John Ryan grew up in the kitchen — an Italian kitchen, to be exact.
As a child, his babysitters were “great Italian mothers,” and from them he learned about the art of good food.
“My favorite Italian dish was always a chicken parmesan hero,” he said. “We ate them for lunch in the authentic Italian pizzerias on Flatbush Avenue and in the homes of my Italian grammar-school classmates. Beautiful, red, homemade ‘gravy’ they called it ... We call it ‘sauce.’ I can still remember the smell inside those houses.”
When the Brooklyn, New York, native relocated to Montana, he didn’t want to leave those dishes behind.
In January, with help from partner Rob Thatcher, Ryan launched Brooklyn Rolls — a late-night food cart and catering business specializing in hot Italian sandwiches. From 9:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., Ryan and the company’s third partner, Mary Purvis, set up shop in downtown Whitefish, directly across from the Great Northern Brewery.
They serve up Brooklyn classics such as the chicken parmesan sandwich — lightly breaded fried chicken, topped with marinara, mozzarella and spices on locally baked Italian bread. The parmesan sandwiches, which come with either chicken, meatballs or shrimp, are Brooklyn Rolls’ bread and butter, but they also offer caprese and Caesar salads, along with a Philly cheese-steak sandwich.
“Ironically, our Brooklyn Rolls cart is selling Philadelphia sandwiches, but they’re a pretty staple delicacy in New York City as well, so we feel OK about that,” Ryan said.
When Ryan first moved to the valley, he noticed there wasn’t much for people to eat after 10 p.m. in downtown Whitefish. That observation, coupled with his love of Italian food and over two decades of restaurant experience, gave birth to Brooklyn Rolls.
But his venture wasn’t without challenges.
Before the cart moved to its new location, it was stationed behind the Stumptown Marketplace, well off the main drag and away from late-night foot traffic.
Instead of drawing patrons to the cart, he decided to bring the food directly to them.
Ryan hired two roving waitresses to pass out menus and take orders inside downtown bars after their restaurants closed down for the night.
“Now, their patrons don’t go wandering out of the bar and leave their barstools looking for food and wind up not coming back and not having those two or three last drinks of the night,” Ryan said. “It also helps for absorbing alcohol and keeping people a little bit safer.”
The new spot provides greater visibility, reducing the need for the roving waiters, but the practice did help get the word out about the Italian food cart.
In the span of 10 months, they’ve added a second cart to their arsenal, branched into catering and have their sights set on a brick-and-mortar location in Kalispell. Ryan is planning to open a Brooklyn Rolls restaurant in November at 7 First Ave. E., the former home of When in Rome Pizza.
He selected downtown Kalispell because of the city’s growing population.
“I have been, for the past three years, watching Kalispell grow,” Ryan said. “I’m very excited about the train tracks being pulled up.”
The restaurant will serve an expanded menu, deliver to downtown businesses and will offer patio seating in the summertime.
But for the time being, they’ll be out late with the lights on and the grill cooking, bringing a little piece of the big city to downtown Whitefish.
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.