12 South Carroll St., Madison
Owner: Ken Monteleone
Hours: Monday-Friday 9:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m.; Saturday 8:00 a.m. until 4 p.m.; closed on Sunday. Classes start at 6:30 p.m.
Fromagination owner Ken Monteleone is as much a cheesemonger as he is a matchmaker. It is clear upon glancing at biography placards of featured cheesemakers or simply talking with him that he loves pairing cheeses with people as much as the “perfect companions”—beer, wines, and other food specialties—that line the meticulously designed interior of his shop.
“We want our store to be inclusive,” he said, adding that what he loves about his location on the Capitol Square is the diverse community.
Monteleone’s Italian roots show in his philosophy: food was what was always shared. Fromagination is where figuratively and geographically, “all walks of life” meet in the middle.
“We want to create an environment that’s true to Madison, whether that’s gay, straight, or transgender,” he said.
Customers are encouraged to sample the cheeses. Monteleone firsts looks locally, hunting down full-flavored, traditional products such as the heavily decorated Pleasant Ridge Reserve—Uplands cheese, made only when cows are grazing on pasture.
“What’s most fulfilling is when you have people coming in from all walks of life taste things they haven’t had before,” he said. He notes that one day a homeless woman came in with just a few dollars. She wanted a Swiss because she was originally from Monroe. A few bites later, she left with an Emmenthaler.
“It opens their world to what they may have been missing,” Monteleone said.
It was not too long ago that Monteleone discovered what he was missing in his past life as a retail executive for Famous Footwear and Lands’ End. It was on his business travels that he started to see that his passions and profession were misaligned as he found himself browsing European markets instead of shoe stores.
Monteleone left the corporate world to spend a year traveling the globe pursuing what his gut had been telling him.
“I had a very supportive partner who allowed me to take the time to do this,” Monteleone said, noting that his late partner was instrumental in making the dream of Fromagination possible.
Monteleone became a self-educated cheesemonger who sought the advice of the cheesemakers themselves to ask what they would do if they opened a specialty cheese store. He has gone to great lengths to put “cheese in an environment they’d like to see their cheese live in.”
Each cheese is given scrupulous care—right down to the rustic-printed wrapping paper that hugged the Sartori Reserve Bellivitano Black Pepper cheese I brought home to pair with the Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale in my fridge. After stealing a small nibble on my drive back, it wasn’t much past 10:30 that morning before I paired the cheese and the beer with me. If that isn’t love I don’t know what is.
Not ready to commit? Adopt a bite-sized piece of “orphan” cheese near the checkout and see what develops.