Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki
Angie D’Amato rests her arm on the back of the booth. The gesture is at once casual and protective, her arm encircling her husband, Sandy. I watch them chatting softly and peering out the open windows as I book to the restaurant entrance. I’ve arranged to meet them – the first time ever. I might look calm, but inside, I’m freaking out.
During my first few years of working at the magazine, I was the full-time fact-checker. The Internet just a twinkle in an IT guy’s eye, this meant full days working the phones, tracking down sources for every story to make sure names were spelled correctly, stats checked out, dates were accurate, etc.
That included doing a fact-check on then-dining critic Willard Romantini’s reviews. My desk phone was rarely on the receiver. I kept stacks of Mil Mag back issues because they held previously fact-checked stories I could refer to. One of the issues I paged through, more for curiosity than fact-checking purposes, was May 1990. “Best New Restaurants” was the cover story; the youthful faces of newly minted restaurateurs Sandy and Angie D’Amato, who’d opened Sanford just months prior, wearing the hopes and dreams of entrepreneurship in their glowing smiles.
“We’re learning every day,” Sandy said at the time. But their first night of business was a “disaster,” Romantini wrote. The D’Amatos had tried a new ordering system, which the servers couldn’t master, and “food stacked up in the kitchen as waiters scrambled to serve it.”
Still, it didn’t take long for this intimate little joint in the old D’Amato family grocery store to be the hottest – and hautest – place in town.
Sandy spent most of the 1970s in cooking school and working at restaurants in New York City, then made some Milwaukee noise running the kitchen at John Byron’s, the culinary showpiece of the First Wisconsin Center (now the U.S. Bank Center). Whether cooking for Julia Child’s 80th birthday or winning a James Beard Award, Sandy has brought national recognition to a city overshadowed by the perception of sausage platters and weiner schnitzel.
It’s surreal that 23 years after that cover story, I’m throwing down margaritas with the D’Amatos. “I feel like we know you without knowing you,” Sandy said. “You wrote about us for so long.”
I started writing about food – and taking cooking classes, reading great food writing and traveling to stellar food cities – after handing fact-checking off to someone else. When I took over the dining beat in the late ’90s, it was with the understanding that a wall stood between local restaurant industry people and me. I could only talk to them by phone or email. I couldn’t meet them.
Now, here are the D’Amatos, across the table and no longer in the restaurant business. And I’m free to reveal myself.
Sandy slices the tacos so we can share. Angie squeezes lime juice on a mound of guacamole. They stare at me, as though something inanimate has suddenly become human.
Milwaukee’s restaurant royalty are ready for a new challenge. Since selling Sanford a year ago to longtime chef Justin Aprahamian, they divide their time between Milwaukee and the East Coast, where they own property. The house sits on about two acres in Hatfield, Mass., where Sandy tends to the vegetable garden and orchard. Renovations to the house include a 2,400-square-foot addition that holds their cooking school. (They expect to start classes in late spring/early summer of 2014.) They’ve named the property Good Stock Farm (goodstockfarm.com).
Completing the circle of new is Sandy’s memoirs, Good Stock: Life on a Low Simmer, a book close to four years in the making and culled from handwritten notes. Ever a team, Angie typed many of the notes “until I finally got savvy enough and got it on the computer,” says Sandy.
Hatfield will not be a substitute for Milwaukee, “the defining place,” as Sandy calls it. They still rent a place here and offer help to Aprahamian whenever needed. But now, a new adventure begins. Over a plate of tacos, I witnessed their excitement, face to face.