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Della Porta

Mar 12, 2023

By Sam Watson, June 7th, 2023

The taste of authentic Italian food is now as close as Ellison Bay. That's where you’ll find Della Porta ("of the Door") Trattoria e Pizzeria Napoletana, a newly opened restaurant that's co-run by Joe Ouimet, Robin Brown, and Tesa and Joe Schulte.

For many people, the phrase "Italian food" brings to mind all the wrong images, Ouimet said – spaghetti and meatballs and red-checkered tablecloths among them.

"That's Italian American food," he said. "Italian immigrants, years ago, were using what ingredients were available to them at the time and preparing them with Italian techniques."

It's not uncommon for people to be surprised when they have their first taste of authentic Italian food – or to end up enjoying it more than its Americanized counterpart, Ouimet said. That's one reason the four wanted to start the restaurant: to introduce people to real Italian fare.

"I’m excited to share our culture, our food, with everyone who walks in the door," Tesa Schulte said.

Della Porta has been serving dinner in Blue Bear (a breakfast and lunch restaurant at 12029 Hwy 42) Fridays through Tuesdays since early May, but that's not its permanent home. Instead, the restaurant will eventually occupy the former Viking fish boil building on the same property once the remodeling is completed.

That building's outdoor bar should be finished around July, and its indoor area has a fall completion estimate. That area will feature a customized Acunto Napoli pizza oven from Naples, Italy. Such an oven, according to executive chef Robin Brown, is integral to creating an authentic Neapolitan pizza.

"I’m from Naples," Brown said. "Pizza was invented there, and the process of pizza-making [there] never really changed in hundreds of years."

For Brown, that process involves fresh, local products that are flash-baked for only 60-90 seconds in a 950-degree oven, so as not to mask the flavor of the ingredients.

"If you have good-quality tomatoes in their prime, you want to taste them and enjoy them," Brown said.

The same goes for cheese, which should be just starting to melt by the time the pizza is pulled from the oven.

"It's like a good glass of wine," Brown said. "You want to be able to see the freshness of the product."

To that end, Della Porta is sourcing the majority of its ingredients locally, partnering with businesses such as Hidden Acres Farm and Door County Creamery of Sister Bay, and Waseda Farms of Baileys Harbor, among others.

Though authentic Italian fare is a far cry from the American breakfast and lunch that Blue Bear serves, Brown and Tesa Schulte – who owns Blue Bear with her husband, Joe – have the same philosophy about food, prioritizing in-season ingredients whenever possible. So Della Porta's menu will change with the seasons, based on available ingredients. A limited menu was served in May, with a more extensive one rolling out in June.

Brown said the restaurant will import ingredients from Italy that it can't source locally – "peculiar products" such as water-buffalo cheese and sun-dried pastas.

Brown's culinary career has taken him all over the world, from Naples to London to Miami to, most recently, Milwaukee, where he served as the executive chef at San Giorgio Pizzeria Napoletana.

The pandemic made him consider another move – and regular motorcycle trips to Door County sold him on the idea.

"I fell in love with Door County, and I promised myself, ‘Two years down the road, I’ll open up a spot there,’" Brown said.

Tesa Schulte – who had known Brown for years through connections in the Milwaukee restaurant scene – had a similar goal. She had been visiting Door County since she was a child, and with 20 or so years of restaurant experience under her belt, she had been pondering the idea of starting a restaurant in the area for years, keeping an eye on local restaurants for sale all the while.

"We [Tesa and Joe Schulte] looked at around 18 different properties in the last five years, and none of them felt right," Tesa said.

But when the Viking Grill went on the market around 2022, the Schultes felt it was a perfect fit, especially considering its relatively new restaurant facilities and the property's room for expansion. The pair bought the building and opened it as Blue Bear later that year.

While they worked on getting Blue Bear off the ground, their daughter Alysa Schulte, who worked with Brown in Milwaukee, was thinking a few steps ahead.

"She kept saying to Robin, ‘You should talk to my parents; you could do something together,’" Tesa said – so Brown connected with the Schultes about working together on a restaurant. Ouimet, a friend of Brown, joined later as the group's accountant and "official food taster."

The four-person partnership works – in part thanks to their shared cultural heritage and the happy memories associated with the food that they’re making, Tesa said.

"This is food I had when I grew up," she said. "Sometimes the smells coming out of the kitchen bring me back 40 years to my grandma's cooking. It's good for my soul to celebrate that culture again."

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Burrata alla caprese, featuring hand-tied Grande burrata and baby heirloom tomatoes on a bed of arugula. Photo by Rachel Lukas. Della Porta's signature charcuterie board, featuring sourdough focaccia and imported cured meats and cheese. Photo by Rachel Lukas. Della Porta's pizza oven. Facebook photo. Brown tops off his paccheri alle cozze with olive oil. Photo by Rachel Lukas. Developing Della Porta Paccheri alle cozze, featuring imported Gragnano Paccheri pasta, PEI mussels and fresh cherry tomatoes. Photo by Rachel Lukas. Gnocchi noci e gorgonzola, featuring homemade potato gnocchi stuffed with Gorgonzola, served on a walnut and wild mushroom sauce. Photo by Rachel Lukas.