Tony Quartaro started cooking at a young age. His grandmother’s Sunday sauce set the bar for him. It was never exactly the same ingredients, but always delicious.
Make food with love and intention, use what you have, and make it delicious. He’s been striving for those goals since learning to make his vodka sauce as a pre-teen.
Cooking carried him around the country. The son of a college football coach, was home wherever his family was at the time. Cooking became his connecting thread.
Today, the husband and father of three have run a number of restaurant kitchens in Chicago. His latest venture brings together his Gemma Foods (named after his daughter) in partnership with Pilot Project Brewing, a launch pad for start-up breweries and their various styles of beer. Pilot Project’s Milwaukee tasting room, 1128 N. Ninth St., opened in November. The space previously housed the former Milwaukee Brewing Company.
Quartaro founded Gemma Foods in 2020 as a fresh pasta company providing kits nationwide from its base in Chicago. Its first official location, 1117 W. Grand Ave., Chicago, opened in February 2022, quickly followed by a new kitchen venture inside the TimeOut Market Chicago food hall at 916 W. Fulton Market, Chicago.
Now, Quartaro balances time between Milwaukee and Chicago, launching the newest Gemma Foods with Pilot Project Brewing. It’s a different menu, a different audience, but the same intentional cooking. Meatballs are made by hand, meats are ground in-house, fries are hand cut, and pickles are fermented. It’s an unpretentious menu meant to complement the brewery’s ever changing options, with a Wisconsin welcome that includes a healthy dose of cheese curds with its own spin.
For more on the menu and brewery tours to be added in the future, go to pilotprojectbrewing.com. Quartaro spoke about his new and old ventures.
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Question: Tell us about your background. What inspired you to pursue cooking as a career?
Answer: Cooking has been part of my identity even as a kid. It has been part of my life before food trends or blogs ever existed. I grew up in a very food-centered family. My dad was the primary chef in our home. My mom cooked too, but he was the force. He was also a college football coach. We moved a lot. I never had a home base other than my nuclear family. So food was a big part of my life no matter where we went. I learned from my grandma. I was making meatballs and making gnocchi, pushing the fork tines to get the lines …
My family was always bouncing around, but cooking was always a thing. Because of my dad’s hours, I started doing a lot of cooking myself. My sister’s friends had sleepovers, I’d be the first one up to make them pancakes, whipping egg whites to get them fluffy. I was learning all this stuff.
I got to the end of college. I was working at this place, pasta, wood-fired grill, everything made in house. This is the coolest thing ever! I reached out to my cousin, an instructor at California Culinary Academy. Now he’s known for Foodwishes, and Chef John (Mitzewich) has millions of YouTube followers. He was the one who told me “Don’t go to culinary school, come out here. No matter what you do you’ll learn.”
Q: What’s the first recipe that gave you confidence in the kitchen?
A: When I was 12 and at my grandma’s, my cousin was there, well before he was (YouTube) famous Chef John. … I told my grandma I wanted to make vodka sauce. It was my favorite thing to eat. I couldn’t get enough of it. This combination of tomato, cream and this one had pancetta and a bunch of stuff. I made a version for my cousin. I didn’t know what my cousin did for a living. He said “Hey, Tony, I do this for a profession and this is very good!” That’s my mom’s favorite story.
That was the first thing I perfected. Now we do a 9.0 version of it. Over the years we settled on the ideal of what I believe is vodka sauce. We don’t have it currently in Milwaukee, but in Chicago we make loads of it and it is part of who we are. We ship nationally.
Q: What differentiates your approach here in Milwaukee with the Pilot Project?
A: We are making food fit for a brewery. … We’re proud of what we’re serving, and it’s not exactly what we’re doing in Chicago. … For example, we made our famous meatballs in Chicago, we created the meatball sandwich in Milwaukee.
Q: People can get particular about meatballs. Tell us about yours.
A: First of all, texture is a big thing for me. If I get a bouncy meatball, I’m not going to be happy. It was important to make these as tender as can be. It is cutting everything on a cutting board, grinding properly. We do everything ourselves in house. We do not buy any pre-ground meat. I’ve been working on this recipe since about 2009.
Q: What should people know if they’re visiting the new space in Milwaukee?
A: It is an enormous space. Chicago’s Pilot Project has an all-day feel to it with overstuffed couches and all that. They want it to feel like a living room. (In Milwaukee) you walk in and there’s a lounge area, and if you want to eat there you’d be welcome. Then the main bar and dining area, and the skylights, and it feels almost like you’re in a terrarium with the living wall. There’s a lot of really cool stuff happening in that main room. … There is a rooftop that will be open next year, then the mezzanine in the brewhouse where all the brewing takes place.
Q: What was your “must have” menu for Milwaukee audiences? What’s your approach?
A: There is so much beer taking place here that is so wonderful. … I don’t want to say we’re gastro-pubby or traditional brewery fare. We’re carving our own path, but following pre-existing successes for us.
You will find cheese curds, that was a must. But they will be battered cornmeal. That’s been extremely popular …
We do make our own house french fries. We are not purchasing any frozen stuff. It is a labor of love. We dust them with fried rosemary and serve with a simple garlic aioli. We do a fish fry, a frito misto style. It is lighter and still delivers on the crunch factor. We have calamari, and lake smelt. My grandma was a massive smelt fan… I will go on record saying we will do a fish fry on Fridays at some point. We just haven’t gotten there yet. I do love them.
Q: What’s one thing you learned from your grandmother that you wanted to pass on to your own kids?
A: One of the things we took away is the Sunday gravy. It is the lasting memory of her food. She made the most incredible tomato-based but long-stewed pork sauce. It would have all kinds of things in it. There’d always be sausage in there, sometimes pancetta. Her sauce was never the same from an ingredient perspective. She used what she had, but it always came out velvety and delicious. I’m still trying to reach her level.
We do a Sunday gravy that we will probably bring here at some point. The vodka sauce and Sunday gravy, we haven’t done those here yet. Red sauce and beer aren’t as good as friends of wine and beer.
Q: But you are making food at a brewery, so when you think about beer pairings do you address it in the menu or sidestep it?
A: We’re not sidestepping. We’re looking at the constants which Pilot has under their label called “brewer’s kitchen.” Those are the constants we know we can play to, but they are also working with aspiring brewers who are part of the Pilot Project making great stuff. It makes it that much more of a challenge. We’re just trying to make good food that pairs with the classics.
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forks. Spoons. Life. explore the everyday relationships that local notables (within the food community and without) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email [email protected].
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Gemma Foods chef brings carefully crafted dishes to Pilot Project restaurant