Creative restaurateurs Drive Dining Trends

Have no doubt: Madison is a foodie town. Which is why we see so many restaurants in town featuring farm-to-table offerings. Savvy restaurateurs capitalize on relationships with local growers to provide diners with an array of fruits, vegetables, organic meats and specialty products, and make dining out in Dane County a delicious adventure.

Nicholas Schiavo, former proprietor of the beloved downtown eatery Café Continental and current owner of Veranda Restaurant and Wine Bar, has been working in the restaurant and hospitality industry for almost three decades. More than just a talented restaurateur, Schiavo has been active in mentoring other chefs and developing a richer, more diverse food scene in the Madison area.

“In 1997 I acquired some real estate and began to help prospective restaurant owners every step of the way,” he recalls. “We developed their dreams into businesses, some of which are now my tenants. The relationships I have built are based on both trust and results.”

Schiavo has been instrumental in bringing some of the area’s finest culinary professionals onto Madison’s restaurant scene. Among them is Shinji Muramoto, who began with Restaurant Muramoto, and expanded with Sushi Muramoto and 43 North. Schiavo also mentored Jack Yip, owner of Red Sushi. Schiavo explains that their mutual success is based on “a unique combination of trust, taste, creativity, planning, resources and execution.”

Refining the concept

Expanding his own culinary interests, Schiavo then opened his current venue Veranda Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar. The restaurant serves classic Italian fare based on beloved family recipes that have been updated to include the finest local and regional ingredients. “Where else can you get spaghetti and meatballs made with Fox Valley Heritage Berkshire pork, grass-fed beef, Grande Romano cheese, fresh herbs and garlic, homemade marinara—from an eighty-year-old family recipe—shaved Sartori Sarvecchio cheese and fresh basil, over one hundred percent semolina pasta?” Schiavo marvels. “An amazing plate for only $14.95!”

In addition, Veranda offers mussels, oysters, and other fresh seafood delivered several times each week. “We also have an award-winning happy hour and wine list. When the patio is open, it boasts an outdoor bar and seating for more than one hundred fifteen people.”

Veranda’s drinks are equally special. The house sangria, a $5, sixteen-ounce happy hour favorite, is made from Montelpuciano, Moscato, blood orange liqueur, brandy, agave nectar, and fresh fruit. 

The key to Schiavo’s longevity in Madison’s restaurant scene? “I try to bring all of my skills to the industry to provide the best experience for customers, tenants, neighborhoods, staff and vendors. What or who will be next? I can’t wait to find out.”

Aimee Anderson knows a lot about running a restaurant, and she knows a lot about what diners like in Wisconsin. The general manager at Buck & Honey’s, a casual, family-dining restaurant in Sun Prairie, calls herself “a lifer”
in the food service industry. “I started at a very young age, working in my dad’s restaurant in the Dells,” she explains. From there, Anderson spent ten years as a corporate trainer and helped open more than a dozen restaurants throughout the country.  Then she opened her own restaurant in the Dells and subsequently sold it to join the staff of Buck & Honey’s, a friendly neighborhood spot that specializes in steaks, seafood, thin-crust pizzas, and that even offers a special “Life Balance” menu filled with health-conscious food choices.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in many different markets,” Anderson says. “I think the Dane County diners have remained pretty traditional. We like the supper club feel, we like our Friday fish fries, maybe with a brandy old fashioned.”

In other dining trends, Anderson says consumers are focusing more on value instead of price. “Like many restaurants, we’re migrating toward a menu built around local ingredients,” she says. “Typically these products cost a little more, but those entrees are gaining more and more interest.” Another area of growth for Buck & Honey’s menu is fresh, low-calorie, low-carb, and gluten-free entrees, which cater to Dane County diners’ increasing interest in healthy eating. On the beverage side of the menu, patrons are requesting craft cocktails, craft beer, and more diverse wine choices.

“Most importantly, our restaurant really feels like an old-school neighborhood bar,” Anderson says. “We’ve found these are all things our local consumers are looking for, and appreciate.”

Anderson is keeping busy with other projects, as well: a new small-plates restaurant and wine bar called Plate & Barrel in the same building as Buck & Honey’s, and development of their off-premise catering. “We’re a great fit for parties from twenty to two hundred fifty, and our reputation for great food is really taking hold,” she says. “Helping this restaurant grow is one of the most exciting parts of my job.”

Dairy continues to delight

Heather Porter Engwall, director of national product communications at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, is also watching trends in food and dining with interest, especially as they relate to the nation’s love of fromage.

After twelve years with the nonprofit organization that promotes the consumption of milk, cheese, and other dairy products made in America’s Dairyland, Engwall can state with authority that cheese consumption nationally is at an all-time high. In fact, according to USDA figures, over the past twenty-five years American cheese consumption has increased thirty-nine percent—from 24.1 pounds to 33.5 pounds per capita.  

“During the last decade we’ve witnessed an abundance of artisan and specialty Wisconsin cheeses, some of them with original names and formulations, and some variations of traditional types,” Engwall says. “New artisan cheeses continue to be introduced, and there is an emphasis on perfecting technique and producing excellence.”

Other trends in food and dining that Engwall notices lately include: an increase in upscale-casual restaurants; a return to comfort food, including retro, diner-style themes; expanding breakfast menus; experimentation with sweet and savory pies; a proliferation of charcuterie and cheese plates; and, of course, cheesy bar food that is paired with craft beer. 

While locals on the food scene are accustomed to looking to other regions of the country for culinary inspiration, Engwall says that Wisconsin dairy products are causing a stir of their own right now, particularly in New York. Two uniquely Wisconsin-centric shops have opened in New York City recently, adding to the presence already established by Little Wisco, a company headed by Madison native Gabriel Stulman and staffed by a number of Stulman’s University of Wisconsin-Madison classmates. Milwaukee native Dan Schuman’s 5oz. Factory debuted in Manhattan’s West Village and serves up Wisconsin cheese melts and real frozen custard made from Wisconsin milk and cream that are shipped in daily. Another enterprise, the Melt Shop, has three New York City locations dedicated to “the most delicious grilled cheese on the planet,” according to the shop’s website.

“It’s cool to be a Wisconsin cheese supporter these days, especially in New York,” says Engwall.

Local strengths

“We have been open for over forty-five years, making us one of Madison’s oldest and most popular original restaurants,” says Eric Suemnicht, the CEO and owner of The Nitty Gritty. Known to local residents for its award-winning hamburgers and festive birthday celebrations, the restaurant is an institution in downtown Madison, with additional locations in Middleton and Sun Prairie. 

Although The Nitty Gritty has a solid and unique niche in the community as a favorite place for celebrations of any size, Suemnicht watches larger food and dining trends carefully. He sees the current local-supplier movement as having the most influence in Madison and nationwide.

“There is an ongoing rivalry in the restaurant world between mass-produced chain companies and locally owned operators,” he says. “Chain restaurants flourish with volume pricing, global advertising and controlled labor costs, while local owners must focus on locally sourced suppliers, higher quality food, and closer customer relations. If you are locally owned and you aren’t identifying with the local customer, or using sought-after locally produced ingredients, you will be left behind.” On the beverage side of the business, Suemnich notes that customers continue to clamor for local beers and craft spirits.

Suemnicht appreciates the growing foodie culture in Madison, which he likens to the cities of San Francisco, New York and Austin, among others. He also notes that Dane County’s restaurant business is flourishing, with a large number of new restaurants opening annually, including second- or third-concept eateries from the same restaurateur. “We are all fighting for the same market share, but people in Madison love to go out to eat,” he says. “Our climate can limit the year-round, ‘farmers market’ type places, but we have an extremely healthy assortment of great beer, proteins, and cheeses.”

Jack Sosnowski, president and CEO of the Noble Chef Hospitality Group, loves downtown Madison. But sitting in the rustic dining room of his newest venture, Buck & Badger (on State Street), it’s easy to imagine you are hundreds of miles away, enjoying a vacation in northern Wisconsin. An oversized stone fireplace made from Wisconsin River rock is the centerpiece of the main seating area, where half-log siding surrounds handmade tables and chairs; the bar is made from reclaimed Wisconsin barn wood.

Sosnowski explained, “For our third venture, we wanted to create a cabin-themed, family-friendly place with something for everyone.” The bar, featuring twenty-four craft beers on tap and an extensive wine list and craft cocktail list, certainly appeals to the nearby college crowd. But the menu of comfort-food favorites and the warm atmosphere expands the restaurant’s appeal to families, even providing special kids’ meals. Many popular items are designed to be reminiscent of your grandmother’s cooking and include Norwegian meatballs, cheese curd fritters, flank steak meatloaf, a Door County-inspired fish boil, chicken pot pie, and even a giant turkey leg, served with wild rice and mushroom gravy.

A popular trend in dining that Sosnowski has embraced in all of his restaurant kitchens is investing in high-quality, locally sourced ingredients and then preparing food from scratch. “We don’t buy anything frozen, and we don’t use microwaves,” he explains. “It’s more expensive and more labor intensive, but there’s no question that it results in a better product. Here in Madison we’re lucky to have lots of local food purveyors, so we buy as much as we can from the farmer’s market. And of course craft beer is still huge. We work with a lot of small breweries as well.”

While the establishment’s sister restaurants both occupy the same block of State Street in Madison—the Capital Tap Haus, offering beer-inspired cooking and a gastro-pub vibe, and the Ivory Room Piano Bar, a music venue with an extensive drinks list—they provide distinctly different experiences. And in May they will be joined by an upscale steakhouse Sosnowski has christened Rare, featuring dry aged beef, a substantial wine list, and a private table located in the kitchen, so patrons can go behind the scenes with the chef.

For Sosnowski, the key to success in the restaurant business is investing in quality food and drink, and then providing a great experience for consumers. “If you have a great product,” he says, “you will stick around.”

New ventures

When Juan Murillo and his business partner, chef Joaquin Lopez opened Nonno’s Ristorante Italiano last December, some of their regular customers didn’t notice. That’s because the pair had been successfully running the restaurant Cancun in that space on Madison’s west side since 2009. The conversion from a Mexican cantina to an Italian bistro literally happened overnight, with the restaurant closed for only half a day to do minor renovations, painting, and update the décor.  

“Some of our regular diners were used to coming in and ordering things that weren’t actually on the menu,” Murillo recalls. “They would ask us for a traditional Mexican stew, and we had to tell them that it wasn’t the type of food we were preparing anymore.”

When Murillo and Lopez purchased the successful Mexican eatery almost five years ago, they had planned to convert it into an Italian restaurant because they had spent their entire professional lives working with that cuisine. Murillo, who came to Madison at age twelve, started working as a busboy when he was sixteen years old. Progressing through the ranks of food-service staff in some of the area’s most storied Italian restaurants, he became a server, then graduated to manager and learned the business from every angle. Similarly, Lopez worked in Italian kitchens as a prep cook, and then as a chef. Their varied experience, they say, was valuable training for this endeavor. “As an owner you have to do a little bit of everything,” Murillo explains.

Looking ahead, Murillo says he’s planning on offering more nightly specials at Nonno’s, such as half-price wine evenings, and a happy hour. “Right now we’re still trying to refine the menu, see what works and what doesn’t,” he explains. “But soon we’ll be trying out some new things. As fresh, seasonal produce becomes available, customers will see more of it featured on the menu.”

When Tony and Jerry Lumani opened Villa Dolce in Middleton, they were trying to build on their customers’ memories of traveling in Europe and eating in classic cafes, with tables outside in good weather and a distinctly slower pace.

Described as a boutique restaurant and a special date night spot for adults, the eatery is known for gourmet pizzas and a rich Bolognese sauce that starts with local,
grass fed-beef. Villa Dolce is also finding a following for the house-made Lumani’s Artisan Sausages, a delicately spiced mixture of lamb and beef. “My mom is a terrific cook,” Tony Lumani says, with a smile. “She gave me the nose and the taste buds to create great food.”

The brothers’ watchwords for the restaurant business are straightforward. “No cutting corners,” they say. “Focus
on the right ingredients, in the right combinations. Start with quality. Then
you know you’ll be successful.”

Dreaming of gelato

According to Tony Lumani, co-owner of Villa Dolce in Middleton, the Italians may have brought gelato to the United States, but it was the Albanians who perfected it.

As an Albanian immigrant from Macedonia, Lumani set out to create exceptional gelato made with simple, fresh, high-quality ingredients. “Having the right equipment to make and store the gelato was key,” he explains. “It was a big investment for a new restaurant. But it was important to do it right.”

Call gelato rich and delicious, or call it refreshing, but don’t call it ice cream. By FDA standards, ice cream must have at least ten percent butterfat content. “Gelato is made with whole milk, not cream,” Lumani says. “It has less air in it, so it’s more dense. That gives it a more concentrated flavor. Gelato is also kept at a slightly warmer temperature so it’s smoother and creamier.”

Villa Dolce offers a repertoire of sixty to seventy flavors of gelato, a dozen of which are made in-house each day. During the summer the chef focuses on refreshing fruit flavors, using fresh, local ingredients whenever possible. In the cooler months, the cafe features richer, more comforting flavors such as hazelnut, cappuccino and chocolate. For regular customers, they even keep custom flavors on hand.

“My kids ask me why I don’t serve milkshakes here,” says Lumani. “I tell them I serve an adult version: gelatinis.” The establishment does indeed offer a variety of the drinks, which is a delicious blend of house-made gelato and vodka.

Is it the best frozen treat in Madison? Lumani demures. “Customers need to answer that for themselves,” he says with a smile.

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