By Megan Scott '96
Photos by Sam Castro
It is 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday night in downtown Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and the streets are nearly deserted -- until you hit the last block of 8th Street. There's little parking to be had, and a steady flow of people are making their way into Trattoria Stefano, one of Sheboygan's most popular and acclaimed restaurants.
Once inside, the quiet of the downtown disappears. The two-room restaurant is packed with customers ordering aperitifs at the bar, wait staff distributing a variety of crostini, and Lino, the maître de, showing people to their tables. Every now and then you catch sight of two people -- Stefano '91, the restaurant's chef and namesake, and Whitney Witt Viglietti '92, Stefano's wife and partner -- working their way around the restaurant, talking with nearly every customer, welcoming them all to the trattoria. As diners take their seats, Stefano slows down to introduce the evening's fare, a sampling of dishes he and a few lucky members of his staff learned to make on their annual trip to Italy. A pinwheel of bufala mozzarella with prosciutto and tomato conserva. Tuna packed in olive oil and wrapped in sundried tomatoes. Onions poached in balsamic vinegar. Beef brisket paired with two salsa frescas. The list goes on.
"Don't be alarmed by how simple it looks," Stefano tells his patrons.
He's right. The food -- what's not from Italy is made from local, organic Wisconsin produce and meat -- explodes with flavor. The simplicity of its presentation reveals a passion and respect for authentic Italian ingredients and flavors. This same simplicity and respect can be found in each of the four restaurants Stefano and Whitney have opened in the last 15 years.
Stefano graduated from Knox with a degree in history, Whitney with a degree in philosophy. They first lived in Chicago, where Whitney worked as the general manager of the Chicago Dance Medium. Stefano worked in real estate, but he wasn't happy. "I looked forward to cooking for Whitney all day while I was working. I'd think about what I was going to make, a little of this and that and do chicken on the side," Stefano remembers. "I just really enjoyed it."
After an extended trip out West looking for a new direction to take their lives, the two wound up back in Sheboygan, Stefano's hometown. "I felt that I really wanted to live in Sheboygan, but I didn't know what I wanted to do," says Stefano. They noticed an available building downtown, and Trattoria Stefano soon followed, opening in 1994. "We decided that Sheboygan desperately needed to eat well," says Stefano, "so we gave it a try."
A self-taught chef, Stefano gained most of his cooking experience through travels to Italy. He regularly visited family friends in Florence during the summers and fell in love with the culture and the food. He supplemented his travels with reading whatever he could get his hands on- -- every magazine, every cookbook, everything that came out."
"It was really a love of the Italian culture and the traveling that I did that made it possible," Stefano says, "And Whitney's immense brain power. It was a perfect, perfect team effort."
Whitney utilized the experience she gained managing the dance company and got some help from Stefano's father, a Sheboygan businessman, to handle the day-to-day bookkeeping and other business details. "We got a business degree as we went along. You've got to start small and then move forward as you can handle it," she says.
Since opening Trattoria Stefano, the Vigliettis have opened three other restaurants all within a small span of downtown Sheboygan -- Il Ritrovo, a pizzeria and one of a handful of American restaurants to be members of the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association, an international organization that preserves traditional Neapolitan pizza, opened in 2000; Field to Fork, a regionally based natural foods and specialty grocery store and gift shop that serves breakfast and lunch, opened in 2003; and The Duke of Devon, a traditional English pub and eatery co-owned with Stefano's sister, Emily Viglietti Williams '85, opened in 2004.
Even though each restaurant has its own unique niche, the one common thread that holds them all together is the Viglietti's simple approach to business -- treat your customers and staff like friends and family. When asked about their experience owning four restaurants, they'll tell you that it's been "great feeding Sheboygan" or that "it's like having your friends over for dinner every night." This attitude is evident as they navigate their restaurants, stopping to talk to diners, asking about their families or business.
But it's not just about the people who eat at the restaurants; it's the people who work in them as well. The Vigliettis employ between 60 and 70 individuals. Some employees have moved from Italy to work for Stefano and Whitney -- they met maître de Lino in a five-star hotel in Positano -- others started working for them when they were teenagers.
"We've seen a lot of rough kids come in and find a family. This one group started as 15-year-old skateboarders who I used to kick off my back stoop. I'd tell them to get outta here or get a job. Here's an apron and do something productive. And they did, and they're still with us 10 years later," says Stefano.
"Our community, the people that work here, we just have so much fun," adds Whitney. "We're so happy to have a group of people that really likes each other. We make money together and support our families together. That's important."
The servers and cooks don't look like your typical restaurant staff. They are of varying ages, and they take pride in the food they create and serve -- they all know exactly what they're feeding you, down to where the beef was raised or to the type of soil in which a particular grape was grown. Much of the knowledge they've acquired is first-hand -- Stefano takes select members of his staff on an annual trip to Italy every January to learn more about Italian culture and cooking. Over the years, roughly 40 staff members have made the trip. Most recently, Stefano and four staff members traveled to Florence, Naples, and Venice in January 2009, where they ate, researched, photographed, and cooked.
"We just keep learning and learning and literally cooking with grandmothers in Italy. That's what we do -- we go to Italy and meet people. And if we find a great place, we would just stay and learn," Stefano says.
But there's more to the trip than cooking. The Vigliettis believe that working in a restaurant is more than a job. It's a way of life -- a belief that found its roots in their travels to Italy. When talking about their trips, Stefano relates stories of the pride the Italians take in the food they eat. Italian women effortlessly making mounds of homemade pasta. Restaurant servers relating the last meal of the pig you are about to eat. An entire meal made from ingredients from one farm.
"When we go to Italy, you see that this is a way of life. You can be proud of serving in a restaurant," says Whitney. And they want their staff to believe that as much as they do.
"It's good for our staff to see the Italian culture. They can come back home and feel good about what they are doing," adds Stefano.
Their dedication to serving locally grown food also found its roots in Italy. Talking and eating with people who grew their own food or knew the exact origins of what they served had a profound impact on them. Stefano recalled an Italian friend who was 60 and looked 30. "I looked older than him, and that really struck me. I'm 40, and I'm thinking 'uh oh,'" he laughs.
These experiences, as well as having children, led them to value the importance of local, organically grown ingredients and, ultimately, to open Field to Fork. "I really wanted to change what you put into people," says Stefano. "Even though Field to Fork isn't Italian, I finally figured out that it's really about the local products. This place gave a stage to Wisconsin farmers."
In the last year, the Vigliettis have spent roughly $130,000 all on food and meat from producers within 50 miles of Sheboygan. They get seasonal produce from Simply Wisconsin, a group of about 20 farms near Madison, as well as other local farmers; pork from a farm near Baraboo; beef from a farm near Green Lake. And they don't just cook with it at all four restaurants-local meat and produce is also sold at Field to Fork.
"It makes so much sense. When we had the spinach scare with E. coli, I had people ask me about serving spinach, and I said we did because we were getting it from a farmer who lives in Plymouth. I know exactly how it's grown. It's certified organic, and it's almost as cheap as conventional," Stefano says. "I'm not doing it any other way from now on."
It's obvious that Sheboygan appreciates their product and way of doing business by the fact that the Vigliettis' have successfully opened and sustained four restaurants in 15 years, and their success has brought them to the point where they can share it with others. Stefano and Whitney created an endowed scholarship at Knox in 2004 in appreciation of their Knox educations, and they regularly give back to the Sheboygan community. They recently raised more than $40,000 for a local theatre company in which their daughter participates. "We pulled in a lot of people from our restaurants for the event and that felt really good," says Whitney.
If there's a secret to their success it's rooted in their liberal arts background. According to Stefano, it's simple: constant improvement; curiosity; the desire to learn. "I tell people when they start working here that they will be going to school," says Stefano. "You will learn every grape grown in Italy, the make up of every wine, and the aging requirements. And if you don't, you won't be here. Some folks run, but others love it. If you're challenged and learning and progressing, then you'll love it."
This philosophy applies to all of their restaurants -- before opening The Duke of Devon, Stefano and his sister sent their chef to the Fish Fryers Association in Leeds, England, to learn the secret to making traditional fish and chips -- and is at the heart of Stefano's advice for those entering the culinary world: "Go back and read a little Thomas Jefferson. See how much weight he put into cultivation and food. Then see how far away we've gotten. I couldn't think of a more important profession right now. Yes, we need great chemists, we need great doctors, we need all that, but we'd probably need fewer great doctors if we had more great farmers."
The Viglietti's desire to keep improving may one day lead to another restaurant; they've contemplated the idea of Il Ritrovo South in Chicago or even Galesburg. But there's no rush. It's clear that they are happy balancing four restaurants and a family, and as Stefano says, "We're having a heck of a time in Sheboygan." •