al corso: fine dining in rural Wisconsin

I am chasing the sun as it turns the sky a moody rose-gray near twilight, zipping past farmland and swampland that are steeping in the waters of melted snow. Dam construction on Mud Creek during the 1960s ensures marshy terrain year-round.

Sandhill cranes, herons, pheasants, bobolinks, osprey and many other birds like it this way. So do the muskrats, mink and otter.

Far fewer people in recent years make their way here, thanks to the rerouting of Highway 32 decades ago. My destination is unincorporated Collins, population under 200, Manitowoc County. It used to have two grocery stores, two car dealerships, a barber, farm feed mill and more.

None of that remains, so what we have is a relatively nondescript community that almost seems swallowed up by the 4,200-acre Collins Marsh Wildlife Area. One exception makes Collins worth the drive, even after sun sets on the wildlife-rich wetlands.

Inside al corso, customers in comfortable dress feast on Chicken Roulade (the stuffing mixes spinach, gorgonzola, prosciutto), Horseradish Crusted Salmon (topped with a citrus-mustard sauce), sesame-seared ahi tuna with red pepper risotto, kabobs of shrimp with sun-dried tomato cream sauce, and blackened or traditional burgers.

The contemporary American menu is extraordinary for rural Wisconsin, land of grilled brats and deep-fried fish on Fridays. Owners Alex and Dave Salm got rid of their broaster, and the fries that come with burgers are about the only thing immersed in hot oil.

The couple are longtime restaurant workers and operators who morphed into caterers before opening al corso in 2007. Dave, the chef, is a former food service director for St. Lawrence Seminary, Mt. Calvary. Alex heads the business side of operations, and hints of her Sicilian heritage sneak onto the menu.

Why land in Collins? The price was right for the rundown building, but the Salms ended up spending about 20 times more than the purchase price to rehab the 1800s structure. Their work took about 20 months.

Alex says none of the contractors wanted to put up business signs, for a while, because of the project’s precarious nature. All turned out well: A former garage is the restaurant kitchen. The building’s original copper ceiling survives, as does a mid-room pole that supports beams and upholds history.

While in business as Bud and Tiny’s saloon, patrons who climbed the pole and touched the ceiling would earn a drink or candy bar.

Now we have a 46-seat and dinner-only restaurant whose name is an Italian reference to being at the main street or center of activity. That’s what it was, long before the Salms took ownership.

As Bud and Tiny’s, deer hunters would head here to register their harvest and tip a cold one. “It was the cornerstone of the community,” Alex says.

She considers the restaurant “definitely destination dining,” noting the lack of other businesses to bring traffic into town. Word of al corso spread when the Salms printed and gave away $3,000 worth of $10 gift certificates, but they have pursued little else in paid advertising.

House-made and long-simmering sauces, soups, salsas and salad dressings deviate from conventional restaurant fare for the area. Consider the “hint of Guinness” beer that Alex says is a part of the French onion soup, the Caesar salad whose romaine is grilled, and the Chicken Mulligatawny soup.

Chicken Mulligatawny? Fans of “Seinfeld” might recognize it as the stew-like curry sold by the Soup Nazi. Dave’s version has a tomato cream base and Cajun flavor.

For dessert, versions of crème brulee have included malted milk, butterscotch with currants and bacon-cranberry. (That’s three variations, not one.)

Occasional events pair wine or beer with a set menu of multiple courses. Gluten-free and vegetarian fare is available, but Alex advises customers to mention this when making a dinner reservation.

“People who come here know what they’re looking for,” she says. Translation: Customers who seek the unexpected will find it.

Restaurant staffers learn, and learn to appreciate, too. “It’s fun to see their palates evolve,” Alex says, be it for fine wine or bacon-wrapped scallops served with an apple dipping sauce.

For more about Collins Marsh: (click “wildlife areas”), 920-755-4983.

The restaurant, 20931 Main St., Collins, is three miles north of U.S. 151, between Manitowoc and Chilton. It opens at 4 p.m. but is closed Mondays and Tuesdays., 920-772-4056

Notice the “events” link. The restaurant owners’ daughter, Emily, is organizing culinary trips to Italy in June and October. Prices and itinerary will be made final soon. The restaurant also has a Facebook page.

Emily also conducts two-hour Italian language/culture classes on Monday nights. Per-class cost is $30, which includes wine and food samplings. Reservations are advised.

Several other Wisconsin residents and nonprofit entities organize small-group tours of foreign countries. For example:

The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point presents Adventure Tours to foreign destinations, including hiking tours to Hungary and Austria, July 23 to Aug. 5 for $3,990, and Costa Rica, Jan. 3-11 and 11-19, 2012 (details not yet available). (click “adventure tours”), 715-340-8186

The UW in Madison arranges educational excursions to Tanzania, June 17 to July 2; Ireland, Sept. 19 to Oct. 4; Turkey, Oct. 21 to Nov. 7; and Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, February 2012. Price depends upon destination., 608-263-7787

Dr. ZiPing Zhou of Madison, a longtime acupuncturist who teaches others about traditional Chinese healing arts, leads a June 14-29 tour to China and Tibet. Cost: $4,800 (including airfare)., 608-236-9000

Joan Peterson, Madison book publisher and author, plans culinary tours to Turkey (Aug. 17-25) and India (Jan. 15-25, 2012). Cost: $2,950 and $3,695, respectively (plus international flights)., 608-233-5488

Operators of County Clare, an Irish inn and pub in Milwaukee, arrange monthly trips to a sister property in County Clare, Ireland (between Shannon and Dublin). Dates include April 19-27 and May 16-24. Cost: $1,245 and $1,295, respectively (including airfare)., 414-272-5273

Inroads Ireland in Madison offers three Ireland itineraries, each lasting seven days and scheduled back-to-back, starting May 24-31. Cost: $2,200 per week (plus international airfare), with savings if more than one tour is taken., 800-220-7711

Cathy Fleming of Viaggi di Gusto, Madison, conducts tours to Italy. Destinations include Piedmont and the Italian Riveria (Sept. 13-25) and Tuscany and the Cinque Terre (Sept. 27 to Oct. 7); corporate and private outings also arranged. Cost depends upon itinerary., 608-217-7455

Janice Thomas of Savory Spoon Cooking School, Ellison Bay, leads a cultural and culinary trip to Yunnan, China, on Nov. 2-14 for a cost of $4,995 (plus airfare to Los Angeles), and Baja Mexico (details to be announced)., 920-854-6600

Some trip costs are tentative; all include lodging, at least some meals and activities. All prices are based on double-occupancy lodging. Single-supplement fees are added when traveling solo.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.