America’s Classics: lifetime kudos for chefs

More travelers are hitting the road because of their love for food, concludes the Travel Industry Association, a nonprofit that represents all aspects of U.S. tourism.

Our country has no shortage of exceptional restaurants, but few earn the rank of “classic” from the James Beard Foundation, which for 10 years has acknowledged the culinary excellence of longtime, family-owned enterprises.

Only four to eight businesses per year earn an America’s Classics award from the foundation. A 1999 winner – The Berghoff in Chicago – closed in 2006, after 107 years of operation.

Here is a trio of Midwest survivors, each truly distinctive, and long may they prosper. For more about the awards: www.jamesbeard.org. James Beard was a celebrated chef, food writer and culinary mentor who died in 1985.

“My buddy,” explains the solo diner, after finishing an early supper. The restaurateur grins and puts on his trademark beret, then poses for the camera with his friend.

Branko Radicevic has no need to advertise what his family serves at Three Brothers, a Serbian restaurant in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood. Recipes have withstood time: Some are more than 200 years old. Meals are not rushed: The burek, a buttery phyllo dough pie, may take an hour to prepare. Customers, including this one – U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, are loyal.

“One of my favorite places,” says Herb, an unassuming presence at a quiet corner table. He has eaten here for at least 30 years and says he prefers burek with a cheese filling. It also can be made with beef or spinach/cheese, and each pie is enough to feed two hungry people.

Meals arrive on china, but few pieces match. Tabletops are an ordinary kitchen laminate. On a wall, behind the bar, is a faded mural of the Grand Tetons, artwork that predates the restaurant. Three Brothers is in its third generation of family ownership, and 2007 is the 57th year of business.

“Quality is not achieved through haste,” notes the restaurant menu. Among the other entrée choices: chevap chi chi (a Serbian beef sausage) and sarma (pickled cabbage leaves filled with beef and rice).

“Roast leg of lamb is a newer recipe,” Branko says. “We used to do the whole lamb, but people said it was too greasy.” He describes Serbian cuisine as simple: just a few ingredients of high quality, with a smart use of spices such as paprika, black pepper, saffron.

Someone from the family always cooks. Tonight it is his wife, Patricia. Branko, in his 80s, trims the meat and buys the produce, “but only after I see it.”

His father, a wholesale wine merchant in Yugoslavia, landed in a German concentration camp during World War II. He then fled to the U.S., and the restaurant name reflects the hope that his three sons would join him. Branko arrived in 1959 and was an international banker on the East Coast until his father became ill.

“By cultural tradition, the eldest son takes over,” he explains, so the restaurant’s upstairs has been his home for more than 30 years. A son and one of three daughters also help run the business.

Three Brothers, 2414 S. St. Clair St., Milwaukee earned a Beard award in 2002. For more: 414-481-7530. It is only open for dinner. Most entrees are under $20.

“Order the sautéed mushrooms,” My Guy reminded, more than once, as I prepared to visit the Pickwick Restaurant in Duluth, Minn. He hasn’t been there for years, but the pleasant memory sticks.

“What they do, they do very well,” confided a friend, who lived in Duluth for decades. “I always order the shrimp salad.”

I developed amnesia and went for the sockeye salmon.

Chris Wisocki, the fourth generation owner, says this has long been a steak place. Our dining room is the former kitchen, now known as Joe’s Room, named after his Polish grandfather, who started at The Pickwick as a bartender and became its owner in 1919.

“Northern Minnesota has always been about meat and potatoes,” Chris says, but now executive chef Jake Sutula is adding a flair to a few classics. Example: Mojo Pork Tenderloin, marinated with cilantro, mint, lime and garlic. Halibut, stuffed with crab and spinach, arrives with beurre blanc, a rich sauce of shallots, butter and white wine.

So it is a more complex world, particularly compared to the kraut, sausages and 10-cent cheese sandwiches sold here during Prohibition. But the setting remains warm and elegant, with Old World paintings and woodwork/furniture imported from Europe.

Why call it Pickwick? That remains a mystery, Chris says.

The Pickwick, 508 E. Superior St., Duluth, earned a Beard award this year. For more: www.pickwickrestaurant.com, 218-727-8901. Most entrees are under $30.

It has been 99 years since Angelo Lagomarcino opened a confectionary in the Quad Cities, after immigration from northern Italy. The old-time Lagomarcino’s soda fountain, which also serves lunches, is best known for its hot fudge sundaes. That’s because the whipped cream is almost as high as the ice cream is deep, and the warm sauce is served in its own little pitcher, to pour as desired.

Employees make the sauce, and the recipe is a secret that was worth $25 for Angelo to obtain in 1912. It came from a traveling salesman. Other tidbits sweeten this story more, like the Green River and the Lago, two flavored sodas that have been around since the 1920s.

Today Lisa Ambrose, the third generation of the family, has taken the reins. Mahogany booths, a terrazzo tile floor and Tiffany lamps have been preserved, which means a strong sense of nostalgia surrounds customers.

Ordering lunch? The ham salad arrives on homemade rye. Just want a quick treat? Homemade candies fill antique display cases.

Lagomarcino’s, 1422 Fifth Ave., Moline, Ill., earned a Beard award in 2006. A second location, open since 1997, is at 2132 E. 11th St., Davenport, Iowa, For more: www.lagomarcinos.com, 309-764-1814, 563-324-6137. Most meals are under $10.

Note: My meals at The Pickwick and Lagomarcino’s were complimentary.