Little Wisco spirit creates NYC restaurant empire

tattoosNo U.S. metropolis is larger than New York City, a land of many choices, easy anonymity and ever-wary strangers. Around 4,200 restaurants help nourish the population of 8.2 million.

Two miles south of Midtown skyscrapers and the commotion of Times Square is the West Village, where attitude and streetscape mutate quite a bit. Side streets veer diagonally, a deviation from Manhattan’s grid of rigid right angles. Restored and repurposed 19th century buildings resemble an urban European neighborhood.

“Stylish” and “spunky” sometimes mean “elitist” and “off-putting,” but that’s not the case here. Part of the West Village is transplanting Midwest roots with an almost-giddy sense of pride. “A micro-neighborhood of sorts,” reports the New York Post.

“It feels like the kind of place Garrison Keillor would frequent if he wore rolled-up, raw-denim jeans,” writes Alex Williams of the New York Times. “It has rustic plank tables, mismatched antique chairs and old photographs — kind of ironic, kind of not — of the investors’ grandparents.”

He was describing Joseph Leonard, a homey and understated corner bistro that University of Wisconsin grad Gabriel Stulman opened in 2010 and named after his two grandfathers. On the menu are familiar foods with a gourmet twist: mushrooms and eggs for breakfast, pan-roasted chicken with walnut pesto for dinner, salted caramel pudding for dessert.

In a spring issue of Bon Appetit is the restaurant’s recipe for skillet hash browns. Appetizers include steak tartare “Milwaukee style,” on caraway toast, with mustard and red onion.

Now the area is home to six dining spots known as the restaurateur’s Little Wisco group. Five are within three blocks of each other. Although each accommodates as little as two dozen diners, New York media refer to Little Wisco as an empire because these seats are in high demand.

What makes this so? Friendliness, plus attention to detail in both food and service. Several Little Wisco employees are Wisconsin natives; that includes Molly McGrath, the 2004 Miss Wisconsin who just finished law school.

“Bringing a slice of home to New York” is how John Schiebler of Green Bay explains it. “Everyone here rises to the challenge. It’s demanding work, but we try to go above and beyond.”

Brian Bartels of Reedsburg designs the restaurants’ cocktails. One is the whiskey-splashed Tombstone, in honor of the Wisconsin tavern pizza: Pepperoni is soaked in alcohol and made into bitters.

In Brian’s Black Squirrel Old-Fashioned are pecan-flavored bitters, bourbon, cherry liqueur and maple syrup. “It would go over well at home,” he believes.

I find all of this quite amusing. That includes employee tattoos; some include an outline of Wisconsin.

My neighborhood guide is Little Wisco’s Adam Benedetto, who describes himself as “raised in Wausau, educated at UW-River Falls and politicized in Madison.”

The “Midwest attitude” is a part of what makes Little Wisco attractive to New York diners, he says. Bistro bars lack televisions, which means “the highlight is the people,” and bartenders might well introduce strangers to each other.

That’s novel behavior in this big city.

“These are places where you can come in and be yourself,” Adam explains. “At a lot of New York restaurants, you’re not treated the way you want to be treated.”

That said, don’t expect all-you-can-eat fare, budget prices or super-sized customers hoisting shots with beer. “We get people from all walks,” Adam insists, but the restaurants’ small size means “you’re constantly getting bumped … it’s an intimate space.”

Contrary to what is customary in Manhattan, no reservations are taken at Little Wisco restaurants. Expect a wait of two hours for a table during prime dining hours.

The host takes a cell number, so you can roam until a table is ready. Those with thick Badger blood head to Kettle of Fish, a friendly, unpretentious basement bar that displays unconditional love for Wisconsin, especially its sports teams.

The bar and bistros are near Christopher Square, where the Stonewall Riots and gay rights movement began in 1969. In the park is a George Segal statue that pays tribute to this piece of history; it sat in Madison’s Orton Park for five years, until 1991.

Farthest away is the newest Little Wisco, Montmartre, which opened in April. It is named after a former downtown Madison jazz club and restaurant, where owner Gabe used to work. With outdoor seating, there will be room for 120 customers.

As Adam tells it, word is getting around that Little Wisco restaurants are good places for chefs and team players to work. Consider this employment ad placed on Craig’s List:

“Qualities we look for in every candidate: a genuine sense of hospitality, prior industry experience, a passion for food and restaurants and the will to do good for the many friends and guests who think of our restaurants as their home away from home.

“All of our service teams are low in hierarchy and high on responsibility. We work as a team. … We have high expectations for knowledge, helping-hands, hard work and having a good time!”

What does that last part mean? Chefs and staff tend to dine at and help other Little Wisco restaurants. Some team up in a dart league at Kettle of Fish. All know to whom to pledge allegiance.

In the company’s bylaws is a provision that all Little Wisco restaurants close on Super Bowl Sunday if the Green Bay Packers are in the game.

When that happened in 2011, Adam says football fans tried in vain to buy their way into the employees-only party. It would have been a great day for business, he recalls, but sometimes there are higher priorities.

For more about Gabriel Stulman’s six Little Wisco restaurants:

Joseph Leonard, 170 Waverly Place, New York, gourmet American fare., 646-429-8383.

Jeffrey’s Grocery, 172 Wavery Place, New York, seafood and oyster bar., 646-398-7630.

Perla, 24 Minetta Lane, New York, Italian cuisine., 212-933-1824.

Fedora, 239 W. Fourth St., New York, where dinner is called “supper.”, 646-449-9336.

Chez Sardine, 183 W. 10th St., New York, sushi-Asian emphasis,, 646-360-3705.

Montmartre, 158 Eighth Ave., New York, French-inspired flair., 646-596-8838.

Kettle of Fish, operated by DePere native Patrick Daley, is at 59 Christopher St. For more:, 212-414-2278.