Before I use the Italian restaurant I Nonni as a convenient whipping boy, it’s only fair to offer a juicy morsel of praise. A recent meal there was not really a meal at all — it was a dining experience, in the classic sense. The serene patio — certainly one of the most tranquil and downright enchanting in the area — overlooks a series of small man-made waterfalls and a large but humble country-style garden. No traffic noise was audible; the only smell was that of summer. The food ranged from good (a Tuscan-style steak that was solid, but not of Manny’s caliber) to outstanding, including an ahi tuna pesce crudo with bell peppers and olive oil that must chart among the best dishes of its kind made within 250 miles.
Service was professional — unobtrusive, knowledgeable, friendly without fawning. The whole event lasted more than two hours, and was, in value terms, a super deal at about $60 a person including tip.
Now, on to the whipping.
For all the embrace of terroir and Midwestern pride that marks places like Corner Table, Red Stag, and Birchwood Cafe, there is an idea that lingers in the air around here like a mildew-covered ghost. It’s the idea that if you really want to live it up, you’d better import your food and drink from somewhere fashionable.
Sometimes, this isn’t a terrible thing. Certainly, the coasts have much to show us in terms of fish… and cold-hardy grapes notwithstanding, we’re not living in wine country. In the middle of winter, we’re not going to be eating much local produce, and much of our fruit will come from California, if not further away. Scotch comes from Scotland.
But here is something we do well in the Upper Midwest: beer. Stack the right Surly, or Summit, or Lift Bridge (above), or Furthermore, or any number of local craft brews against anything made anywhere in the country, and you will understand: These are good beers. Not simply good beers for the Midwest, but good beers in the sense that you can like them — love them, even — and defend your opinion empirically against the relentless tastemakers who judge this stuff professionally.
And local beer is something I Nonni doesn’t carry. You can get a Stella (boring), or a Peroni (mind-blowingly boring), or a Tetley’s English Ale, which is what I did. The Tetley’s also was boring, not even measuring up to the passably decent Boddington’s to which the waiter compared it. A Summit EPA or Lift Bridge Farm Girl would both have been equally genial and easy to drink, but with the additional virtue of being delicious and standing for something.
And, as noted earlier, locally made.
We make good artisan beer, right here in the Upper Midwest. There’s no excuse for not offering at least one solid local beer, regardless of how high-class your restaurant may be — in fact, the higher class your restaurant, the more you should grasp the marketing and moral appeal of supporting someone who’s laboring passionately — around the corner! — to make a world-class brew.
But there’s this ingrained idea that the meal isn’t special — it isn’t fancy — if you’re drinking locally. Somehow offering Stella Artois, one of the safest, dullest macro-craft brews available, is sophisticated and cosmopolitan, but taking advantage of the brilliant work going on right next door is a sign of slumming it.
I hit this same beer roadblock while dining at Fugaise, and also at its successor, The Butcher Block. No beer more local than Goose Island (Chicago)! (In defense of The Butcher Block, it was opening week. Hopefully they’ve dealt with the situation.)
A similar provincialism defined I Nonni’s cheese selection. I asked about the cheese plate, curious to hear whether Midwestern terroir might crop up. Our waiter listed three cheeses, without noting their place of origin or maker. Not a great sign.
“Is all of your cheese imported?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s all imported,” said the waiter, proud of the fact.
Fool! Damn fool! You’re living a gouda’s throw from Wisconsin — which regularly wins more international cheese medals than entire European cheese-producing nations — and you’re proud of the fact that you’re shipping stuff over from Italy at great cost!
Let’s pause for a moment.
I Nonni is a high-end Italian restaurant, and if they choose to serve imported Italian cheese, that certainly fits the mandate. But why not offer two imports… and a sweet, nutty, aged parmesan-style SarVecchio made in Antigo, Wisconsin? Or two imports and a creamy, tangy, almost buttermilk-like crescenza stracchino from BelGioioso, near Green Bay? Or an American Grana, by the same company? I’ve talked to Gianni Toffolon (right), the master cheesemaker at BelGioioso. He was born and raised in Italy, trained by Italian cheesemakers, and is incredibly serious and passionate about what he does. He, too, earns medals, and deserves them. Serve his cheese, and you honor Italy and the Upper Midwest, all at once.
Cheese, sausage, honey, beer — fresh produce in the summer, wild game, chickens, and beef and ice cream and butter — we are living in a gastronomic paradise. Sophistication isn’t defined by ignoring that fact — it’s defined by embracing it.
There’s a simple thing that all of us, as diners, can do. When we order a beer, or cheese, or sausage at a restaurant, we can ask where it’s from. And if it’s not from around here — ask why not. A couple years and a couple hundred evangelists should be all its takes to alert every high-end restaurant in the area to what true sophistication is all about.