Rose Totino

Get to Know Rose Totino, Patron Genius of Frozen Pizza

We don’t like to presume, but the chances are fairly good that you have a pizza in your freezer right now. After all, roughly two-thirds of all American households have at least one frozen pizza lurking in their freezer, according to industry reports, and sales of frozen and refrigerated pizza top more than $5.5 billion each year, shifting upwards of 350 million pies annually.

And you’ve really got one woman to thank for that: Rose Totino, the apple-cheeked second-generation Italian nonna with a serious head for business.

Rose Totino née Cruciani was born in 1915, the fourth of seven children; her parents had come to America from Italy just five years before, in 1910. She grew up in the Northeast neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, a lively European immigrant community, in a house with chickens and a sustenance garden in the backyard. Like other children in poor families, she started working at an early age, before leaving school at 16 to take a job cleaning houses for $2.50 a week. But even as a teenager, Rose had spirit: According to one story, retold in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, she took on Minneapolis Mayor George Leach to get her father’s city job back after he’d been fired for not being a “full-fledged citizen”.

Her life changed when she attended a dance party at the Viking Dance Hall in Minneapolis. It was there that Rose met Jim, a baker with, like Rose, no more than a 10th grade education. When they started courting, she was earning 37 cents an hour at a local candy factory, but Rose left work when the couple married in 1934. Two daughters soon followed and the Totinos settled into domestic life. Rose became a den mother to a Cub Scout troop, often treating the boys to little homemade pies topped with cinnamon and sugar, and volunteered at her daughters’ school, joining the PTA. Through the 1940s, she frequently attended PTA meetings armed with what soon became her famous pizzas, delicious pies topped with sausage, cheese and fresh sauces, the kinds of pies that she’d grown up eating herself.

Sugary pies for small boys and hearty Italian fare for PTA meetings soon turned into catering events for friends and acquaintances; as word got out about the Totinos’ fantastic cooking, more and more people told them that they really ought to open a restaurant. So they did. By the 1950s, when the Totinos began exploring the idea of starting their own restaurant, pizza had already been in American for at least 50 years, carried over with the waves of Italian immigrants. But it had also stayed largely in Italian communities and in cities such as New York and Chicago; for most of America, pizza was still new, exotic fare that appealed to an increasing interest in “ethnic” cuisine. And in Minnesota, people had barely even heard of pizza – the story goes that when the Totinos applied to the bank for a loan (using their car as collateral), the members of the loan committee had no idea what pizza was, let alone why you’d want to open a restaurant to serve it. So Rose baked them a pie – and got the $1,500 loan they needed to open Totino’s Italian Kitchen.

Rose and Jim opened the restaurant, then a take-out only establishment in 1951 at Central and East Hennepin Avenue, in the Northeast community they’d grown up in. Rose had figured that selling 25 pizzas per week would just about cover the rent, but within three weeks, the Totinos were making enough for Jim to quit his regular job as a baker and go into the pizza business full time. Jim made the crusts, Rose handled the toppings and sauce, and everything went into their custom brick ovens.

The Totinos sometimes worked as long as 18 hours a day, so exhausted at the end of the night that they barely had the energy to stuff their earned bills into…