Milwaukee’s “Little Italy”
Mr. and Mrs. M discover more about Milwaukee's under-the-radar "Little Italy" in and around East Brady Street.
Mr. and Mrs. M are huge fans of Italian cuisine. One of the first things we do when visiting a new American city is to try to figure out if it has a “Little Italy” where we can get some authentic, Italian food with local flair.
We’ve been asking Milwaukeeans on the streets whether the city has a “Little Italy” and, if so, whether or not it has defined boundaries, as is the case with most big cities. We were surprised to learn that of about 75 percent of the people we asked couldn’t tell if Milwaukee has a “Little Italy.” The city definitely has a vibrant Italian community which, at first glance, seems scattered. Though Italian culture here is overshadowed by the area’s prevalent German and Polish heritages, it is strong and has indeed coalesced in one area of town.
Milwaukee’s “Little Italy” doesn’t so much distinctly occupy a certain neighborhood, but haunts one on the East Side. Most big city Little Italies we’ve visited have heralded visitors on arrival with banners and other street signage put up by proud, Italian neighborhood associations that leave no doubt that you are in the heart of the area’s Italian community. Milwaukee’s is not obvious at all, as if choosing instead to be incognito. But our “Little Italy” is definitely in and around East Brady Street.
The grand, new Glorioso’s Italian Market and Deli is the most obvious clue as to where our “Little Italy” is. Sadly, the area had many more Italian businesses in years past that have since gone the way of the dinosaur.
Saint Rita’s Catholic Church, not far from Glorioso’s on North Cass Street began in 1933 as a mission outpost of the old, Italian Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Church, located in the Third Ward. The church once stood not far from Milwaukee’s huge Italian Community Center, but was razed in order to accommodate Interstate construction. The Third Ward was likely the closest thing to a Little Italy that Milwaukee had, but those parishioners found a new home at Saint Rita’s, so Milwaukee’s Little Italy migrated to the East Side.
Further evidence that the heart and soul of Milwaukee’s “Little Italy” has long been in and around the Brady Street is found in the abundance of current and former Italian restaurants and businesses there. Along with Glorioso’s, Peter Sciortino’s Bakery, Mimma’s Café, and Zaffiro’s Pizza are neighborhood staples.
Pecoraro’s Food Mart has been closed for many years at 829 E Brady St., but its storefront image remains. On the intersection of Brady and Farwell Streets, Joey’s old-school, family Italian restaurant was once across the street from Sanford’s really high-end restaurant west of Van Buren and south of Brady Street. Giovanni’s grand, old Mediterranean-white-washed restaurant used to occupy the space on the corner of Van Buren where East Brady turns into Water Street. A rather out-of-the-way, mom-and-pop Italian grocery used to be located where Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lessons are now given on the corner of North Astor and East Pleasant.
Nearby are other Italian businesses like Angelo’s Piano Lounge, which features live music, and Fazio’s Dry Cleaning & Tailoring. On the edge of the area, at 1504 N. Farwell Avenue, is the cozy and romantic, high-end Pasta Tree Restaurant & Wine Bar where you can get classic, Italian dishes prepared by classically-trained chefs.
And anyone who’s ever gone into an East Side bar prior to 2012 should definitely know who the “pepperoni-canoli guy” was. Frank Pecoraro was legendary for toting a white, plastic cooler filled with his home-made pepperoni sausages and cream-filled dessert canoli, which he sold to bar patrons for a couple of bucks each. He would shout “Pepperoni, canoli! Pepperoni, canoli!” as good as or even better than any European street vendor we’ve ever observed. This, we’re told, he undertook after retiring as a butcher many years ago from the old Glorioso’s location. He basically spoke only Italian, at least when we encountered him. He passed away on February 16, 2012, at the age of 76.
The Italian influences in the neighborhood are always changing, and some of the neighborhood’s traditions lie beneath the surface.
In the big basement cafeteria of Saint Rita’s Church, traditional spaghetti dinners are held periodically at noon on a few Sundays each year. There, you can get old-school meatballs as good as any served by any Italian granny anywhere. It’s a jealously-guarded, secret recipe, and you don’t have to be a member of the church to come enjoy it.
So, the environs on and around East Brady Street, though they harbor a plethora of other past and present cultures, are dominated by the ghost of Milwaukee’s Little Italy. Our Little Italy may not be nearly as grand as those in other cities, but it’s still something special that makes Milwaukee truly a big-league city that we should celebrate and support as much as possible.
Vieni a scoprirla (come check it out)!
Recipe: Mr. and Mrs. M’s Classic Bolognese Sauce (Sugo alla Bolognese)
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Hard-core aficionados of Italian cuisine insist that there’s no such thing as “Spaghetti Bolognese.” But if you watch the 1960 Italian comedy-drama La Dolce Vita by acclaimed Italian director Federico Fellini, you’ll see how the Roman characters in the film can’t get enough of it.
This recipe requires time and makes a lot, so we spend a Saturday afternoon preparing it, then we freeze it in individual 2/3-cup servings in plastic freezer bags. That way, we have a convenient supply for quite some time for making quick-but-delicious high-quality meals when we’re on the go.
- 4 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small, white onion, minced
- 1 small red onion, minced
- 1 large shallot, minced
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely shredded (about ½ – ¾ cup)
- 2 ribs celery with leaves, minced/shredded (about ½ – ¾ cup)
- salt, freshly-ground, black pepper & garlic powder, to taste
- 1 pound ground beef (chuck)
- ½ pound ground pork
- ½ pound Spicy Italian sausage (bulk/out of casing)
- ½ cup dry, red wine (use good wine, like Chianti!)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 24 oz. canned Italian San Marzano tomatoes, with their liquid, crushed by hand
- 3 bay leaves
- 32 – 48 oz. Italian tomato passata or tomato juice, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons red-pepper flakes
- 2 – 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon each basil & parsley (fresh is best, but dried will do)
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano (fresh is not best to use!)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- salt, ground, black pepper and garlic powder
Lightly season meats with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Heat olive oil and red-pepper flakes in a large three-to-four-quart pot over high heat until you can smell pepper flakes frying and it’s smoking a little. With the pot smoking-hot, crumble meats in, break it up well and get it nicely browned. If fat and liquid take over and boil the meat instead of letting it brown, spoon the liquid into a bowl and set aside, and add it back in after the meat is browned. Lower heat to medium and stir in onions, carrot and celery; season lightly with more salt and pepper; cook, covered, stirring until the onion is translucent and wilted. Mix in the rest of the herbs and spices, except for the bay leaves. Pour in wine and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan, until the wine is evaporated. Stir in tomato paste and vinegar; cook a few minutes, uncovered. Pour in tomatoes, toss in bay leaves and season with a little more salt and black pepper.
Uncovered, bring to a boil, then lower heat so the sauce is at a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is dense, juicy and a rich, dark red color (a noticeable layer of oil will float to the top toward the end of cooking – this is good!). This will take at least three hours – the true taste does not mature until three hours of active simmering.
While it cooks, gradually add passata and/or tomato juice to keep the meats and vegetables steeped in the sauce. Check for seasoning and give it a good stir when done, cut off the heat and swirl in the butter to finish.
Use this rich, meaty “gravy” to dress boiled rigatoni, ribbon pasta and, yes, spaghetti. Generously top with grated Parmesan, Grana and/or Romano cheese at the table.