Branko Radicevic—Restaurateur knows hardship, brings smiles

April 1, 2010

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

©2010 Adam Ryan Morris Photography

In his kitchen, Branko Radicevic cleans, cuts, and portions meat, and creates the roast lamb and goulash dishes from end to end. ~photo Adam Ryan Morris

Branko Radicevic, Sr. shuffles among the 15 tables at his Three Brothers restaurant in Bay View wearing his trademark black beret. The beret sits above eyes that look like they have witnessed a large slice of drama. Indeed, those eyes have seen a lot.

In accented English, Radicevic (Rad-ICH-i-vich) recounts a life story befitting a Hollywood screenplay. Born in 1923 in Belgrade (in what was then the Serbian area of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), he had five siblings.

In April 1941, the Yugoslavian military requisitioned one of his father’s trucks. Because Branko knew how to drive, he and an older companion took the vehicle to be placed into service. But the commanding officer told them the truck quota had already been filled. They were redirected to central command.

While driving at night with truck headlights mostly covered as part of a brown-out, the pair saw shadowy figures on the road. Branko warned his companion to be ready to shoot at what might be invading soldiers, but then they realized it was a group of Jews trying to escape from Hungary. Out of goodwill fitting his genial personality, Branko allowed them to board the truck-so many, he said, that some had to lie on fenders-and transported them as far as possible.

Later on that long night, Branko recalled swerving into a ditch to avoid a German Air Force bomb. That’s when he truly realized the war had begun. In the same way that Branko had aided strangers, a farmer helped get their truck out of the ditch.

©2010 Adam Ryan Morris Photography

Branko Radicevic inside Three Brothers Serbian restaurant, in the family since 1955. ~photo Adam Ryan Morris

Enduring Torture & War

Despite his young age, Branko’s patriotism compelled him to join the pro-Serbian movement. In the course of World War II he was shot twice in the leg and eventually landed in a Nazi jail in Belgrade along with his father, Milun, who held positions in both the official Yugoslavian force and the pro-Serbian Chetniks. Branko recounted electric-shock torture during interrogation. He said he tried to conceal the pain.

The country became an independent communist state in 1944, the same year Branko and Milun appeared before a Nazi military tribunal. Branko explained his beliefs and was released, which he said was partially due to his relatively young age. Milun, however, was sent to a concentration camp from which he eventually escaped into France and gained freedom.

Milun, who had owned two restaurants, a soda works, and a wine wholesale business in Yugoslavia, didn’t want to return there. A friend in Milwaukee sponsored his entry to the United States, and Milun opened a Serbian restaurant just south of Second and National. His father called it “Big Mike’s” because his first name was Americanized as Mike.

Milun closed that restaurant and bought the 2414 S. St. Clair St. location in 1955, making it a Serbian restaurant in a mostly Italian neighborhood. The new establishment bore the name Three Brothers because Milun longed for the arrival of his three sons, who then were still in Yugoslavia. In 1958, two of them made it to Milwaukee. In January 1959, Branko, the oldest, arrived.

Immigrant Experience

The rest of Branko’s dramatic life unfolded stateside, and he only returned to Yugoslavia once. “I really separated myself completely. I have never been homesick,” he said.

Radicevic already spoke several languages but he struggled to learn college-level English. He eventually succeeded and obtained a degree from UW-Milwaukee in international relations, international finance, and international economics. He went to work for Bank of America in New York. While there, he met his future wife Patricia and they married in 1969. Later, a Bank of America promotion caused a cross-country move to Los Angeles.

Despite having lived on both American coasts, Milwaukee still felt like his home. Radicevic knew he would fulfill his culturally-established role as eldest son to care for his parents. He and his family relocated to Milwaukee in 1972, where they lived above the restaurant. Branko took over Three Brothers when his father died in 1976. he tried to conceal the pain.

Branko and Patricia’s son and three daughters attended Trowbridge, Fritsche, and Riverside schools and spoke Serbian with family members. His brother Alexander and his wife Radmila opened Old Town Serbian Gourmet House across from St. Josaphat’s Basilica, which they recently put in the hands of their daughter Natalia. The “third” brother, Milutin, is deceased.

Three Brothers Restaurant

Branko and Patricia still live in the solid building constructed in 1897. It was originally a Schlitz tavern that served beer in buckets to nearby steel workers.

The current atmosphere is calm and befitting Radicevic’s cordial personality. “We have a very nice clientele and that is an important aspect of the business. In 54 years, we never had a problem. The police were never here, other than a policeman walking the beat who came in to warm up,” Radicevic said.

The couple has worked hard in the kitchen for decades and maintains many of the family’s recipes. Some menu items bear familial references like Grandma’s Torte, while others have exotic names: burek, chevapchichi, and raznjici. Those translate to filo dough filled with beef, cheese, or spinach and cheese; Serbian beef sausage served with raw onions and tomato; and pork shish-kabob also with raw onions and tomato.

The restaurant serves only dinner, but preparations begin in the morning. Radicevic works in the kitchen daily, where he cleans, cuts, and portions meat, and creates the roast lamb and goulash dishes from end to end. He spends some nights charming customers with a friendliness that lies beneath a veneer of formality.

Tables of locals blend with groups of foodies from across the metro area and well beyond. “People come from all over to eat here and it’s a very nice mixture of people,” Radicevic said.

©2010 Adam Ryan Morris Photography

Branko Radicevic inside Three Brothers Serbian restaurant, in the family since 1955. ~photo Adam Ryan Morris

Patrons are greeted by employees, family members, or Radicevic himself with return visitors getting especially warm greetings and smiles. Son Branko, Jr. and daughter Milunka work in the restaurant and are learning the business. Daughter Branislava is an accountant in Milwaukee and Jelena is a public librarian in Chicago.

The kitchen’s Serbian cuisine has been featured in Bon Appétit magazine, now-defunct Gourmet magazine, and on the Food Network. In 2002, the James Beard Foundation placed it on the list of American Classics, a prestigious list of “eateries that have carved out a special place on the American culinary landscape.”

Looking Forward, Not Back

Despite this recognition and his dramatic past, Radicevic is at home in Bay View. He and his family have witnessed the building of the Hoan Bridge, the removal of the Old Smoky locomotive, construction of Bay View Terrace condominium tower, an influx of diversity, and significant turnover in homeownership, but he feels the neighborhood remains essentially unchanged. “This neighborhood is a good neighborhood. We have some younger generations coming here but they are all nice people,” he said.

He reels off his neighbors’ names and said he knows everybody on the street except one new couple. “People here care for one another,” he said. “I know my neighbors and they know me. We say ‘Good morning,’ or ‘Good day.'”

Radicevic continues to work regularly and drive his car, and doesn’t consider himself “old.” “I’m a senior but I’m young at heart. I don’t think I’m an old person,” he said.

The man who endured torture doesn’t seem to hold a grudge against humanity. “I’m not thinking about tomorrow but what will come after tomorrow.”

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4 Comments on "Branko Radicevic—Restaurateur knows hardship, brings smiles"

  1. Adam Ryan Morris Photo Blog · Published: A restaurateur from ye Old Country on Thu, 15th Apr 2010 7:38 am 

    […] Meet Branko Radicevic. I did a couple of months back on a portrait shoot for the Bay View Compass‘ April edition. Branko owns and operates the Bay View mainstay Three Brothers, which serves Serbian food. During our brief encounter, Branko shared tales of evading — and later being tortured by — Nazis before he came to America in 1959. And he graciously posed for a few photos. He’s an interesting guy, and you can read more about him here. […]

  2. Claire on Wed, 21st Apr 2010 9:51 am 

    This article inclines me want to try the restaurant (tonight) and hopefully meet this great and interesting man! People are looking for authentic food, made by real people who live in the local community – and this sounds like a classic. Please tell us more about this interesting person and his story….!

  3. Mary on Mon, 26th Apr 2010 1:49 pm 

    My parents started taking me to the 3 Brothers 50 years ago at least. Though I’ve been away from Milwaukee for nearly 40 years, this is the only restaurant I want to go to when I visit.

  4. Reza Abrishamchian on Wed, 26th May 2010 1:22 pm 

    Dear Mr. Radicevic

    I attended UW- Madison during 1976-1981 where I met your daughter Jelena. I was also a very good friend of your niece Marina. I would appreciate it if you put me in touch with either one of them. I would very much like to say hello to them and just talk about the good old days.

    M. reza Abrishamchian

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