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If these walls could talk

July 26, 2019 by Jacob Friede

Anthony’s Ristorante in is a quaint and cozy place. Housed in the old Milwaukee Road railroad depot in Woodruff, it’s full of character and offers an intimate dining experience perfect for a romantic night out.  

That is unless you’re a musky angler. In that case, it’s going to be real tough paying attention to your date.

The owner of Anthony’s is Tony Rizzo Jr., son of the late legendary musky guide, author, and inventor Tony Rizzo, Sr. This spring, in honor of his father who passed away last September at the age of 83, Rizzo Jr. brought in a huge collection of his father’s personal memorabilia to display at the restaurant. 

“I took all the pictures off the wall in his little trophy room office, packed them in boxes. I took all the fish,” Rizzo, Jr. said. “Didn’t know where to put them, so I just started hanging them where I could kind of fit them. This would be, like, say, his trophy room.”

In the world of musky fishing there are few trophy rooms more coveted than Rizzo, Sr.’s, and the display gives a fascinating glimpse into what a world famous musky guide hung on his wall.

There are, of course, beautiful musky mounts, but in addition there are hundreds of framed pictures of family and clients, letters, awards, newspaper and magazine articles written by and about Rizzo Sr., some of his books, original drawings for some of his lures, even one of his original wooden lures themselves.

“I wanted to put things up like some of the articles, the letters, some of the books, the drawings of the Rizzo Diver,”?Rizzo said. “I wanted people to see that there was more to him than just the fishing guide. He did other things.”

Rizzo, Sr. and his wife Lee ran Silver Musky Resort on Star Lake for 48 years, and in addition to over 60,000 hours on the water guiding for musky, in which he caught 33,000 legals and 3,500 trophies over 40 inches, Rizzo, Sr. was the author of nine books and hundreds of articles. He was also a renowned innovator in musky lure invention, designing, among many others, the now famous Rizzo Wiz and Rizzo Diver.

But despite all that amazing individual success and achievement, what is striking about the display is that in so many of the pictures now up at Anthony’s, Rizzo, Sr. is humbly in the background. It’s his clients who are featured, as if their success were his trophies and meant as much to him, if not more, than the fish he caught himself.   

“This is how excited my dad would get. He was so excited that this guy caught this fish,” Rizzo said, pointing to a picture. “He was the most loving, caring, generous person. He was everything. I don’t know. He was just such a wonderful guy.” 

But the business he was in wasn’t always as nice. As an innovator with lure designs, Rizzo, Sr. was constantly copied in a cutthroat bait business looking to cash in on the latest invention. Rizzo, Jr., who worked side by side with his dad for many years running Rizzo Tackle Co., travelled the seminar and fishing show circuit, promoting and selling Rizzo lures, and he saw this first-hand and became disenchanted with the fishing industry.

“My dad would make a new bait. By the next year you’d have dozens of people copying,” said Rizzo, who told his dad “we get about one year when you think of something new. We get about one year and somebody will copy it.”

Honoring Rizzo, Sr.

Eventually, Rizzo, Jr. decided to pursue a different passion: cooking. He enrolled in culinary arts school at Nicolet College where he met and fell in love with his wife Katy. Together they had a son, Quinten, and eventually opened Anthony’s in 2006, amidst trying economic times, though they persevered as a team with hard work, determination, and some darn good made-from-scratch cuisine.

“My recipes I learned from my grandmother (Josephine). She came from Sicily,” Rizzo said. “Most of my things are tried and true. They’ve been on there for 14 years. Everything on there, those are things I eat and I like to eat. That’s how I pick menu.”

Turns out Rizzo has good taste. Anthony’s is nearing a decade and a half in business and it’s the high quality of food and hospitality that has sustained it, not the Rizzo name.

“I wanted to try to make this on my own merits,” said Rizzo, who had never used his father as promotion for his restaurant. 

Though that’s not to say his father didn’t try. One day Rizzo Jr. and Katy arrived at the restaurant to find Rizzo Sr. up on a ladder hanging a couple fish pictures.

“I’m like well, OK, thats fine, it’s a big wall, they look good, it takes up the space. I kind of left that the way he left it. This was typical, so I just left it,” Rizzo, Jr., said with a smile.

But other than those few “suggestions” for decor, up until this past May, there was not much evidence in the restaurant that the two Rizzos were father and son.

“Then he passed away,” Rizzo said. “It took me awhile to digest and come to terms with it, so I finally said you know what, this is what everybody really wants. They want to talk about him. They want to see the things. Even people that don’t know who he is, little kids, are amazed with all of this. I’m just going to bring in all the work.” 

One of the pieces of that work is an original wood, hand-crafted Rizzo pull bait that was adored by Rizzo, Sr. and caught him a lot of big muskies, though it was generally misunderstood by the public.

“That was his baby,” Rizzo said. “He loved that bait. He wanted a bait that would dive deep but you didn’t have to jerk it.”

Rizzo explained his father had an uncanny ability to envision the precise motion of a lure and then create and assemble materials that followed those physics.

“It was his mind that came up with this and it worked and trying to make people understand that is very difficult because it was in his mind,” Rizzo explained. “He knew how it was going to work.”

Rizzo is the exact same way with his cooking. He is the only chef and has cooked every meal at Anthony’s for the last 14 years because he’s determined to stay true to his vision.

“I have a picture in my head how everything I want on a plate.  I want things done my way,” he said. “It’s hard for me to let go and just hire a couple guys.”

Katy Rizzo has noticed the similarities in the Rizzo men and their shared passions for putting smiles on peoples faces, whether that be the result of helping catch a musky or a helping of tenderloin medallions.

“He was so passionate about fishing and musky fishing in the Northwoods and he wanted to share that passion with everybody he came across,” Katy Rizzo said of Rizzo, Sr.   

Then she referenced her husband. “You want to actually cook and provide and make people smile and treat people on their weddings or anniversaries, even funerals, and have them be happy.”

Which is why it’s so fitting the Rizzo, Sr. collection now resides at Anthony’s, where the Rizzo’s strive to serve up happiness with every dish. It inspires nothing but joy.

The overwhelming satisfaction on the faces of people who caught muskies. The ecstatic smile of the guide who helped them, and the awe struck looks those images trigger to this day. All pure joy.

“It’s his life’s work,” Rizzo said. “People love it.”

Jacob Friede may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]

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