By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Sep 10, 2021 at 11:01 AM

There’s a bit of culinary magic coming to the forthcoming 3rd Street Market Hall, and it will arrive in the form of Strega, a brand new concept that promises fresh, housemade pasta dishes, plus snacks and sweet treats.

Behind the concept are Katie Gabert, former chef de cuisine at Goodkind and Sam Sandrin, former manager at Greige Patisserie, two industry veterans whose passion is fueled by not just the creation of great food, but by a desire to create a new business that models ethics, care and respect for both staff and customers.

The nascent business will debut as one of the four hawker stall tenants which will share a commissary kitchen with Dairyland Old Fashioned Hamburgers & Frozen Custard and Mid-Way Bakery and complement an ever-growing slate of tenants that includes Brew City Apparel, Anytime Arepas and Supernova Coffee & Doughnuts. The food hall is currently expected to open sometime in October.

Pasta magic

It was last October when Chefs Kurt and Katie Fogle (co-owners of Dairyland Old Fashioned Hamburgers and Mid Way Bakery) approached Gabert to ask if she’d be interested in bringing a pasta concept to the 3rd Street Market Hall.

Gabert says she was drawn to the idea, in large part because it aligned with her values. “It’s collaborative,” she says. “It’s built on the notion of community and working together. It’s about making a positive change.”

Motivated by the idea, she got to work. In fact, she debuted the Strega concept last February during a pandemic-style Valentine’s Day pop-up at Goodkind featuring an ambitious pasta-filled menu showcasing items like saffron scented minestrone with sundried tomato cavatelli; wild boar stuffed maple ravioli; and sea scallops with rose corzetti, wood ear mushrooms, romanesco and pistachio aillade.

Strega corzetti
Strega corzetti (Photo: Strega)

It was a menu that reflected Gabert’s accumulated kitchen wisdom, her passion for unique flavor profiles and the spirit behind Strega.

“Strega’s name was inspired by my Polish grandmother, my Italian cooking practice, and my late aunt, a spiritually active chef who passed on her emotional and magical connection with food and people to me,” says Gabert. “I was raised on Polish, Italian, and Yucatecan food. Going into that upbringing is another story… however it facilitated my interest to pursue cooking indefinitely. More specifically, it encouraged me to focus on handmade Italian style pastas carefully married with non-traditional flavor profiles.”

But Gabert says the name wasn’t chosen lightly.

“I found myself looking inward just as much as considering the actual service I wanted to provide,” she says. “I don’t think witchcraft and spirituality is something that should be exploited. That being said, Strega was named intentionally to celebrate the great spectrum of alchemy, human connection, and the responsibility that comes with the ability to create truly wonderful food.

“I like the idea that Strega is a separate entity from myself. I am not the Italian witch, but instead, Strega is the vehicle and the showcase. The name Strega can only truly come to fruition when our staff feels inspired and our community feels comforted. That’s where I believe magic is made.”

Gabert with pasta
Gabert pictured with a sheet of fresh pasta (Photo: Strega)

Better with two

The Strega pop-up garnered interest, and it set the Strega concept in motion. But Gabert says the full scope of the business needed time to evolve.

“Last spring, I decided to take a road trip,” she says, noting that the trip wasn’t meant to be a vacation. “I went with the goal of clearing my head, reconnecting with nature and redefining my creative process. When I came home, I had a new clarity and so many ideas… Along with that, I realized that I love working on teams and collaborating. I also realized that, although I could start the business on my own, it would be really great to have a partner.”

She says the realization prompted her to approach Sandrin, who she’d met while working at Eldr+Rime during the pandemic, to see if she was interested in partnering on the concept. 

“She brought so much to the table that complemented what I was doing,” says Gabert, “Including front of house and management experience... and a talent for making desserts.”

Sandrin had cut her teeth years ago at Innovation, the Wauwatosa restaurant located in the Crowne Plaza Hotel. She began as a host and dishwasher, but worked her way up to a managerial role, where she says she found her love for hospitality and giving people a “home away from home.” Over the years, Sandrin moved on, working for a time with the Lowlands Restaurant Group before taking on the role of manager at Greige Patisserie where she not only put her front of house skills to work, but gleaned an education in pastry. 

Cut pasta
Cut pasta (Photo: Strega)

On the menu

Together, the two will co-create the Strega menu, which will focus on pasta and snacks, along with sweet treats to savor afterwards. Pricing for all items is expected to range from $6 to $16.

Gabert says the inaugural menu will feature around 10 pasta dishes featuring extruded pastas like spaghetti and pappardelle. The pasta will be egg-free (made simply with semolina flour and water) and will feature vegetarian sauces and toppings to which guests can add proteins (like duck sausage, shrimp or minced pork) if they choose.  

As the concept gains traction, she says, she’ll introduce additional pastas, including filled varieties like ravioli and some egg-based offerings.

Filled pasta
Photo: Strega

Pastas will be available in two portion sizes: cones, which allow sampling of more than one and bowls, which eat more like a meal. And all items will come in compostable containers, an element that Gabert says is central to Strega’s mission.

Local products will also be showcased. Gabert says the menu will change seasonally (if not more often) and will make full use of produce, meats and cheeses from local markets and farms. 

Additional items will include sides like cold pasta salads and snacks, including a savory snack featuring deep fried pasta tossed with housemade seasonings and a sweet and savory ambrosia salad. 

On the dessert side, Sandrin will create a variety of small desserts, from creatively flavored entremets to sweet and savory biscotti. 

“I want to create really delicious items that also help to push peoples’ palates forward,” she says, noting that she’ll also be creating a variety of take-home items including granola and jams.

Fresh pasta being made
Photo: Strega

Leading by example

But pastas and sweet treats won’t be the only things on the menu at Strega. Sandrin and Gabert are both passionate about creating a working environment that challenges the current status quo.

Sandrin says the pandemic was an eye-opener for her. During months of unemployment, she says took some time to focus on making and selling art. When she did return to the workforce, she says the stresses involved with operating in a corporate environment during a global pandemic quickly took their toll.

“The experience fundamentally changed me,” Sandrin says. “And it made me realize what I want moving forward. If you’re a customer, I want to know you, connect with you and take care of you. As an employer, I want to create a place for people that is safe, welcoming and respectful for all.”

Gabert says the two bonded in their vision for Strega as well as their hope to play a part in changing the way restaurants treat their employees.

“Collectively, we’ve had a lot of negative experiences in the industry,” says Gabert, noting that she has endured a variety of maltreatment, from harsh working conditions and misogyny to sexual harassment and abuse. 

“We knew we didn’t want to continue to propagate those negative experiences,” she says, “So, in creating Strega, we’ve had many conversations about what that means for us, from the food that we serve to the code of conduct that we have for ourselves and future employees.”

Sandrin nods. “There is a responsibility that comes with opening a business,” she says. “We want to use this as an opportunity to break things open and lead by example.”

For more on Strega, including upcoming pop-up events where you can be some of the first to try their dishes, follow @stregamke on Instagram.  

Stay tuned for a FoodCrush podcast with Gabert and Sandrin during OnMilwaukee Dining Month this October.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.