Two chefs who excel in urban, small-town settings

© 2014 Galdones Photography

Photo from The Black Sheep

Order a cocktail at Spiaggia on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and the drink may well arrive with a napkin that contains an oh-so-obscure band portrait and one word: Cork.

The retro photo is evidence of how dramatically a young man’s dreams can shift and accelerate. That’s because one of seven smiling mopheads with flowery shirts and matching white pants in the 1970s picture is Tony Mantuano.

“Were you in the Bee Gees?” a waiter asked him, jokingly, after a co-worker found and circulated the online photo of Tony’s earlier life.

The Kenosha native, who grew up to appreciate his grandmother’s (pork) neckbone gravy and from-scratch fusilli (twirling the pasta dough around willow sticks to dry), was a music major at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He played the trombone, and Cork was the name of his rock band.

You won’t see Tony in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he’s on “Top Chef Masters,” televised by Bravo. So maybe you already know that he is one of the best in the restaurant business. The very best, but his life had humble beginnings.

“I started working in restaurants to pay for school,” Tony explains, and it felt more like a natural fit than work because of the family’s passion for food and cooking. His grandfather was the butcher at Mantuanao Food Shop – “probably the size of a 7-Eleven today” – and tended “an incredible garden.” His grandmother ran the neighborhood shop and routinely cooked up a saucy storm.

“What he grew and she cooked – that was the food that had the best flavor,” their grandson explains.

By the time he met Cathy, his future wife, Tony knew cooking was a more practical line of work than performing music. Soon the couple was plotting a trip to Italy and working at three-star Michelin restaurants there, to learn more refined renditions of Italian cooking.

The secret that sticks with the Mantuanos even today? “Being able to taste everything in a dish – no muddled flavors,” Tony says.

He is a three-time semifinalist for Outstanding Chef, the James Beard Foundation’s lifetime achievement award for a working American chef whose career “has set national industry standards and who has served as an inspiration to other food professionals.” The 2017 Beard awards will be announced later this month in Chicago.

In 2005, Tony received the foundation’s Best Chef: Midwest award; consider it a food industry Oscar. Spiaggia, which the Manutanos opened in 1984, is a perennial Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurant and Chicago’s only four-star Italian restaurant.

“Italian food – it will never go out of style,” Tony believes. “It never fades or dips” in popularity, and “a lot has to do with its approachability.” Count him among the great chefs who assert that “simplicity is the purest form of sophistication.”

Recent remodeling at Spiaggia, where Michigan Avenue meets Lake Shore Drive, made room for a 20-person private event space that has Italian glass chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling windows. Next to the dinner-only Spiaggia dining room is Spiaggia Café, whose offerings include a $40 per person Italian Sunday Supper, served family style. spiaggiarestaurant.com, 312-280-3300

The Mantuanos also operate the classy but unpretentious Mangia Trattoria in Kenosha. kenoshamangia.com, 262-652-4285

About 100 miles northwest of Spiaggia is a farmboy-turned-chef whose national celebrity is just beginning to grow. FSR, a trade magazine for the full-service restaurant industry, recently included Tyler Sailsbury as one of 40 “restaurant stars on the rise.”

“While other kids participated in sports or band, Sailsbery – who grew up on a farm – cooked breakfast for his teachers and sold food out of his locker,” the FSR article observed.

Almost all of the 40 honorees work in the nation’s biggest cities. Tyler is in Whitewater, population 14,000, where the 31-year-old operates two restaurants: The Black Sheep, a homey mix of repurposed materials and antiques with a menu favoring hyper-local ingredients; and Casual Joe’s, barbecued meats from often-local sources, served in a relaxed setting.

The Black Sheep, which opened in 2012, makes ingredients and products from within 50 miles a priority. “There’s such a push to ‘go local’,” Tyler notes, but the term has been diluted by chefs who simply want to get on the bandwagon. “Local, to us, includes helping to provide a livable wage to the farmer.”

Tyler says he got on FSR magazine’s radar one year ago, for an article about the use of locally grown ingredients in restaurants. The lack of that in Whitewater is what turned this business major into a professional chef.

“It’s more exciting and difficult to be in an area where you need to educate your clientele” about why local foods matter, Tyler acknowledges.

He says the lower price point for meals at Casual Joe’s makes hyper-local dining accessible to a wider range of customers, who then gain awareness and appreciation for local farmers. The barbecue, with meats smoked inhouse, “goes over well in a college town and an agricultural community.”

The two restaurants are three blocks from each other downtown. Casual Joe’s actually opened in Wausau in 2013 and was featured on the Food Network’s “Food Court Wars” before moving to Whitewater. eatblacksheep.com, 262-458-4751; casualjoes.com, 262-458-4751

Want more to entice the appetite? Head to Milwaukee Public Museum’s “Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture” exhibit, in place until July 9 and arranged by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Learn how your eating choices affect health, the environment and people around the world. Hands-on activities encourage all ages to learn about food while whiffing scents, planning a virtual meal or sitting down to a dining table typical for another country or a bygone era.

Fascinating factoids are peppered through “Global Kitchen.” For example: Watermelons are grown square in Japan, cats can’t taste sweet foods, and a typical pizza in Sweden contains curry, ham and bananas.

“Global Kitchen” is a timed ticket that is in addition to general museum entry. The combined admission is $18-$25 for non-museum members, free for ages 4 or younger. mpm.edu/globalkitchen, 414-278-2728