Deciding where to dine for lunch, order take-out or enjoy a fish fry is a daily deed for some Fox Cities diners. Deciding what restaurants deserve our annual Golden Fork awards for their service and sustenance is an annual affair!
This year we tossed eight new categories into the mix and the response was overwhelming. We salute both the winners and voters of this year’s coveted Golden Fork Awards!
New Restaurant Wins Overall
Not so long ago, a Neenah bistro called Luna was a local favorite. The DeFranza family, a clan cultured in Italian cuisine, ran it and after closing in 2006, excitement rocketed in November 2009 when the DeFranza sisters, Nicole and Kristen, opened a new restaurant called Carmella’s: an Italian Bistro in Appleton.
The restaurant won four Golden Forks this year –– Best Overall, Best New Restaurant, Best Waitstaff and Best Dessert. They also pulled in under Victoria’s as runner up for Best Italian. For being just under a year old, we’d say that’s quite the achievement.
“It’s incredible to be sharing with the Fox Valley the culture and heritage of my Italian family and honoring my grandma who taught us so much,” Nicole reflects.
Never compromising the love and care it takes to make exceptional food and people feel special, Carmella’s has stayed true to its original vision: creating a warm, welcoming and comfortable place to dine.
Traditionally, meals in Italy consist of three or four courses, which is why the DeFranzas refer to the style of dining as “coursing.” From salads, appetizers and meats and cheeses to the primi (first), secondi (second) and dolci (dessert) meals, the trick is to not eat too much of each course. “Every part of a meal is important in Italy,” Nicole says. “Eat sensibly throughout the meal and be sure to save a little room. Dessert is meant to cleanse and refresh the palate.”
Front-runner for Best Dessert, the DeFranzas give credit to their pastry chef, Kari Mueller, as the mastermind behind the dessert selections, which include tiramisu, bread pudding, cupcakes and Carmella’s cake.
The DeFranzas promise that the food speaks for itself, but those doing the speaking scooped up yet another award for the restaurant: Best Waitstaff.
Hiring people that possess the desire to make people happy, Nicole and Kristen work hard to make sure the waitstaff understands the ins and outs of the menu, including wine and beer. “More than a staff, we’re a family and each member is responsible for giving the guest the best possible experience,” Nicole adds.
A “Soup-er” Winner
Mary’s Family Restaurant certainly doesn’t mean to stir the pot with moms of the Fox Cities, but when it comes to soup and homemade meals the gold goes to the 52-year-old diner.
With two Appleton locations, Mary’s has been a home away from home for many area diners. Preparing favorites such as broasted chicken, meatloaf, country-fried steak, burgers, and pies assembled just like mom’s, Mary’s has kept steady with the simple and folksy foods we love.
The restaurant has soup supporters like no other restaurant.
Menasha resident Sara Nisler makes a point to pull into Mary’s for its classic chicken dumpling soup––a bowl of it accompanies almost every meal. “My mom introduced me to it when I was a kid,” she says. “I have never found a dumpling soup I like better.”
She compliments the family favorite for its flavorful dumplings and power to entertain nostalgia of her childhood memories. “When I lived away from the Fox Valley and returned for a visit, I often brought pails of it back with me because I couldn’t find soup better than Mary’s,” she adds.
It makes sense that the winner of Best Soup/Chili would also take home the award for Cooking Most Like Mom’s and Best Fried/Broasted Chicken.
Rise & Dine
At 6am, you can find Bob Guess, the owner of Blueberry Hill Pancake House in Appleton, greeting early risers and topping off their bottomless coffee cups with a fresh pour.
Throughout the last year, this has translated into the Best Breakfast in town.
According to one group of regulars who have rendezvoused at Blueberry Hill every other Friday since February 2009, the popular Appleton spot guarantees good eating, bacon and Twitter talk. All having met each other on the social networking site, they all touch on how nice it is to meet “offline” from time to time. Located a block from highway 41, Blueberry Hill happened to be the perfect meeting place. “Having these meet-ups helps to turn a large community into a small town,” says Ross LaRocco, the group’s founder. “We get together regardless if there will be 5 people or 25.”
Taking both breakfast and camaraderie very seriously, the group’s table is typically brimming with blueberry and peach pancakes (it is a pancake house after all), early bird combos of eggs and meat, oatmeal, breakfast sandwiches, syrup dispensers and, of course, iPhones.
“The omelets are amazing and the smiles get us to come back time after time,” says Thomas Clifford, one of the meet-up attendees, as a plate of bacon passes in front of his face. “Bob takes the time to meet you and make sure your experience is as good as the last.
The Avenue’s Spatio
For years we have forked over a Best Place to Dine Outdoors award. Historically, restaurants with waterfront property would place in the ranks. This year, we decided to give both waterfront dining and terrace patios equal representation.
Winning the first ever Best Patio (Non-Waterfront) Dining award is Spats Food and Sprits of Appleton.
The “Tav on the Ave” building has been an Appleton landmark for almost 90 years housing other legendary favorites, such as Haupt’s Bar from 1950-1978, Bleier’s Bar, and Brass Lantern in the early ’80s before it became Koehnke’s Lounge. Spat’s has been a friendly tenant since 1985.
Five years ago, Spat’s owners Bill and Julie Neubert coined the outdoor space looking out on College Avenue as “The Spatio.”
Featuring live music up to four nights a week from June through September, it’s become the place for bluegrass and a burger. The music lends to its appeal, Bill saying, “It brings people out to eat!”
The Greasy Gold
Looking for something fried, buttered, short-ordered and inexpensive served in a bandbox-sized, neighborhood-style setting? Don’t worry. You are not alone.
Perhaps that is why Menasha’s burger joint, Mihm’s Charcoal Grill, slid into our Greasy Spoon award.
As Menasha resident Dan Woolf puts it, a greasy spoon restaurant specializes in food that you know isn’t good for you, but tastes great anyway. “You get hit in the face with all the smells from the grill right away,” he says. He emphasizes that the hospitable, hometown atmosphere at Mihm’s is a necessary requirement for the title. “My family’s been going there since before I was born,” says Woolf. “It’s very approachable.”
Grabbing our wordiest Golden Fork––the Best Non-Chain Late-Night Dining Award––is Sal’s Pizza, a pop-in pizza counter pleasing Appleton’s College Avenue late-night crowd.
However, Little Chute resident Greg Sampson discovered Sal’s as a noon-hour option.
“I had lunch at Sal’s several times before I figured out that it was open late,” Sampson shares. But he praises the by the slice, New York-style pizzeria for its attention to the needs of late-night customers. “Sometimes, people need something to soak up the liquid refreshments they’ve overindulged in,” says Sampson. “Pizza is perfect for that, and Sal’s willingness to fulfill those needs for the downtown Appleton crowd is what makes them great!”
Roasting His Own Way
In a downtown area saturated with coffee shops, Appleton’s Copper Rock Coffee Co. consistently sticks out among the competitors. Fresh on the heels of their Best Coffeehouse award from the 2009 Golden Fork Awards, the copper-themed cafe picks up the award for Best Cup of Coffee this year.
The award isn’t entirely surprising. Last year, owner Bill Heiges mentioned that the coffeehouse would start roasting its own beans, a decision that has paid off in a bold way. “We’re probably selling quintuple what we used to of bulk beans,” says Heiges. “We’ve had a lot of feedback from customers and businesses buying our products, and everyone just wants more!”
However, you might wonder, what exactly does roasting their own beans mean for the shop?
Heiges explains the process as being very technical. For each different type of bean, he makes many small adjustments to the roaster depending on the bean’s content to create “coffee as we know it” with the best possible taste.
“I really like the hands-on process of roasting,” says Heiges. “Coffee is a fresh product, and the longer it sits on the shelf, the more stale it gets. With the roaster, high-quality, fresh coffee is easier to produce because nothing in the shop is over a week old.”
The process also gives Heiges the freedom to choose exactly what importers to buy beans from.
He says the shop is already roasting at capacity for the roaster he currently has, which is why he hasn’t advertised this addition to the business. The shop recently acquired a refurbished antique roaster that produces more coffee per batch, but Heiges is still searching for a spot to roast with it.
Good thing, too, because as Heiges says, “There are so many people knocking on our door to get our coffee!”
Take a Bite Out of Business
Zuppas, a gourmet cafeteria-style eatery in Neenah, and Appleton riverfront favorite Fratellos tied for the title of Best Power Lunch.
According to both owners and local diners, power lunch carries multiple definitions.
Jay Supple, one of the owners of Fratellos, describes it from a business perspective.
“A power lunch is a meeting of the minds kind of thing,” says Supple. “At Fratellos, there’s enough space to have meetings, which is important from a corporate perspective.” He emphasizes Fratellos’ diverse menu as another important aspect of a good power lunch. “People can still get a nice steak or fish, or just a simple burger,” Supple explains.
On the flip side, Fremont resident Melissa Voight picked Neenah’s Zuppas for her favorite power lunch spot.
“A good power lunch must be fast, yet healthy and delicious, which is generally hard to find,” says Voight. “I always feel like I’m eating food from a high-end restaurant even though I walked through an a la carte line to get it.”
The gourmet deli nails it with their speedy service of local, fresh foods.
“I never get bored with Zuppas because they offer something new each day,” she adds.
Cumin and Sit Down
Got spice? This year’s Best Buffet winners certainly do.
Appleton’s Sai Ram Indian Cuisine and HuHot Mongolian Grill tied for first place, while Taste of Thai wins runner-up. At all three of these ethnic gems, guests can enjoy everything from spicy stir-fries and stews to milder curries and noodle dishes.
Krishna Chalasane, owner and chef of Sai Ram, works hard to entice new diners with the subtle, fresh and flavorful cuisine of India.
Chalasane is no stranger to the Golden Fork Awards, as this year marks his 4th Best Buffet award and his 6th Best Indian Cuisine award. The Fork favorite only offers the buffet for lunch during the week and brunch on the weekends (while also offering a full service dinner menu).
“A lot of people think Indian food is too spicy. We offer many different spice levels, so people keep coming back,” says Chalasane.
Sometimes the word “buffet” conjures up scary images of lukewarm casseroles and soggy, over-salted entrees, but these three establishments work hard to transcend that negative image with their lunchtime specials.
“Indian foods have healthy ingredients and there are lots of vegetarian options, which customers love,” says Chalasane.
Much like Sai Ram, HuHot Mongolian Grill moves beyond the category of a “buffet” with its unique approach to Asian cuisine.
Guests (or “pillagers,” as their humorous menu refers to customers) create a bowl brimming with all the fresh veggies, meats, seafood and sauces and watch as their food is cooked on a massive, circular grill.
“We try to do everything a full service restaurant would do, but our set-up just happens to be sort of like a buffet because people can come back as many times as they want to create bowls,” says owner Brian Schalk.
Speaking about the lunch buffet specials that both his restaurant and Sai Ram offer, Schalk remarks that today, the “hour long business lunch is a thing of the past.” Part of the lunch buffet’s appeal lies in its speed: customers can get in and out as quickly as they want at all three of these Asian restaurants.
Schalk notes that recipe cards placed at the beginning of the line help busy lunchtime diners get in and out faster. “[Guests] can go through the line quickly and stick with what they know or they can try out a few new things if they have the time,” says Schalk.
Like Sai Ram, HuHot also offers expanded dinner options with more exotic faire available to grill, such as shark, mahi-mahi and octopus.
—By Alison Fiebig & Tom Pilcher
On behalf of ourselves and local restaurants, we’d like to thank each and every one of you for voting for your favorites in the Golden Fork Awards! We look forward to tallying your votes again next year. — FC