Three Broth­ers’ suc­cess is built on great food and fam­ily strength

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

Taste the food at Three Broth­ers Restau­rant in Bay View and there’s no ques­tion why the Ser­bian eatery has at­tracted lo­cal and na­tional ac­claim as one of Mil­wau­kee’s best din­ing spots.

The foodie web­site Eater.com re­cently named it one of only two Mil­wau­kee restau­rants — out of 38 es­tab­lish­ments in five states — on its Mid­west­ern must-visit list.

Ser­bian cui­sine is a culi­nary cross­roads of sorts, com­bin­ing east­ern Euro­pean and west­ern Asian tra­di­tions. The best of it blends Mediter­ranean in­flu­ences with heartier Ger­man/Aus­trian fare, Ot­toman Turk­ish ac­cents, and other Slavic tech­niques and dishes.

Three Broth­ers’ recipes have been fea­tured in Bon Ap­pétit and Gourmet mag­a­zines, and on the Food Net­work. In 2002, the James Beard Foun­da­tion placed the restau­rant on its “Amer­i­can Clas­sics” list as “an eatery that has carved out a spe­cial place on the Amer­i­can culi­nary land­scape.”

The restau­rant has been a fam­ily af­fair for 63 years. It was founded by Milun “Mike” Radice­vic and his wife Milunka, the fam­ily ma­tri­arch whose recipes and tech­niques have fu­eled Three Broth­ers’ suc­cess ever since.

“We’ve been blessed be­ing named one of Mil­wau­kee’s top restau­rants,” says Milunka Radice­vic, her grand­mother’s name­sake and — with her brother Branko Radice­vic Jr. — now third-gen­er­a­tion restau­rant owner. “One of my fa­ther and mother’s great­est mo­ments in life was when Ju­lia Child came here to dine with them in the 1990s.”

FOL­LOW­ING THE AMER­I­CAN DREAM

To know the restau­rant’s back­story is to un­der­stand why Three Broth­ers, lo­cated in an old Sch­litz tav­ern built in 1897, has sur­vived and thrived as a fam­ily-owned busi­ness.

Its suc­cess stands in tes­ta­ment to founder Mike Radice­vic and the abil­i­ties of an im­mi­grant al­lowed to pur­sue his own ver­sion of the Amer­i­can dream.

Mike owned two restau­rants, a soda works and a wine whole­sale busi­ness in Bel­grade in the Ser­bian area of the for­mer Yu­goslavia when World War II broke out. He joined the Yu­gosla­vian armed forces and pro-Ser­bian Chet­niks.

In 1941, Yu­gosla­vian forces req­ui­si­tioned one of Mike’s trucks for a mis­sion. Since his son, Branko Radice­vic Sr. — who also had joined the pro-Ser­bian move­ment — knew how to drive, he went along with the truck.

Dur­ing the course of the war, Branko Sr. was shot twice in the leg and en­dured tor­ture at the hands of the Nazis. In 1944, the pair was brought be­fore a Nazi tri­bunal to plead their cases. Branko Sr. was re­leased, but Mike was sent to a con­cen­tra­tion camp. He even­tu­ally es­caped and fled to France.

Spon­sored by a Lutheran fam­ily in Mil­wau­kee, Milunka and Mike im­mi­grated to Amer­ica.

“When my fam­ily first came to Amer­ica, we had lost ev­ery­thing,” Milunka says. “My grand­par­ents were in their 60s when they ar­rived, a les­son to us all that it’s never too late to start again.

“Three Broth­ers has been our fam­ily’s Ellis Is­land, and it’s the first place Ser­bian im­mi­grants new to the area stop,” she adds. “It’s like a sanc­tu­ary.”

Mike opened the restau­rant in 1955 and called it “Three Broth­ers” in hopes of en­tic­ing his sons to em­i­grate and join them.

Branko Sr. ar­rived in the U.S. in 1959. He was pur­su­ing a suc­cess­ful fi­nance ca­reer, work­ing for Bank of Amer­ica with his wife Pa­tri­cia — first in New York and then Los An­ge­les — when Mike took ill. In keep­ing with Ser­bian tra­di­tion, as el­dest son Branko Sr. came to Mil­wau­kee to care for his fa­ther and take over the restau­rant.

The fam­ily shared the small apart­ment above the restau­rant. It had no kitchen, so they pre­pared and ate all their meals in the 15-ta­ble restau­rant. Their con­stant pres­ence helped build a bond with the com­mu­nity and reg­u­lar cus­tomers who vis­ited Three Broth­ers.

“As kids we felt like our ex­tended fam­ily was com­ing to din­ner with us ev­ery night,” Milunka says. “Serbs love to share the food they make, open­ing their homes and, in the process, open­ing their hearts.

“Our busi­ness is more than a busi­ness,” she adds. “It’s a home where ev­ery­one can have a nice meal.”

Branko Sr. worked at the restau­rant daily un­til his death in 2015.

SER­BIAN DEL­I­CA­CIES

The ros­ter of recipes on which the restau­rant was first founded con­tin­ues to fuel the suc­cess of Three Broth­ers. The restau­rant pro­motes din­ing at a leisurely pace — es­pe­cially if you order its sig­na­ture dish, bu­rek.

Bu­rek con­sists of lay­ers of paper-thin filo dough filled with ground Black An­gus beef, cheese, or spinach and cheese. The dish takes 45 min­utes to an hour to pre­pare.

Sarma is pick­led cab­bage leaves filled with beef and rice, while the goulash con­sists of beef cubes sim­mered in a light pa­prika sauce. Both dishes are served with po­tato dumplings.

The menu also of­fers roast lamb, roast suck­ling pig, roast duck and roast freerange goose, each served with pick­led cab­bage and veg­eta­bles. Chicken pa­prikash, sim­mered in a sweet pa­prika sauce and served with po­tato dumplings, is an­other house spe­cialty.

Tra­di­tion and fam­ily de­fine the suc­cess of Three Broth­ers, Milunka Radice­vic says. The im­mi­grant fam­ily’s adopted home of Mil­wau­kee and its wel­com­ing at­ti­tude have made it all pos­si­ble.

“Mil­wau­kee has a di­verse cul­ture and a beau­ti­ful im­mi­grant story,” she says. “We were blessed by God and the com­mu­nity that em­braced us.”

PHOTOS: COUR­TESY THREE BROTH­ERS RESTAU­RANT

Branko Radice­vic Sr. and wife Pa­tri­cia, sec­ond gen­er­a­tion own­ers and Milunka Radice­vic’s par­ents.

On the menu at Three Broth­ers Restau­rant.

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