Growing up in Milwaukee as a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy with a big Italian name wasn’t easy. My father’s family was Sicilian with dark hair and olive complexion, about as distant as possible from the strong German features that I inherited from my mother’s side. I grew up Lutheran in a very Catholic world rich with tradition, both religious and familial. Holidays were feasts that began with preparations of special dishes and desserts, often accompanied by stories of the old days and “remember when” scenarios that included bootlegging and running moonshine under the guise of delivering Linco bleach to Chicago during the Capone era. While my German heritage supplied sauerkraut, beer, and wurst; it was my Italian family that impressed me with the important role of food, wine, and tradition in our daily lives.
St. Joseph’s Day was a feast celebrated in my paternal grandmother’s family, especially since Joseph was the patron saint of their village, Casteldaccia, Sicily. This event marked the beginning of spring and an elaborate altar of food—presented as an offering to the saint, blessed by the local priest, and shared with the community—all to honor St. Joseph. Marked by a special meat-free pasta with sardines in tomato sauce, this dish was topped with toasted bread crumbs, the bread having been blessed by the priest and saved to be scattered throughout the year during stormy weather. This offering was a call to the birds that surrounded St. Joseph, imploring him to stop the storm and bring sunshine.
These traditions—the food, the elaborate presentations, the stories and history—took root deep in my soul as I embraced each colorful moment, taste, and smell. Spending the weekend at my Nana’s meant the aroma of onions cooking early Sunday morning before the sugo rosso (red sauce) was made. If we timed it right, we could enter the kitchen just as the meatballs were being added to the sauce, and Nana would give a sample to each of us grandkids. Sunday dinners brought spaghetti, meatballs, bread, roast chicken, vegetables, pies, cakes, cream puffs, and cookies to the table. Holidays meant octopus, squid, and cannoli—feasts that would go on for days, marked by dishes that signified not only special times of the year, but also momentous occasions and family pride.
My mother, a young, blond German girl, married my dad in 1957 when she was 17. She found herself surrounded by a strong, matriarchal society that included my Nana and her mother, Nana Peppina, along with two aunts (my grandmother’s sisters). They all kept these traditions, these dishes, these foods and stories alive—and on the table for family and friends. While her non-Italian presence was, at first, an uneasy one, my mother soon became part of the preparation and continuation of the Italian-American heritage as she learned to cook for my dad. My great-grandmother told her: “If you’re going to be married to Nunzio, you must know how to cook the things he likes.”
Early culinary interest
Fast forward to the mid 1960s: my grandfather’s Milwaukee pizza place was called “Rudy’s Pizzeria.” I was given a ball of dough and the freedom of the tiny kitchen to make whatever I wanted. My culinary streak was activated. Throughout the next decades that included a first job at 15 (working in a pizza place in a bowling alley); an early partnership in a restaurant; employment in a deli and catering business in Green Bay; and ownership for 20+ of a graphic design, marketing, and advertising firm, cooking was always a hobby I shared with family and friends.
Synergy with Jason
During the 1980s, I spent half my time in Manhattan, running the design business, while often traveling back to Madison. In 2005, I met Jason Hoke who was then living in Washington, D. C. After studying at L’École de Cuisine, Jason worked as executive chef for a catering firm specializing in embassy events, and then apprenticed under Patrick O’Connell whose “Inn at Little Washington” (in Virginia’s hunt country) contains the restaurant that is one of the world’s best, with a three-star Michelin rating. Here Jason was part of the team that perfected an innovative approach to classic French cuisine. We shared many interests, embarking on travel filled with food and wine adventures. Within a month of meeting, we spent a few weeks in Spain, staying in an old farmhouse, shopping at local markets, and cooking for friends. The synergy of my Italian heritage met Jason’s classic French training, and we developed a culinary language that is the basis of D’Vino today.
While the “wine” of my youth was either red or beer, we’ve gotten to know our way around a wine list after traveling throughout the U.S., as well as trips to Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. On a recent visit to Italy to see the famous truffle-hunting Italian lagotto dogs at work, we were lucky enough to spend time in some small, family-owned wineries in Piemonte (the Piedmont), a region known for its sophisticated wines and food.
Jason’s culinary career stood alongside his lifelong passion for breeding and handling pure-bred dogs. After moving to Madison in 2006, Jason and I opened “SPAWOOF,” one of the first doggy daycare centers in the area. Jason also began pursuing his dream of becoming a professional judge for the American Kennel Club, and quickly became officially registered to serve as an AKC judge for close to 100 distinct breeds. He is now one of the most widely qualified (and youngest) of the AKC judges.
The combination of worldwide travel to dog shows, with visits to vineyards and Michelin-starred restaurants—exploring, tasting, and absorbing culinary cultures—fed my desire to open a restaurant of my own. During a trip to Sicily with my family, we spent time in the villages where my great-grandparents were born and lived. Experiencing the rich, culinary history that my ancestors knew, and enjoying numerous wine tastings in the countryside, the idea for “Dino Vino” took shape.
In 2007, Jason and I opened WOOF’S, a frolicking, neighborhood gay bar on King Street in Madison. When we had an opportunity to take over an adjacent space, we thought it a perfect time to create a wine bar with a “cichetti” concept. Patterned after the “bacari” we’d visited in Venice, D’Vino emulates these neighborhood spots that serve small plates of local fare with meat, cheeses, olives, and specialties from the kitchen. In true Venetian fashion, we offer an “ombra” of wine—perfect for tasting. “Ombra” is Venetian slang for a small glass of wine, actually meaning “a shadow.” This expression dates from the days when merchants in Piazza San Marco sold their wines by the glass; they would follow the shadow of the famous campanile to keep their wares cool.
We began working with Jeremy, the friend who had introduced us to the Italian vineyards; we’d previously collaborated with him on some pop-up dinners that we’d hosted in Madison as charity events. D’Vino’s wine offerings come exclusively from Swiss Cellars distributors and feature a wide range, with many wines from small family-owned and operated vineyards throughout Italy. The concept was easy: pair wines with food we’d perfected through the years. Remove any pretense about the wine, and make it an accessible and fun place that embodied my family heritage, our travels, and our shared taste and experience in food preparation and presentation.
Piazza mural & family photographs
During renovation of the new space, we installed a photographic mural, the image of the Sicilian piazza in the town where my great-grandfather was born; this was the same piazza that I had visited with my family a few years ago. We sat there in a café, drinking the local wine, and heard stories about my ancestors, about the Fascist occupation of Sicily, about Mussolini, and we listened to the church bells ring as we waited to dine in the restaurant owned and operated by my Italian cousins. This experience, along with the view of the seaside acres of lemon fields once owned by my family, provided ample inspiration for D’Vino.
As the plans for D’Vino progressed, we wanted to include some pieces of art made by artist and longtime friend Martha Glowacki. These are a series of sculptures commissioned to illustrate arboricultural examples of grape-vine growth and pruning. The handsome pieces are set into D’Vino’s entry wall—showing our connection to terroir, climate, grape varietals, and winemaking.
Next came our plans for the bar area, the “altar of the grape,” a perfect spot to install a large portrait of my other great-grandfather, Nano Nunzio. A Sicilian immigrant from Palermo, he was the father of 10 boys and patriarch of a succession of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants in the Milwaukee area during the first half of the 20th century. As children, we heard stories of the “Canadian Club” and “Pop Maniaci’s Club Midnight,” a couple of the establishments that our family ran. Many of the traditions I learned as a youth started with this man, including the naming of the first-born son after his grandfather. Each of his ten sons married and had sons, five of whom were named Nunzio, creating a caste of Nunzios. This inspired us to create a signature cocktail for D’Vino—the “Cinque Nunzio.” With Canadian Club whiskey, amaretto, and bourbon, this hand-crafted drink is already a great success.
The other photos that surround the bar and flank the kitchen area are my family portraits as well, including the memorable image of my great-grandmother Rose, standing (very pregnant with son number seven) as her husband sits nearby with their first six sons. In another photo, my great-grandfather and aunt (on my grandmother’s side) stand watch in their Chicago dry-goods store near our small kitchen. All seem to be watching as I carry out the family traditions that they taught me.
Jason began to shape the menu offerings as we took family classics and updated them with new and exciting preparations and ingredients. Octopus, a long-time holiday favorite, appears on the menu twice. One is a dish we discovered in Rome, a carpaccio of octopus served with a citrus vinaigrette, a small arugula salad, blood orange segments, and pistachio nuts. Our updated traditional fare includes arancini (rice balls). Nana’s were as big around as a softball and stuffed with a red sauce of beef and pea ragu. Our risotto is made the day before being served and cooled overnight, formed into balls, stuffed and dipped in flour, eggs, and bread crumbs before being fried to a golden brown. Jason brings saffron to the traditional risotto recipe; this innovation approach continues as Jason stuffs arancini with a smoky Gouda cheese. Another special offering, along with my Nana’s traditional ragu, is the rustic porcini mushroom risotto filled with mushroom duxelles.
Visitors to D’Vino can enhance their dining experience with an array of classic desserts. Many of these are my Nana’s specialties, including her cannoli that are traditional crispy-fried pastry tubes filled with a ricotta cream and studded with tiny chocolate chips dipped in pistachio and garnished with a cherry and a dusting of powdered sugar.
D’Vino’s “affogato” (a coffee-based dessert) melds crumbled amaretti cookies, hazelnut or vanilla gelato, and espresso for a delicious creamy treat. Italian cookies can be served with fried ricotta balls, a family favorite. These are a zeppoli-like donuts served with chocolate and raspberry dipping sauces, or with a slice of my take on classic Sicilian “cassata” cake, an almond-sponge layer cake filled with apricots, chocolate hazelnut spread, cannoli cream, and pistachio. Aperitifs, grappas, signature cocktails, and Italian beers complete the bar fare.
The family portraits displayed throughout D’Vino remind me of a shared theme that resonates in the 21st century. Family, friends, and neighbors faced with adversity, the challenges of surviving the Great Depression, the war years, or the current viral pandemic all rely on their traditions—creating excellent, simple food with available ingredients and celebrating together their treasured heritage.
Coronavirus closure and adaptation
After being open less than two weeks, we faced the governor’s order of either closing or limiting our approach to service. We quickly revised our menu, falling back on traditional dishes that sustained our families through tough times: pasta, meatballs, and sausages. These form the basis for the specific dishes we began offering as daily, lunch-time specials for customer pick-up. Revising our menu and our kitchen and pantry; creating and implementing an online ordering system; and developing a way to prepare, package, and serve food while maintaining strict safety measures meant reacting quickly and efficiently. Happily, we were able to expand the “to-go” menu to include cookies and cannoli, house-made limoncello, and bottled wines. We are proud to have created a popular weekly, virtual wine tasting. Another innovation was the paired packages that customers purchase for curbside pick-up having logged on to our podcasts from home for a virtual D’Vino connection.
Heritage sustains us, one inspiration connects the past to the present and allows us to thrive. No different than the drive and courage of my immigrant great-grandparents, their desire to survive in a country that was so different from their homeland yet that allowed them a place to take root while maintaining their heritage and traditions through food, family, and perseverance.
D’Vino is ready to meet the future as it unfolds: a traditional, Sunday family meal of pasta will most likely be added to our monthly offerings as one more way to stay connected to community. D’Vino keeps the tradition of breaking bread and sharing a meal of simple, quality fare with friends and loved ones to mark another era of survival and perseverance.