Chef Peter Sandroni Stays True to His Roots
Defining a Movement
When Chef Peter Sandroni moved back to Milwaukee with his wife, Sonia, in 2005, the only thing for certain was that he wanted to open a restaurant. “No matter what I did, I kept gravitating back to the restaurant business,” Sandroni says. “It’s orchestrated chaos. It’s constantly changing, while remaining the same.” Apart from serving delicious food day in and day out, he was determined to give back to the community that allowed him to turn his dream into a reality. He’s now giving back with his two restaurants, La Merenda and Engine Company No. 3.
Similar to La Merenda, which serves up plates of international cuisine on Milwaukee’s South side, Sandroni wanted Engine Company No. 3 to continue in the footsteps of the local food movement. “We weren’t the first to start buying local and we won’t be the last, but I do think we’re one of the most consistent, and I’m really proud of that.”
Sandroni buys local year-round and designs his menus around it. “We’ve created and forged relationships with farmers to the point where it’s a very interdependent relationship,” he says. “They’re dependent upon us to purchase what we say we’re going to, and we’re dependent upon them to grow what they say they’re going to grow.”
The local food movement quickly became the center of Sandroni’s outreach. “A few years back, I was asked by COA Youth and Family Center to come in and teach kids how to work with different foods grown in the center’s community garden. I had a group of kids ranging between 6–12 years old, so I immediately thought ‘pizza,’” he laughs. “I made pizza dough beforehand and made the kids roll it out. From the garden, we grabbed tomatoes, herbs, peppers and squash, so we were able to roast the vegetables to make a tomato sauce. We also made a small salad, and the kids absolutely had a blast!
Before “local food” became a recognizable term, the Urban Ecology Center would invite Sandroni to their annual CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Open House to demonstrate different ways of preparing common CSA box vegetables and to talk a little bit about the importance of supporting local farmers. “Now people understand the term ‘local,’ but nine years ago, you had to explain what it was and where to find it,” Sandroni says. He interlaces his hands behind his head and leans back, chuckling, “I mean, you still have to explain to customers why asparagus isn’t on the menu in February.”
With the opening of his second restaurant three years ago, Sandroni has had more space to use for community outreach. On May 13, Sandroni will host the annual fundraiser for the Farm Fresh Atlas of Southeastern Wisconsin, the free local food guide for the Milwaukee area and surrounding counties. “I’ve been part of this event for the past nine years, but this will be the fourth time I’m hosting,” Sandroni says. There will be a dinner and a silent auction, where the proceeds will go entirely to the production of the Farm Fresh Atlas. For more information or to RSVP, visit their website.
As Sandroni heads back down the staircase to the main dining area of Engine Company No. 3, he is surrounded by muffled pleasantries and delectable aromas wafting throughout the space. “Customers always ask me, ‘How are you doing?’ and I say, ‘Living the dream,’” he chuckles. “They look baffled at first and say, ‘Really? Your dream was to deliver food to me today? That’s your dream?’ My dream was to open this restaurant, and I don’t mean that flippantly,” Sandroni says. “I get to tell people I fulfilled a dream of mine, and I continue to do it every day. Bringing one customer their breakfast plate helped four, five ... six people in our community. Supporting local makes such a huge impact that it’s hard to even explain sometimes,” Sandroni says. “It’s a lot more fulfilling than people even realize.”
When asked if he would ever branch out of the local scene, he shook his head. “Staying local is an important part of who we are,” he says. “At the end of the day, no matter how much money we make, I still feel like the richest man in the city."
125 E National Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53204
Engine Company No. 3
217 W National Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53204