Globally Inspired, Locally Acquired

Madison-area food and beverage virtuosos are blending global trends with homegrown ingredients to delicious effect.

They say food-world trends begin in restaurants,” muses Heather Porter Engwall, director of national product communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. “And we have so many wonderful restaurants and chefs—and grocery stores and shops—that pay attention to what’s going on globally, nationally and throughout the community.”

They bring a cornucopia of flavors and tastes to local restaurant tables, food carts and store shelves, increasingly featuring fresh,
seasonal produce, meats, dairy products and other foods sourced from local growers and producers. And let’s not forget the wines, beers and myriad beverages from down the street and around the world they offer us.

Today’s foodies and beverage connoisseurs are looking for bold, innovative flavors while still craving comfort food from time to time. Many are seeking novel items they’ve seen on the ubiquitous Food Network. “Everybody watches it, and food has become an interest, a passion, for peoHeather Porter Engwallple,” declares Matt Van Nest, owner of Brasserie V and president of Madison Originals.

“People are very educated about food when they come into our restaurant,” he adds. “Most like cooking, but may not have as much time as they’d like, and more young people are into food and cooking.”

Jeff Hiveley, co-owner and general manager of Bella Vita Italian Grille & Pizzeria, appreciates patrons’ knowledge and input. “Madison people are very knowledgeable about authentic foods. We’ve had quite a few people of Italian heritage, for instance, come in and give comments and we’ve changed some things as a result. It’s a great city to have a restaurant.”

Madison has always had a population interested in a sense of place, in the farm-to-table concept, and that’s increasing, notes Porter Engwall. “The Dane County Farmers’ Market continues to grow, and more markets are popping up in other communities. People are staying in their own backyards for sourcing products.”

They’re also interested in agritourism—visiting area farms, cheesemakers and other producers—and knowing who makes their food and where it comes from. “People want to learn about their food, what they’re putting in their bodies,” Porter Engwall says. “They want to have a smaller carbon footprint and are seeking sustainable products that are actual food: nutritional, without processed ingredients.

“It’s a very exciting time to be involved in the food industry,” she continues. “We’re lucky in Wisconsin to have so many amazing
products available. Interest in food is growing; I’ve seen a lot of different food clubs and things like cheese seminars crop up in our area.”

Local Dairy Products

She’s observed several widespread trends playing out in greater Madison. Restaurants are featuring more local dairy products, sometimes with an international flair, such as European-style butters. Retail shoppers are still focused on price, but also on quality and value.

“We have a ‘Wisconsin Pride’ logo many cheesemakers use to indicate heightened quality, and to let people know where their cheese comes from,” she says. “Our research shows people from all over seek products from Wisconsin, and when people think of Wisconsin—even from a global standpoint—the first thing they think of is cheese.”

Wisconsin is the No. 1 cheese-producing state, Porter Engwall reports. “We produce 26 percent of the nation’s cheese and 48 percent of its specialty cheese.”

Artisanal cheesemaking is growing by leaps and bounds. “I could rattle off 10 new cheeses in just the last few months,” says Porter Engwall. “Some are vintage, like DCI Cheese Company’s Liederkranz, which is similar to limburger. The recipe was shelved 25 years ago and the company worked with a master cheesemaker to bring it back to life.”

There are also new flavors, developed in response to consumers’ demand for bolder tastes. “Sartori Foods’ Espresso Bella Vitano is one example,” Porter Engwall says. “Holland’s Family Farm’s Foenegreek Gouda is another.”

French- and Belgian-Inspired

Brasserie V has an international flair as well. “We have a French- and Belgian-inspired menu, from more casual salads and sandwichesMatt Van Nest to sophisticated items such as foie gras steak,” says Van Nest. “On the beverage side we specialize in Belgian beer and French wine.”

Signature menu items include mussels, frites and duck—staples of French and Belgian cuisine. “We have a good variety, and most things are under $20,” Van Nest says. “We try to stay true to the French/Belgian influence, what the people eat daily, although sometimes we have our own take on the inspiration.”

Aside from the signature items, Brasserie V’s menu changes every three months, based on seasonal availability. “We talk to farmers and other purveyors about what will be available in the coming quarter, and then my wife, Andrea, and I meet with our head chef. We look through cookbooks and talk about things we’ve liked at other restaurants,” Van Nest explains. “A group of us went to Belgium last fall and we incorporated ideas from the trip. The changing menu keeps our customers and our kitchen staff excited and engaged.”

He’s a firm believer in keeping a small menu. “It’s important. If everybody in the kitchen knows how to make all the menu items really well, it helps you ensure the food is high quality and consistent. We take a lot of pride in that.”

Comfort food is popular with diners, and Van Nest buys locally when possible. “We sell a lot of burgers, and our beef comes from farm-raised cattle originating 30 minutes from the restaurant.”

He and other Madison Originals members—a group of independent restaurateurs dedicated to promoting independent restaurants—
discuss buying local at their meetings. “People in Madison have been focused on buying local for a long time, and now it’s
happening more and more around the country, even in small towns,” he says. “Food isn’t traveling as far and people are supporting local workers, farmers, cheesemakers ….”

In a still-challenging economy, he’s seen consumers continue to eat out, but spend less. In response, many restaurants—including his—offer small plates. “Even more upscale restaurants in bigger cities are doing so. Whether it’s sandwiches or tapas, the trend is to have $8 to $12 items. If people want to spend $50, they can, but they have the option to spend less.”

Rustic, Homemade Italian

As its name suggests, Bella Vita Italian Grille & Pizzeria specializes in rustic, homemade Italian food. The story of its origin explains its comfortable family feel.

“Our group of seven owners grew up together in the same town and spent a lot of time together, and then all went off to different colleges,” says Hiveley. “But we always found ways to get together with our families and enjoy good food and drink.”

The friends shared many beliefs about restaurants, and decided to open their own. “We felt a college town was right for our concept, and three of us already lived in Madison so we decided to locate here,” Hiveley says.

Bella Vita Italian Grille & Pizzeria opened quietly in November, 2010, across from West Towne Mall. “We didn’t have a grand opening; we wanted some time to focus on our menu and service,” says Hiveley. “We’ve changed our menu six times since we opened. Everything is homemade—our sauce, crust—and we use top-quality ingredients. We stress quality and service.”

He’s added items for the health-conscious and those with special needs. “We’re adding some gluten-free things on our feature menu and we recently held two vegan dinners. Our menu has to be versatile to accommodate as many people as possible.”

Bella Vita is family-friendly. “We have a children’s menu,” says Hiveley. “Sometimes we bring out dough for them to play with at the table and we’ve had kids help roll out their own pizza crust.”

Mature consumers and corporate groups also patronize the restaurant. “Many people comment that our prices are very reasonable and that we serve nice, hearty portions,” Hiveley says. “A lot of people take food to go for the next day—mature people like that.”

Diners are very cost-conscious today and value is important to them, he finds. “Eating out isn’t a necessity, and when people come out, they want to receive a fair value.”

The restaurant’s owners are working to make community connections and get involved. Having played sports growing up, they support youth sports activities. Many of them worked in restaurants as young people, so they want to give today’s young people the same opportunity.

“We’re working with Memorial High School to hire students,” says co-owner Roy Vivian. “One of our first hires was a junior at Memorial. He wants to be a chef, but he had no experience, so he started as a dishwasher. He’s already a part-time prep cook, and we’re very proud of that—we want to support others’ dreams like people helped us.”

The owners also support several charities, and are developing business relationships that will increase their ability to buy locally. “We want to be ingrained in the community; that’s very important to us,” says Vivian.

Listening to their guests is important as well. “We love to get suggestions from them,” Hiveley says. “They try places in different cities and they see the trends. We plan to change our menu three or four times a year; you have to change as trends and people’s tastes change.”

He wants Bella Vita to be known as a family restaurant you can take just about anyone to and have a good time with good food and good service—not too fancy, not too casual, but just right. “We’re still feeling our way through it and creating our niche,” says Hiveley. “We really appreciate the people who have come in so far.”

Going Forward

To cover their overhead, Vivian is seeing restaurants offer specials to get diners in the door during the week and at lunch time. “On Mondays we have bottles of wine at half price and on Tuesdays we offer local beers and liquors for half price. We’re planning a family-style dinner and we’ll do a shrimp night. You have to be creative to attract customers, and I see more restaurants doing that.”

He believes many new restaurants that open will be geared toward families. “They’re the ones coming in on week nights.”

Porter Engwall sees a continuation of the trend to seek natural, real food at restaurants and retail stores. “I’m seeing more and more local, real-food products offered at stores, including chain stores and smaller ones,” she says. “People want products that are good for themselves and their families.”

Van Nest foresees the buy local trend getting even stronger. “A lot more small farmers are getting back into producing products for
consumers, whether it’s cattle, chickens or produce. I think community supported agriculture (CSA) groups, where people can get those products at home, will continue to grow, too.”

On the restaurant front he sees Madison eateries keeping up with trends but staying true to themselves. “That’s the key,” he says. “Cook good-quality food for reasonable prices and you won’t go wrong in the restaurant industry, no matter what the economy is like. The real trendy-trends come and go.”

— Judy Dahl

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