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A passion for food | Restaurateur Marc Bianchini has made appetite ‘a way of life’

When Osteria Del Mondo closed its doors in the Knickerbocker in April 2011, patrons hoped that one of Milwaukee’s best restaurants soon would find a new home. Owner Marc Bianchini initially promised a six-month hiatus before reopening in a smaller, higher-profile location downtown. 

Milwaukee foodies are still awaiting the restaurant’s return, but anyone who thinks Bianchini has been resting on his culinary laurels underestimates the restaurateur’s drive. Bianchini’s company On the Marc Restaurants includes the Milwaukee establishments COA, Cubanitas, and Indulge. Those restaurants have been keeping him and wife Marta, a native of Cuba, quite busy.

In June 2012, Bianchini partnered with a northern Illinois investment group to plant a flag in the highly competitive Chicago area. He opened Chili U in Libertyville, Ill., a restaurant that specializes in comfort food and, of course, chili.

For a man who considers his name a growing brand within Milwaukee’s restaurant industry, all of this activity is the result of a lifelong interest in food.

An early passion

A native New Yorker and son of a radiologist and real estate broker, Bianchini’s exposure to fine dining began early in life. He was fortunate to have cut his teeth – literally and figuratively – in some of New York’s finest restaurants. He fell in love with the industry at age 10, he says.

Bianchini’s first job, preparing desserts at a restaurant called Crooked Hill on Long Island, was just the beginning. After graduating from high school at age 17, he went directly to the Culinary Institute of America to learn the trade.

As part of his training, the aspiring chef completed externships at the Locanda del’ Angelo in Liguira, Italy, and at the San Domenico restaurants in New York City and Emilia-Romagna, Italy. At San Domenico in New York, he crossed paths with Paul Bartolotta, who invited Bianchini to Milwaukee to help start Ristorante Bartolotta in Wauwatosa. The original chef had quit a week before opening. 

Bianchini next moved on to Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, the high-profile Chicago restaurant chain. There he explored new markets and food types. By 1994, at age 23, Bianchini had returned to Milwaukee and started Osteria Del Mondo, his first restaurant.

“I knew from early on food must be done right,” Bianchini says. “From ingredients and cooking to presentation and ambience, eating should be an exceptional experience of culinary art.”

Bianchini has carried that philosophy to his other restaurants, including Cubanitas, 728 N. Milwaukee St., which serves an all-Cuban menu and is run by wife Marta. Diners can enjoy hearty Ropa Vieja, shredded flank steak served with tomato creole sauce, or a simple side of Plantanitos Maduros, or sweet plantains.

Indulge, 708 N. Milwaukee St., emphasizes wine, with 60 different varieties available by the glass. These can be paired with handmade chocolates, imported and domestic cheeses and hand-cut charcuterie – all sold by the ounce and designed to satisfy a variety of appetites.

“An appetite for life can never be satisfied,” Bianchini says. “We should feed the appetite, help it find the pleasure it seeks, and make that appetite a way of life.”

Milwaukeeans get it

The Bianchini restaurant currently creating perhaps the greatest stir is COA, 5730 N. Port Washington Road, in Bayshore Town Center. “Coa” is the sharp, long-handled tool used for cutting the agave cactus from which tequila is distilled. Bianchini hopes that COA will form the cutting edge for a new level of Mexican street food in Milwaukee.

“COA is by far the best Mexican restaurant in the city,” Bianchini says. “It’s one and only problem depends on your expectation when you walk in the door. If you want true Mexican food, you will love us, but if you’re after Tex-Mex, you may hate us.”

COA is attracting a large following from throughout the city. It’s authenticity, quality preparation and competitive prices are helping more diners understand what true Mexican food is like, something that has long been one of Bianchini’s goals.

One of the restaurateur’s favorite phrases is “now you get it.” The short sentence is not meant to be condescending, he says. Bianchini uses the phrase to communicate the simple pleasures of fine food. His enthusiasm and passion for culinary excellence are contagious, and more Milwaukeeans seem to be “getting it” when they experience one of his restaurants.

With the opening of the Libertyville restaurant, Bianchini hopes to continue spreading his culinary expertise and his gospel of good food indulgence to other markets in Chicago, Florida and maybe even home in New York, all under the Bianchini brand.

“There are no boundaries, there are no limits,” he explains. “But you have to be willing to take calculated risks in order to grow. But at no time should you compromise your integrity or the culinary experience.”

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