Born in Elgin, Ill., Stefano Viglietti grew up in Sheboygan. He was just 24 when he and his wife, Whitney, opened Trattoria Stefano in 1994 in Sheboygan.
At the time, Sheboygan was known more for bratwurst than Bolognese. But Viglietti, who taught himself how to cook during his family's annual trips to Italy, challenged tradition by introducing classic Italian dishes like osso buco with saffron risotto and veal rib chops stuffed with prosciutto and black truffle cheese.
In 2000, he opened Il Ritrovo across the street; it's now one of just nine pizzerias in the U.S. that have been certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana in Naples, Italy. Today, Viglietti also owns The Duke of Devon, an English gastropub he runs with his sister, and Field to Fork, a combination café and grocery store featuring local and organic meats and produce.
Despite humble beginnings, Viglietti has done well for himself and has developed a national reputation for fresh authentic Italian fare. Viglietti’s restaurants have been featured in Saveur, Food & Wine Magazine, Bon Appetit, and New York Times Magazine online. Viglietti himself has become a headliner for the Kohler Food & Wine Experience, often outselling even more renowned Food Network chefs.
I connected with Viglietti by phone this past week, and we discussed his background, cooking philosophy, and what he’s planning to showcase this year during the Kohler Food & Wine Experience, Oct. 17-20.
OnMilwaukee.com: What prompted your interest in food & cooking?
Stefano Viglietti: The real beginning of it would be that, as a child, my dad owned an orthodontic business. He had a partnership in Florence, Italy. They also had a son my age. So, my love for Italy happened through my travels.
I was probably 8 or 9 when my family first started taking trips to Italy, and went on my own by the time I was maybe 13. My parents were horrible (laughs), they’d just put me on a plane and there I went. I had a lot of fun. It was a way to while away the summer. And all the while I was learning.
My mother is German and my father is Italian. He was always craving Italian meals – bowls of pasta, braised meats. Sunday meals were always a big deal. The whole family was together. And then there were my travels to Italy. I would eat learn, try to see things. Just absorb everything.
OMC: So, cooking was a big part of your life. Did you imagine that you’d start a restaurant someday?
SV: I didn’t know I’d be a chef until after college. I thought I might be a teacher. Then I got into real estate, but I found myself always wanting to get home to cook.
My wife and I talked about starting a restaurant. So, we looked for places, went out west. Finally, we decided we really wanted to move back to Sheboygan.
I really didn’t know anything. I had zero restaurant experience, which was pretty stupid. In retrospect, I definitely wouldn’t do it that way again.
Right before we opened, I did spend some time at Trattoria Roma in Chicago. He would let me come in Monday through Wednesdays and see what was going on in the kitchen. I learned a ton. But, then, after that we jumped off the deep end.
First off, I hired a chef. I knew what things had to taste like, but I didn’t necessarily know how to get there. So, I hired someone. I needed someone who knew the timing. It turns out he was having some issues. He was only on for a year, and then I had to take over. So, I had to learn really quickly.
OMC: I’d imagine that really motivated you to learn more?
SV: Yes, it’s how I started our trips to Italy. I really needed to watch and learn. We’ve now taken 40-plus staff over the years to Italy.
My big regret is that I never got to go for a year or two or three before we started the restaurant. But, now our summer vacations are comprised of part me cooking and learning.
For me it’s one thing to go to Italian restaurants here, but for me it’s more special to go somewhere over in Italy where people are creating new Italian dishes.
I think it’s possible for a cuisine to be diluted from an authenticity standpoint if you just base your dishes on things here. So, that’s why it’s so important to me to go there.
I’m always looking for new information … reading cookbooks and magazines … I’m always learning. And it’s great to hear people say, when they eat a dish – "not only is this good but it’s getting better."
OMC: You have a 20-year anniversary coming up. What do you have planned to celebrate?
SV: We’ll have a re-grand opening. To be honest, we’re not great at planning ahead. But, I can tell you we’ll have some really spectacular things planned.
OMC: What about sourcing locally? That’s really important to you. Why do you do it? And how did you start?
SV: It took me a few years. I came to it through my palate, not through the movement.
Before I opened, I didn’t know much about sourcing. So, when I started, I kept things simple and ordered from a conventional purveyor. And sometimes it was awful. I’d order pork and it would taste awful. It was dry and it tasted bad … tasted of urine and methane. Just not good.
Then I started going to the Madison farmers market and talking with people like the folks from Willow Creek Farm. And I was asking them why the pork tasted so bad, and they started explaining … the animals tasted like their conditions. I was eating sludge.
As soon as I started buying 100 percent grass-fed beef, pigs that were raised sustainably and slaughtered right on the farm, I could taste the difference.
OMC: And that’s consistent with the philosophy in Italy, as well. Isn’t it?
SV: Yes, Italy also taught me that. These people are obsessed with the local ingredient. So, of all the things I’ve learned, it’s perhaps more important that I learned about ingredients and sourcing them. I’m always re-sourcing, looking for new things.
OMC: You’re also a proponent of using the whole animal. How does that work in your restaurants? Where do you have room for butchering?
SV: Oh, we don’t butcher here. We pick them up, bring them back and have them butchered at a local farm.
OMC: But, you get the whole animal back. And you’re practicing nose to tail cooking?
SV: Yes, of course. We cook the tongues and the hearts and everything in between.
I like to run in the morning and I’m running through the farmers market in Florence. And they’re eating a sandwich. I asked them what they were eating. It was a brisket and a tongue with a salsa picante and a salsa verde. I had one and I though "Oh my God it’s awesome." I dragged everyone to the market and made them try it.
But, then I wondered, will people in Sheboygan eat tongue sandwich? What I forgot is that people here are German. They grew up eating this stuff. My mother's family were butchers. They lived here. So, it’s not weird at all to them.
And it’s true; it sold like crazy.
I also make soffrito with the heart ... It’s things like that – learning how people use things. They don’t waste anything.
We make stocks with bones.
Cooking like this … back to basics … it really gives you the foundation for great food.
OMC: You’ll be doing a cooking demo at the Kohler Food & Wine Experience on Friday, Oct. 18. What are some of the things you hope to share with the audience?
SV: We’ve done the main stage for like nine years now. Sometimes we even outsell some of the big name people.
OMC: Why do you think that is?
SV: What we’ve always done is show you things that you can actually make. It’s not about your hair or showing off. I don’t know when food became a fashion show, when people decided they needed catch-phrases like "EVOO" … and "Bam!"
We also hand out a recipe for every dish that we make so that people can make it at home. I love it that people can come back to me and tell me how their version of the recipe turned out. Plus, it’s more accessible. When’s the last time you made a foam at home? I don’t make foam, and most other people don’t either.
This year, we’ll be sharing foods we found in Italy – way up by the Austrian border. In places people don’t think about. We forget that Italy has parts that weren’t part of Italy.
Northwest of Venice, way up in the mountains I had this lunch of snails. They put it on polenta. When I got home I was able to source these snails and made a variation on the dish. I used orzotto – it’s like risotto, but made with orzo. But, not orzo the pasta; it’s actually pearled barley. I make the orzotto and then add a Swiss chard puree and mushrooms and leeks, along with the sauteed snails. Really earthy. In the style of a risotto.
I sold 23 orders the first night I did it. It was really, really cool.
I’ll do a beef cheek goulash with polenta. It was one of my son’s favorite things from Italy. And, in this climate, braised meats are just perfect. It has cloves, juniper, red wine. So delicious.
I’ll also do a frico – potato and cheese frittata of sorts. Two parts potato to one part cheese and you cook it down in a pan. Maybe like a Spanish tortilla. We’ll put a smoked trout mousse garnish on it.
I like doing things that maybe aren’t familiar, but they’re really accessible. People can also buy the ingredients in our shop, so I’m not making things they aren’t able to recreate with ingredients here.
OMC: How have you seen the food culture in the Sheboygan area grow in recent years?
SV: The customers are far more educated. They know so much more – about wine, food. Chalk it up to whatever, the cooking channel or whatever. Years ago, there were the Kohler restaurants and then us.
Now we’ve seen people come through us and then go on to start their own restaurants – like Margot, which is now the Black Pig and Victorian Village. We’re definitely seeing a change. To be able to do a certified Neapolitan pizza in a town of Germans is great.
OMC: I understand you were recently featured on" America's Best Bites" on The Cooking Channel. How does publicity like that impact your work here in Sheboygan?
SV: It doesn’t hurt, let’s put it that way. Actually, something like "Wisconsin Foodie" was actually an even bigger deal because those people can actually get in their car and come to visit the restaurant.
But, does it feel good, yes. Is it a big deal to me? It’s fine.
It was nice to have the make-up the lights… kind of fun. But, in the end it’s not a goal or something I’m seeking to do. I don’t’ have a PR guy working for us. They called us out of the blue.
But, it’s great. Given the destination that Kohler is – and the pull they have to this area – that has helped. People see that and they come here to do that … and then, hopefully they find us.
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.