When a portal hides in plain sight

Rocky Rococo’s on Regent is a shrine to the indefinable.

Rocky Rococo’s on Regent is a shrine to the indefinable.

Header image: A surreal mosaic behind the bar of the Rocky Rococo location on Regent Street.

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In early July, a cozy combination bookstore, bar, and cafe called Leopold’s opened on Regent Street. A short time later, my partner and I would make the short walk from our house to pay the new hybrid spot a visit. We were both content to indulge in Leopold’s pointed romanticization of cultural refinements, ordering serviceable $10 cocktails and perusing the book selection, which organizes titles by the geographic regions they’re set in rather than by genre. Eventually, hunger and a bit of nostalgia set in, leading us to the business Leopold’s is connected to: an outpost of the semi-legendary Wisconsin pizza chain Rocky Rococo’s.

While Leopold’s was fun to explore, the Regent Street Rocky Rococo’s is an experience.

When you walk into this particular Rocky’s, you’ll find some old novelty quarter machines, ready to distribute temporary tattoos, bouncy balls, and other trinkets. But if you look up, you’ll see a fully-furnished bar hiding in the back corner. You’ll find your eyes drawn up to a large marble mural of a bare-breasted pizza maven and a curved, flowing figure sharing in the mural’s centerpiece: a pan pizza. Just off to the bar’s side is a dollar Wisconsin Pull Tabs machine. Near the novelty toy machines, a defunct jukebox idles, boasting handwritten classic rock selections, the ravages of time leaving the words slightly faded. Tucked into the outer hallway near the back-wall bar is a dartboard, a Taxi pinball machine, and a Galaga arcade machine displaying a high score of 20,000. Kitschy, Mad Magazine-esque cartoons dot the pizzeria’s perimeter, lovingly framed and perfectly attuned to the store’s unapologetic boldness.

Even in writing this, I’m still somewhat incredulous that this is a place that not only exists but is a Rocky Rococo’s.

To make sure my brain hadn’t tricked me, I’d take a return trip to the Leopold’s/Rocky’s with my partner, bringing our roommate (Tone Madison contributor Kailea Saplan) and Tone Madison publisher Scott Gordon along as witnesses. Somehow, the return trip was even more bewildering, as the place was open but literally no one was present. A few undoubtedly stale cookies were left in a partially-open display case (evoking a literal “hand in the cookie jar” trap scenario), the bar was deserted, virtually no sounds were coming from the shallow depths of the Rocky’s kitchen, and there was a slight but unnerving sense of disquiet to the proceedings that was only moderately alleviated by the company. I thought about that trip for a while afterwards. And a while after that. I knew I had to learn more.

Earlier this week, I stopped in to see if there was a reason, or underlying thread to connect all of the Regent Rocky’s eccentricities together. Fittingly, what I found only deepened the air of mystery. A kind employee walked me through what he knew about the store’s history, relaying that the bar—which only occasionally has a dedicated bartender for high-traffic sports games—had been there since the store opened. It’s the only Rocky Rococo’s with a license to serve liquor. Ultimately, most of this Rocky’s freewheeling, House On The Rock-adjacent atmosphere seemed to be attributed to the eclectic tastes of its ownership, which was split between co-founders Wayne Mosley and Roger Brown before shifting solely to Brown in the wake of Mosley’s unexpected passing.

I thought about digging deeper and my usually insatiable need for answers. I thought about sifting through more articles about Rocky’s history and the past lives of Mosley and Brown. About reaching out to Brown directly to see if he could lend any clarification to the several questions that were stacking up in my brain, most of them beginning with “Why?” And I realized I might not want to know. It’s rare we’re gifted with something this relentlessly unique hiding in plain sight. Coming to that conclusion seemed to align with the curiousness of the Regent Street Rocky Rococo’s: sometimes there’s nothing more enticing than possibility.

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