Call it love at first bite. I had serious doubts about putting anything into my mouth with the word “curd” in it, but when in Wisconsin, do as the Wisconsinites do. So I ate a cheese curd. And then another, and another, and another, and then suddenly the entire basket was gone.
Sampling these tasty treats — morsels of cheese that resemble blots of Play-Dough but taste heavenly — is sort of a prerequisite to getting to know Wisconsin.
And there’s no better place to begin an introductory course to Wisconsin than Milwaukee, the state’s largest city on Lake Michigan’s western shore.
Before my first visit to Milwaukee, which was originally a side trip from windy Chicago just a short drive to the south, I had preconceived notions of the city. Breweries, beer, bratwursts, factories, Laverne and Shirley and funny accents.
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But I was proven wrong. Well, except for the accents.
Who knew Milwaukee would evolve into a city jammed with culture, world-class restaurants and perhaps the ultra-coolest museum on the planet?
Let me get to the Milwaukee Art Museum first. I can only best describe it as an innovative architectural wonder that has wings that stretch wider than a Boeing 747 when the museum opens each morning. It takes four minutes for the museum’s signature Calatrava Wings, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, to fully extend. The sight is akin to an enormous silvered bird taking flight.
While the wings are as iconic as the Sydney Opera House or the St. Louis Arch, there is much more to see inside. Filled with more than 25,000 works from the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso and John James Audubon, and with ever-changing exhibitions and stunning, rare collections of paintings, sculptures and folk art, for the art lover, it’s a feast for the eyes and soul.
Did you know that you can make cheese from the milk of water buffalo — and that those water buffalo live on a Wisconsin farm? I didn’t either, until I popped in for a short tour of Clock Shadow Creamery, Milwaukee’s first cheese factory, which is located just across the street from the Milwaukee Brewing Co.
“Wisconsin is ground zero in the nation for the dairy industry,” said Bob, the head guide. “There are more master cheese makers in Wisconsin than any other state.”
The focus of Clock Shadow Creamery is fresh cheese, he said, before explaining the process of how cheese — and those delectable cheese curds — are made.
Where there is cheese-making, there are restaurants and markets and food tours. The concierge at my hotel said not to miss the Milwaukee Public Market. Great advice. A colorful melange of specialty restaurants and gourmet shops that offer everything from wines and flowers to freshly-made cheese, sausage and bread, it’s been a hub of activity for more than 100 years. Think of it as the farm coming to town.
After a quick sandwich at the market, I joined a group with Theresa Nemetz of Milwaukee Food Tours. She offers several culinary tours throughout the city, but I chose the Old World Third Street tour in the Westown neighborhood for its, well, antiquated European heritage from Germany, Italy, Poland and Ireland.
“Ethnic festivals abound on just about every weekend of the year,” she said as we meandered for about a mile sampling German fare and visiting spice markets, bakeries and even more cheese shops.
Along the way, we stopped at Glorioso’s Italian Market, so authentic you practically need a passport to cross the threshold. It’s a Tuscan or Umbrian village magically transported to Milwaukee via flavors, scents and aromas.
Nemetz even led us past a statue of one of Milwaukee’s coolest fictional residents: Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli of Happy Days fame.
One of my most memorable dining experiences was at Bacchus in the historic Cudahy Tower. The hardwood flooring, floor-to-ceiling windows and expansive views of Lake Michigan only add to the fact that the food was extraordinary.
After an appetizer of sea scallops, my palate moved to the barnyard with my choice of a delicious pan-roasted chicken with eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini that paired perfectly with a pinot gris from New Zealand. The entire meal was scrumptious.
There’s that “who knew?” factor again — it was a complete surprise that Milwaukee is such a great culinary destination.
HOGS & BREWS
I’m not much of a cliche person, but it fits here. There truly is something for everyone in Milwaukee. The Harley-Davidson Museum appeals to all the wild hogs out there, while the North Point Lighthouse and Schlitz Audubon Nature Center might be more for the mild hogs.
The architectural gem of the Pabst Mansion, once the home of beer baron Frederick Pabst, is for history fans, but so is the Grohmann Museum that features the Man at Work Collection that documents the evolution of organized work over the course of 400 years.
Milwaukee also offers brewery and distillery tours through Great Lakes Distillery, Milwaukee Brewing Co. and Miller Brewery. The Milwaukee Brewers baseball franchise plays at Miller Field.
If you’re a little more adventurous, take in Lake Michigan from the gorgeous, stately S.V. Denis Sullivan Tall Ship. When night falls, pedal away on the Pedal Tavern, a 16-person tavern-on-wheels bicycle that follows a designated pub crawl route. Or kayak downtown on the Milwaukee River with Laacke and Joys, a rental gear and sporting equipment store that’s more than 160 years old.
While I may not have found Laverne and Shirley in Milwaukee, all those preconceived notions of the city were whisked away, and I give this Midwestern gem a Fonzie-cool two thumbs up.