Fresco Café

Angie Ripple  |   Monday Apr. 1st, 2024

Although a handful of Napoleon Bonaparte’s most famous quotes reveal that he was most certainly of a different time than ours, some stand both the test of time and place. Two in particular help tell the story of Susan and Bill Neubauer’s Fresco Café: “If you want a thing done well, do it yourself,” and “Victory belongs to the most persevering.” Fresco Café has held a cultural status for Bozeman’s Italian food scene for nearly twenty years. When the current location at 317 E Mendenhall opened nearly ten years ago, Bill’s Uncle gifted him a painting that he had created of Napoleon and Josephine that had hung in his grandparents’ supper club in Wisconsin for years. The fierce French couple look over the bar of the café and into the dining room as Susan and Bill, another fierce couple, negotiate all the things that restaurant ownership brings their way.

Angie Ripple: How was Fresco Café conceptualized?

Susan Neubauer: Oh, it was a long time ago. We had two concepts: the first one, almost 18 years ago, was our 7th Street location. We had been looking for a restaurant for a really long time. My husband Bill grew up in the restaurant business; he and his parents worked in his grandfather’s supper club in Wisconsin. Their supper club was really popular because it was right on the interstate between Chicago and Minneapolis. So, he grew up cooking, and doing all of the things in that restaurant. A lot of the things in our restaurant reflect that history; the Napoleon and Josephine painting was painted by Bill ’s uncle for his grandfather to hang in that supper club, and was passed down to us when we opened this location. Pictures of his grandfather from his original, first-ever little 1930s restaurant hang on our walls. So, you know, it’s a long line of restaurateurs on that side, and Bill felt as though he just couldn’t get it out of his system. After he’d been a ski patroller and a wilderness ranger, and I had had my own business in Big Sky, we began looking around to find a space for what could become our restaurant. It was really hard to find anything in the Main Street core for years; finally, we found a place on 7th Avenue, which was where the original Fresco was.

We loved Italian food and, me being from New York, and Bill wanting to do something different than what he grew up with, we set out to do something small, more intimate. It started out like a deli, lunch and dinner. We didn’t have a liquor license at first. As it grew, it morphed more into a café, bistro-style restaurant. Then, we just started to outgrow that space, so we kept looking for something closer to downtown. And it took many years, but after 2008, suddenly there was more available; we fell on this location, which was pretty rough at the time. The courtyard was an empty lot. This particular space that we’re in now was a warehouse, a dirt floor warehouse.

I give Bill credit for having the concept and the visualization of what it could become because I was like, ‘this is terrible. I don’t know what you’re looking at.’ And he had this vision of what it could become. It was pretty astute. It took us over two years to really get the place constructed, put together, and then we moved.

We had just sort of taken the idea that we had over at Little Fresco, as we affectionately call it, and turned it into this, which was a higher end, upscale version of what it was. But we liked the cinder block walls and keeping it a little low key, trying to replicate the Old World feel of the places you go to in Italy.

AR: What do you want people to experience when they walk through your doors?

SN: I think one of the things we hear the most is—which is sort of what we were after—was that it’s cozy and inviting. It’s a warm, welcoming feel when you walk in. That’s what we were going for… the yellow walls…  it’s very Italian, and it’s really warm. The idea here was to elevate the food, and elevate the experience so it was a little bit more fine dining, but still have it feel welcoming, down-to-earth, and approachable. And so that’s sort of been our mantra.

AR: What menu item do regulars keep coming back for?

SN: There are a couple. I’d say the Pesto Cavatappi is a go-to for a lot of people. We’ve had that on the menu since the very beginning.
The old school menu items are really the ones—the Lasagna Bolognese. You can’t really go wrong. Really, we stick to traditional Italian fare because that’s what people love.

AR: What is your personal favorite menu item?

SN: My personal favorite is probably the Gorgonzola Chicken. It’s really decadent, really over the top. If I ate it every night, it wouldn’t be good. It’s a special occasion one. It’s very, very, very good. It’s roasted vegetables, you can do it over pasta, I usually just stick with the vegetables and the chicken and the gorgonzola cream sauce and it’s… it just hits all the flavors. It’s so good! It’s very, very comforting. 

AR: What would you say makes Fresco Café unique in the Bozeman food scene?

SN: I think it’s changed over time, because this food scene has changed a lot. I think when we first opened, we were sort of trying to be elevated Italian. And now, we’ve almost morphed. It’s still a fine dining experience, but it’s a little more on the traditional side. It’s a little bit more, big portions, and we’re not trying to make everything fancy. It’s more what we know people love; that’s what people will come back for. And it’s probably not the most refined, cutting-edge food, but it’s really good food.

It’s all made from scratch. I would say that sets us apart from some places. Every single thing we make, we make from scratch. Whether it’s a salad dressing, a sauce—down to stocks and demi glazes, we make it all here.

AR: What do you enjoy most about being part of the Bozeman community?

SN: There’s so much growth happening, and it’s changing so rapidly. But I still love that Bozeman is a place that in 20 minutes you can be up in the mountains, totally outside of all the hectic craziness. And when you’re at the grocery store, for better or for worse, you could still probably run into at least four people you know. And when something happens, or there’s a crisis, it definitely feels like people rally together, and people take care of each other. So it still has enough of the small town vibe for me. And there are nice parts about growth, too. I mean, there’s more to do, more to see, you know? 

AR: Absolutely. Is there anything particular coming up that you would want readers to know about?

SN: In April, we will be getting ready to open our patio—that’s like the most exciting thing that happens all year here—we have a really great patio! It’s right downtown, but you’re outside, next to a creek, which is pretty cool, and hard to come by—pretty unique. So, we’ll be getting that all cleaned up and ready. 

The other big project we have coming down the pike is that we just signed on with a small female winemaker in Italy. We have a deal where we can put our label on their wine,  and that will be our new special house wine. I  believe it’s a Nebbiolo. It’s going to be a really nice red wine. Supporting small, local agriculture in Italy and also, we’re getting it through Cardinal, so supporting the local businesses here, too. That’s kind of a fun project we’ve got coming this summer.

Reservations are highly recommended during the summer. We do keep the bar and our high tops open for walk-ins, and we extend that a little bit in the summer to certain tables, but it gets busy, and we don’t want you to miss out.

When you have your next hankering for delicious Italian food in an intimate, or creekside setting, make a reservation at Café Fresco. While in the dining room, be sure to observe the Napoleon and Josephine painting, and photos of Bill’s grandfather working in his original restaurant in the 1930s. If you’d like, you can take a moment to congratulate the Neubauers on their fierce perseverance, and ten years at the current location.

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