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Of All the Gin Joints
A little bit of Wisconsin is growing in an unlikely place.

Photos by Henry Hargreaves

In a 10-block maze of diagonal intersections in New York City’s West Village, Perla, Fedora, Joseph Leonard and Jeffrey’s Grocery – four restaurants owned and operated by Madison native Gabriel Stulman – encircle Kettle of Fish, the city’s most authentic Packers bar and the sloshing heart of what’s come to be known as “Little Wisco.”

The narrow alley dive wears Wisconsin on its sleeve: green and gold everywhere, faux Packer helmets, Cheesehead hats, historic team photos. Walk two blocks in any direction from this epicenter, and you’re likely to come across one of Stulman’s restaurants, where references to Wisconsin are more subtle. Each spot specializes in a culinary style, and they’re as divergent as American bistro, meat-centric Italian or diner-style luncheonette, without forgetting nods to the Midwest.

 
Big Apple Sconnies
Explore restaurants giving a section of New York City some Wisconsin flair.
Stulman,
Esquire’s 2012 Restaurateur of the Year, says Little Wisco, including the name itself, “came about unintentionally and organically.” As he and his partners “opened more and more restaurants, all within blocks of each other, we acquired the nickname.” New York press picked up on it (and had a hand in popularizing it in the first place). Eventually, Stulman took it as the name of his restaurant group, even though creating a microcosm of Wisconsin wasn’t his original intention. He started simply in 2006 by opening a restaurant of his own, he says, “and I wanted to work with my friends. Then it became a self-perpetuating contingent. People from Wisconsin came flocking, hearing of our ties to the Badger State.”

The small and swanky menu at Fedora lists Old Fashioned cocktails and Miller High Life beers. The American bistro offerings at Joseph Leonard include a Six Points Brewery lager called “Little Wisco Special” paired with Midwestern-style braunschweiger. Six Points, based in Brooklyn, is run by another Madison ex-pat, Shane Welch. Collaborations for Joseph Leonard’s menu also mix in produce from Ben Flanner, a Milwaukee native and founder of the Brooklyn Grange Farm, and charcuterie from Madison’s intriguingly named Underground Meats Collective.

Mention the Madison Farmer’s Market or the Milwaukee Art Museum in any one of Stulman’s restaurants, and your server is quick to claim his or her Wisconsin roots. “You don’t see the Wisconsin influence in the menu so much,” Stulman says, “but definitely in the distinctive push for exemplary service and hospitality.”

Hear more about Little Wisco on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Jan. 16 at 10 a.m.
He’s in the process of rolling out two new restaurants in Little Wisco. When asked about the potential need for a larger staff of ex-Wisconsinites, Stulman’s existing bartenders joke that “more of us will easily turn up.” In the early months at Joseph Leonard, the bar was littered with recent University of Wisconsin grads hungry for a job that fed their sense of Midwestern friendliness.

And when in need of a heavy dose, they can always stroll the two blocks down to Kettle of Fish. It’s proof positive of the staying power of all things cheesehead.



 




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