About 65 scenic miles separate two Wisconsin restaurants that serve pasta, brick-oven pizza and wine from around the world. The classy Italian menu at both is pretty much the same. So is the setting: open-air dining, in the middle of nowhere, with fabulous views of rural America.
“A place where you come for the experience, and then stay for dinner” is how one website describes a visit. Both sites are near the Mississippi River and open seasonally, about two dozen hours per week from Thursday through Sunday.
Larry Brenner owns Vino in the Valley (in its 12th season) and Vino Over the Valley (open one month). The longtime salesman of on-radio advertising had not operated a restaurant before 2007. Now he lives next to one of them, and vehicles with Minnesota license plates fill the parking lot.
Word gets around. The Minnesota border is less than 20 miles away from each Vino/Valley location, and Gopher State publications have eagerly helped spread the word.
Twenty miles: That’s also how far the view stretches on a clear day from Brenner’s new restaurant. Down from Vino Over the Valley’s steep hill in Buffalo County is field after field of rolling, pristine farmland, in the Doelle Valley and beyond.
The region was one Wisconsin Supreme Court vote away from looking a lot different. An Iowa-based company’s push for hydraulic fracking, to mine silica sand from these hills, was thwarted by local government. That decision was appealed but upheld one year ago on a 4-3 vote by the high court.
Such a pretty view gives diners good reason to linger over their pesto caprese, shrimp and andouille linguini, chicken marsala or pizza choices that include Whey Good (chicken, portabella mushrooms, spinach) and Molto Carne (six types of meat). The menu matches each entrée with at least one wine recommendation.
House wines – Rush River Red, Lost Creek Sunset (a blush) and Moonlight Whisper (white) – are made with grapes grown in Minnesota, but labels from Italy to New Zealand are poured too.
Next door to Vino Over the Valley is the newly renamed Larry’s Lookout, the former Hansen’s Hold-Up, a biker-friendly bar and grill that is best known for burgers, wraps and cold taps. It opened two decades ago and does business twice as many hours per week as Vino/Valley. Larry Brunner is the owner here too.
The juxtaposition of the neighboring businesses seems to work, as does operating one Vino over a valley and another deep in the heart of one.
Vino in the Valley is next to the Rush River and Pierce County farmland. Period. Customers linger around a circular bar with rooftop, nibble on bruschetta, throw bean bags, listen to local musicians.
Next to the restaurant without walls are a gazebo, gift shop, market vendors and five acres of vineyards that aren’t great grape producers. Patio-style heaters and light blankets come out in cool weather.
Count apple-bacon salad (with candied walnuts, blue cheese) and hickory-smoked trout (with goat cheese, crackers) as a complement to the menu of Italian fare.
Eight miles west is Ellsworth, where Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery produces more cheese curds than anybody else in Wisconsin. It’s a popular stop. ellsworthcheese.com
Too tuckered to drive home? Eight miles east of Vino Over the Valley is Draft Horse Inn, named after the owner family’s horse-pulling history. One-bed rooms to two-bedroom apartments are available. Rates, which begin under $100 per night, include a hot, continental breakfast. drafthorseinn.com
For more: Vino Over the Valley, S2428 Hwy. 95, Arcadia, vinooverthevalley.com; Vino in the Valley, W3826 450th Ave., Maiden Rock, vinointhevalley.com. Now through leaf-changing season is the time to visit.
Between the two Vino/Valley locations is The Stone Barn, S685 Hwy. KK, Nelson, a farm where pizza is served indoors and outside on Friday through Sunday until October.
The thin-crust pies need less than two minutes to bake in a wood-fired brick oven, but customers tend to make a day out of the trip because the drive to the farm is pretty and peaceful.
Chalkboards list menu choices. Pizzas are ordered and eaten around the ruins of, you guessed it, an old stone barn. Business owners include a high school social studies teacher and school guidance counselor.
Herbs for pizza are grown on the property. Other toppings come from MoonRise Farm, three miles south, and Hickory Hills Farm, eight miles northeast. thenelsonstonebarn.com
Nine miles southwest is century-old Nelson Cheese Factory, where the line for ice cream cones twists out the door on steamy summer afternoons. That’s the perfect ending to a rural road trip. nelsoncheese.com