Alex Salm describes Al Corso restaurant as one of those “build it and they’ll come” ideas. Only, when she and her husband chose the location, she wasn’t so sure they would.
Located in the unincorporated burg of Collins, population 164, it’s easy to understand why Alex Salm hesitated. Her husband, Dave Salm, had seen an ad in the newspaper for the ramshackle building that housed a bar he’d once visited in Manitowoc County.
“He said, ‘Do you want to go look at it?’ and I said ‘no,’” Alex Salm says.
The couple did end up buying the place for $19,000 in 2005. Constructed in the 1800s, the floors were so warped that certain doors couldn’t open all the way, and windowsills were rotted. The pair gutted the building, leaving little of the existing structure except the beams, bar and ceiling.
Alex Salm says throughout the process, she and her husband often wondered what they’d gotten themselves into, but the result was worth it. “It’s like in the movie the ‘Wizard of Oz’ where it’s all black and white, and then all of a sudden you drop down, and it’s color,” she says of walking into the restaurant’s dining room.
It turned out, though, that more adversity awaited the Salms. The couple opened the doors of Al Corso — the name means “on the main street” in Italian — in July 2007. Months later, the recession hit. Suddenly the restaurant’s value proposition of destination fine dining seemed shaky indeed.
In the early days, Alex Salm says they were lucky to bring in 20 people on a Friday or Saturday night. Making matters worse, the restaurant had gone through several chefs and its fare lacked consistency.
“You’re so knee-deep into it, you just keep moving forward,” Alex Salm says of the time. “(It meant) lots of sleepless nights … because you’re wondering, ‘How are we going to do this?’”
A new course
When the couple launched the restaurant, Dave Salm, a graduate of Fox Valley Technical College’s culinary arts program, stayed in his position as food service director of St. Lawrence Seminary in Mount Calvary. However, taking in the instability at the restaurant, he decided to take on the role of executive chef in 2011.
It wasn’t an easy road back. Once a restaurant loses customers to inconsistent quality, it’s difficult to draw them back in, says the Chilton native who grew up helping run his parents’ diner, Marcal’s.
“You really can’t rebrand yourself.”
When he took the helm as executive chef, however, the restaurant began to bolster its reputation, and positive word of mouth started to spread. Those endorsements spread from friend-to-friend and proved powerful for Al Corso.
These days, a typical Friday or Saturday brings a full house of mostly reservations-only guests partaking of the restaurant’s celebrated dinner and drinks menu.
The standing menu features favorite mainstays like steak, lamb, duck, chicken and seafood. He also creates a specialty menu that changes weekly and allows him to offer more innovative fare. If Copper River salmon or soft-shell crabs are in season, diners will find those on the specialty menu. Pecan-crusted halibut is a perennial customer favorite.
Ivan Schrodt, a longstanding customer who’s eaten at restaurants across the country, says Al Corso stands out.
“His seafood, across the board, is as good as you’ll find at outstanding coastal restaurants,” he says. “His steaks are better than most of the fine steak restaurants I’ve been in.”
Alex Salm says she understands that patrons pay a premium for the food and typically travel a distance to dine, so the restaurant’s staff of 10 strives to create an outstanding experience for them. That starts with touches like house-made bread, soup and dressings, and ends with sending customers on their way with a small white bag containing a shortbread cookie to enjoy in the morning.
The restaurant has become known for its whiskey and spirits menu. It recently launched its bottle keep program. Made up of 16 individual boxes above the bar in the restaurant, for $200 a year, people can rent a box and purchase and store bottles on the premises for future visits.
“We try to do different things that bring in a crowd that maybe other people aren’t doing,” she says.
Restaurant restored to greatness and in the hands of a capable staff, the Salms have expanded their interests. Dave Salm, also recognized as part of Best Chefs America, became a pitmaster, and a typical weekend between spring and fall finds him and Alex competing on the national barbecue circuit. Out of about 3,000 teams nationwide, Dave Salm’s, Legends of Smoke, is ranked 68th and climbing.
“You think you’re good until you go to barbecue and get judged, and it’s very humbling,” he says.
The couple also run a catering company called Belly Barbecue and launched their own line of Worcestershire sauces of the same name. Eventually, they hope to create a line of barbecue sauce as well.
Other ventures aside, the Salms remain devoted to their small restaurant situated near the picturesque Collins Marsh.
“We’ve been invited to go many places, to bigger cities, but I think you lose your charm when you go to a bigger city,” Dave Salm says.
Al Corso: If you go
Open Tuesday through Saturday; closed holidays
Reservations for groups larger than six accepted Tuesday through Thursday only
For more information: www.alcorsorestaurant.com