similarities – some subtle, others not so – to dishes from other countries, like the stuffed grape leaves of Greece and the goulash of Hungary. The famous burek phyllo pastry pie – which has variations served in other countries stuffed with meat or cheese and spinach – may share roots with the cuisine of ancient Rome.
When the server delivers that thick, golden pie to my table, she makes the first cut, serving us a generous wedge. “Look at that flake,” she says. The steam rises, sending the aroma of pastry, beef and onion swirling around my head. It’s incredibly rich and succulent. But it’s not the only obligatory dish to order at Old Town. There’s the Serbian salad of chopped tomato, onion and crumbly, tangy feta; chicken paprikash so tender it slides off the bone; and the ćevapčići minced meat sausage (usually beef and lamb) served with raw onion, hunks of salty cheese and fresh cucumber. They’re just as delicious as I remember.
The menu, though, is smaller, which makes me pause. Old Town, its owner later tells me, has the same supply chain issues that beset this industry. The solution is to be patient, she says. All will return to normal eventually. I suspect it’s partly that kind of confidence that’s given Old Town its longevity.
• AFTER MILUN RADICEVICH left war-torn Yugoslavia to settle in Milwaukee, he took a job delivering beer by bus. Back then, says his granddaughter, “there was a bar on every corner.” When he made enough money, he bought a former Schlitz tied house on South St. Clair which became Three Brothers.
• RADICEVICH HAD THREE SONS, two of whom became restaurateurs – Branko ran Three Brothers in Bay View, and Alexander founded Old Town Serbian Restaurant.
• ALEXANDER AND HIS WIFE RADMILA had opportunities to move Old Town from its Lincoln Avenue home to another part of town, says their daughter Natalia, but they always turned them down. “They felt a strong connection to this neighborhood. It’s always been an immigrant area.”