Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Rustica’s “American cuisine with a European flair” got Food Network star Guy Fieri’s tastebuds glowing, he told TV viewers Friday on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
The Food Network star visited the Moorhead eatery last June, along with four Fargo restaurants and a second, Sol Ave. Kitchen, in Moorhead. Rustica was the last visit to be broadcast from the Fargo stop of his Flavortown tour … but not at all the least, given the A+++ rating he awarded the eatery.
For owners Anna Weisenburger and Micah Leitel – Rustica’s general manager and executive chef – it was the climax of a most unlikely experience in an even unlikelier year, one the two call “a wild ride.”
It began when Anna picked up the phone last May. “We got a cold call in the middle of the day from a producer,” she remembers. The two caught up with Micah in the parking ramp just as he returned from a foray for ingredients.
He was disbelieving. “I was confused. We’re not a diner, a drive-in or a dive,” he says. Nor was he a regular viewer; he hadn’t watched the Food Network staple for at least five years. The producer explained the show’s format had changed in the years since it became a household name, and pretty much anything goes except snooty fine dining.
“Never in a million years,” he says now, “did we expect something like this.” But the producers chose Rustica, and a month later, there they were.
Fieri’s production team spent about 20 hours at the restaurant over two long days, starting with Sunday in the kitchen and moving to the front of the house the next day. The proprietors invited a highly winnowed list of 15 guests to partake in person of the Poutine (with crisp fingerling potatoes and housemade gravy) and Pasta Chorizo the TV team selected. Among those who made cameo appearances chewing: Former mayors Del Rae Williams and Johnathan Judd, Downtown Moorhead director Derrick LaPoint and Convention & Visitors Bureau director Charley Johnson.
“Guy himself was here for 20 or 30 minutes Monday afternoon,” Micah reports. “When you’re meeting a celebrity, you never quite know what to expect … but he was personable and friendly. Very nice.”
Anna notes there was one catch. The TV team had selected the dishes to be featured from a very old menu, dating back to when founders Eric and Sara Watson founded the restaurant. That fits with her and Micah’s approach, though, to maintaining traditions as they purchased the business less than two years ago from the Watsons, who opened it in 2014. Since then, Rustica’s menu has changed frequently, but the pair has maintained its allegiance to the dishes that regular customers remember and expect.
“It’s our baby now, but it’s still the Watsons’ grandbaby,” the chef emphasizes. “We give it the same love and care. But we’re doing our own stuff, too.”
“What’s an heirloom versus what’s a relic?” Micah asks rhetorically. “We add new dishes, but the things people love will never go away.” He points to Chorizo-Stuffed Dates, Buttermilk Fried Chicken and the Burrata Cheese Plate as perennial classics. And the cheeseburgers. “I’ve made so many stupid cheeseburgers,” he grins. “I didn’t eat one for two years. But then I tried one and thought, ‘Oh, that’s good’ – and ate one for lunch every day for two weeks.” The secret? “We use top-quality ground beef, salt and pepper. That’s it,” he confides. “The secret ingredient? We make them with love.”
Owning a restaurant is always a crazy ride, but Anna and Micah’s experience takes the cake. After opening in late 2019, they had barely gotten their feet on the ground when the pandemic turned the dining world upside down. They turned to take-out – “a whole different world,” Anna points out – then reopened to limited numbers of guests in mid-year. After Micah was diagnosed with Covid-19 in October, they closed again. He had just gotten the all-clear and was back on the job in November … when all in-person dining was halted for the rest of the year due to emergency decree.
The business is running smoothly now, the partners assert, though with fewer guests seated in the dining room and tavern due to social distancing. Most of the staff whom they were forced to lay off during the closures are back, along with guests who missed Rustica’s warm, friendly atmosphere.
But take-out – for too long their only option – still accounts for a quarter of their orders. “How do we extend our hospitality to someone sitting in their own living room?” Micah says. “That’s been one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic.”
While Rustica is the partners’ first episode as owners, both have long experience in the field. Micah worked in food service at Eventide for 16 years before joining the Watsons in 2014. “I had worked my way up from a third-class grunt at the pizza station to sous chef by the time Eric [Watson] wanted to sell.”
Anna, meantime, had learned the business managing several local restaurants including Porter Creek and the original Ushers House. “I’d always wanted to work for the Watsons,” she says. But they announced they wanted to sell only a few months after she’d been hired. “Micah came to me, and we agreed we had to jump in,” she reflects.
He adds, “We have a sense of duty to the guests. We couldn’t have someone else coming in and changing it.”