By Amelia Compton Wolff, Jelissa Burns and Cody Wiesner
Photography by Jordan Ashwood
It may be our silver anniversary, but these forks are definitely golden. For our 25th annual reader survey of area food and drink, Fox Valley foodies selected their favorite establishments in 34 categories of dining, from Best Steak to Most Vegetarian Friendly. Learn more about the winners right here, then make it your mission to visit each and find out exactly why they came out on top.
See the full list of winners in the October issue.
Best Overall: Carmella’s Italian Bistro
This fall, Carmella’s will celebrate 10 years in business and their ninth Best Overall Golden Fork win. The key to their smashing success? Consistency.
“We are just continuing to do what we’ve always done and show up every time for every guest that comes in,” says Nicole DeFranza, who co-owns both Carmella’s and SAP Brunch, Brown Bag & Bakery with her sister, Kristen.
Carmella’s also received first place forks for Best Salad and Best Ambiance.
The restaurant’s bistro-style menu changes each spring/summer and fall/winter to take advantage of the freshest seasonal produce. The menu features five dishes (salmon, halibut, pork chop, filet mignon and sunflower sprout salad) with rotating preparations that change with the seasons. A lamb chop entree will soon be added to that list.
Sourcing ingredients from Wisconsin farmers is a priority, DeFranza says. The menu currently highlights lamb from Boulder Creek Farm in Tigerton and microgreens from New Community Farm in Neenah, among other local meats and produce.
“We are trying to strengthen the relationships we have with local producers and looking for new ones too,” DeFranza says. “We are always looking to keep it in Wisconsin and keep it local.”
DeFranza credits co-head chefs Brian Seggelink and Marco Victoria as well as ordering manager Francisco Zavala for keeping the menu, and restaurant, running smoothly. “These people are the backbone of how we can make any of this happen,” she says.
After 10 years in business, it’s easier for DeFranza to see the big picture. Over the years several former Carmella’s employees have gone on to open their own restaurants which she sees as a positive thing.
“It’s an ever-changing landscape in the Fox Valley,” DeFranza says. “It’s been fun to see lots more food focused, local focused, like-minded ideas popping up all the time. I do feel like it’s changed so much in 10 years. Hopefully we were a part of that change.” –ACW
Best New Restaurant: Fress Restaurant and Bar
Fress Restaurant and Bar opened its doors April 2, taking over the former Katsu-Ya spot.
The College Avenue restaurant is owned by James Dudley, Steve Van Fossen and Jim Verhoeven. Dudley, formerly of Cena and Village Hearthstone, connected with Van Fossen one night at Appleton bar The Cold Shot.
“We were talking about work and Steve says if you ever want a partner in crime to help you open your own restaurant, let me know and he starts walking away,” Dudley recalls. “I told him to come sit back down.”
The three partners joined forces and after a three month renovation, Fress made its debut. Dudley wanted to offer local diners a tasting style menu similar to those at restaurants he has visited in larger cities. The idea is ordering multiple, smaller plates at lower individual price points, as opposed to one more expensive entree. Guests will find about a dozen of these plates under “Fress Fare” on the menu.
“We don’t call things ‘appetizers’ here because they’re not. A lot of people will have two or three of those which is a nice way to keep it affordable,” Dudley says. “I’d rather try everything to figure out what I really like than have menu anxiety and worry about ordering two costly things that aren’t awesome.”
General Manager Joy Laczny explains that food comes out as it’s ready, so nothing is sitting under heat lamps. “I encourage people to order two things, order two more and stop when they’re full. We get people who are skeptical, but by the time they leave they are singing the praises of doing it this way,” she says. “They say they talked more, shared more and the whole experience was more chill.”
“It’s fun because it creates more of a party dynamic at the table because people are sharing and passing plates,” Dudley adds. “People don’t have to do that, but we encourage it.”
The menu highlights worldly cuisine that is accommodating to many dietary needs. Vegetarian and gluten-free dishes are easily found. “We wanted to have a lot of dishes where the vegetable is the star and not just an afterthought. We work with farms that have such amazing wonderful things, why not feature them,” Dudley says.
At Fress, which also picked up the gold for Best Appetizer and Best Seasonal Menu, there aren’t only four seasons. There’s tomato season, asparagus season, squash season. You get the idea. This leads to a menu that’s ever evolving. Every dish is impacted by the seasonal offerings at hand, including dessert. During August’s bounty of sweet corn, pastry chef Jen Kronberg made sweet corn ice cream.
“It keeps one from being complacent and bored,” Dudley says.
The kitchen staff makes everything in-house, from the bread to the ricotta, and everything is utilized to its full advantage. Instead of tossing the scraps from ribeyes, they are ground into a meat sauce. The scraps of the scraps are used for stock. The chef team includes Colton Roberts, Matt Annisi, Ben Leanna and Erik Melchert, in addition to Dudley and Kronberg, with Jamie Ott behind the bar.
“We really are a team here,” Dudley says. “Fress isn’t just one person’s brainchild.” –ACW
Best Craft Cocktail: Town Council Kitchen & Bar
“I voted for TCKB for Best Craft Cocktail because you can’t find anything else like their cocktail list around. You will always find something new and interesting, often something I have never even heard of, and it always tastes delicious. My favorite cocktail is the TCKB Old Fashioned—it’s so good they put it on draft, it may not be like a typical Wisconsin old fashioned, but it is damn good. But whenever I stop in I try something new as well.” –Stephanie Cheslock, Menasha
Food & Dining