The mismatched mix of tables and chairs in the dining room at La Merenda is slightly unexpected as your host/hostess walks you to your table. As a culture, we’ve come to expect great décor to accompany our top level dining.
But don’t underestimate the power of eclecticism.
The dining chairs are merely a vehicle to keep you comfortable. And the tables are in service to your simple need for a place to put a plate, a glass and silverware. It’s simple, unadorned, and serviceable. The garage sale meets flea market chic speaks to the eclectic nature of the menu – but it also does one more very important thing: It directs your attention exactly where It needs to be – on the food.
It’s easy for me to romanticize the setting, but as owner Peter Sandroni tells it, the décor was all a matter of economics – and, in a way a happy accident. “We bought the building and when we opened we could only put so much into it – so we couldn’t build it out any more than what you see,” he told me during an afternoon meeting at the restaurant. He’s always on the lookout for chairs and tables.
“I’ve had servers going home from work, and spot some chairs and call me – oh my God Peter, there’s some chairs at a rummage sale on Humboldt, you’ve got to get over here!”
The décor also draws Peter back to his roots and the way he and his family ate together. “It wasn’t formal by any means … we wanted it to feel like how you’d be dining in your kitchen.”
My wife and I visited Le Merenda on our recent wedding anniversary. Our past memories of the food were as clear as our many memories over the 26 years we’ve been together.
“Remember the time our kids … um, remember that prosciutto salad?”
It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The food is that good. The menu is international and is divided by sections titled in multiple languages. For example the meat section of the menu is headed “PASTURE/PASCOLO/FEARAIGH/PASTULAN.” The first word is the English word and the following words are foreign translations. Not only is the food amazing, I now know how to say, “pasture” in Irish. And, at no additional charge.
In parentheses after each menu item is that particular dish’s country of origin – and over the course of a dinner that lasts an hour or so, you’ve traveled quite far -- Peru, India, Egypt, Spain, Korea, and of course, Wisconsin. The truffled potato skins made from potatoes sourced from a farm in Antigo, Wisconsin are delicious – and addictive.
Couples seem to find La Merenda the perfect place for a night out. “We win a lot of restaurant date and romantic awards,” Peter told me, kind of surprised. But the fact that the small plates are shareable forces you to interact with the people you are dining with. “A lot of discomfort comes off of people when they eat here,” Peter says.
La Merenda has been serving these small plates for over a decade and the restaurant stays busy (reservations strongly recommended, especially on weekends). It was a unique concept back then and in today’s restaurant environment where the competition is much more fierce, continues to thrive.
That success is inherently tied to Peter’s passion for food and running a restaurant. He loves the atmosphere, the pace, and the daily challenge of it. His passion for cooking comes from his Mom, who he says was a great cook. “My mother was a good home cook. She had her dishes that I would put up against a lot of people,” Peter says. When Peter set off for college at Marquette University, his mom was so afraid he would starve she gave him a spiral handwritten notebook of recipes he could cook – and cook he did. “I entertained in college with this notebook," Peter remembers.
“I had a Veal Parmesan dish that would knock everyone’s socks off in college.” His roommates were damn lucky.
Still, while in college, Peter never thought he was going to be a restaurateur. ”I was a political science major,” he says laughing, “I spent summers working on political campaigns.” But in an odd year Peter found himself with no campaigns to work on one summer. “My dad’s sister and brother-in-law own a couple restaurants in Atlanta and I spent a summer with them. That’s when I got the bug.”
From there he finished Marquette and went to culinary school in Chicago where he met Jennifer Aranas, owner and chef of a Filipino restaurant named Rambutan. He learned a lot from Jennifer – how to apply what he was learning in culinary school to the real world, and more importantly, how to run a restaurant. When she sold, he decided to come back to Milwaukee. “It was what I knew,” he says.
It was Jennifer that he credits with giving him the idea for an International Tapas restaurant. For our anniversary dinner we ordered some of our favorites – the Argentinian Beef, Empanadas, and yes, the aforementioned Potato Skins and Prosciutto Salad. We’ve ordered most of the menu over the years, and in the process realized that, while the menu is “small plates” they have a tendency to add up. By the end of the dinner you’ve consumed a little more than you intended.
But hey, if there’s a place to overeat, this is definitely it.
You walk away with your palette having explored many roads, one small plate at a time. The shared experience of trying many different kinds of food makes you want to return and explore other parts of the menu. The experience draws a direct correlation to the actual name of the restaurant. If you look up La Merenda, it translates as “snack.” But the actual etymology of the term goes back 200 years.
Peter explains, “My friend Bill Penzey [of Penzeys Spices] used to give out this book called Honey From a Weed by Patience Gray. She spent 20 years dining on a French Island, a Greek Island and an Italian Island. One of the chapters in that book is titled “La Merenda.” In it, she explains the deeper meaning of the term.
“Getting your friends and family together to share food and wine.”
The name couldn’t be more perfect.