Dino’s Is a Riverwest Mainstay
But if you like unpretentious Italian fare, it’s worth a visit for those outside the neighborhood.
They’ve been dishing up damn good Italian food at Dino’s in Riverwest since 1983. In the world of restaurants in Milwaukee, where you blink twice and another one falls in a black hole, 34 years (with a couple of breaks between 1983 and 2007) deserves applause.
Leo Dinon opened the bar in 1968, named it Dino’s (though the place also spells it at times as Dinos, without the apostrophe) and presided over the drinks until his death in 1996. I remember seeing Leo behind the bar, a good looking dude with his shirt collar open, and his distinctive mustache.
In 1983, his wife Rita commandeered the kitchen and began serving a Friday night fish fry as well as daily specials during the rest of the week. In those days, the dining room, a claustrophobic space, had boarded up windows that faced Chambers Street. I remember that dark, tight room, though some called it cozy.
After Dino passed, the place closed briefly. In 1999 they opened, then closed again in 2009. In 2011, grandsons Anthony and Lawrence Lococo, now co-owners, reopened the bar, took the boards off the windows, turned on the stove, and began again. Anthony runs the front of the house while Lawrence took on the role of chef and oversees the kitchen. Last summer they added a patio behind the restaurant and recently they added Sunday brunch.
Lured by the $5.00 hamburger special on Thursdays, I faced a tough choice. For that ridiculous price you can get the Riverwest Burger, a half pound patty with beer braised onions, cheddar, and bacon, or the Goat Cheese Burger with roasted garlic goat cheese, herb sautéed mushrooms, and garlic cracked pepper mayo. The Riverwest Burger, served medium rare as requested, came with onions that hinted of their beer braise, cheese nicely melted over the thick juicy patty, and a bun that offered no resistance. Overall, this is a heck of a value for the money; you just need to get there on a Thursday between 5:00 and 8:00. After we finished, we spoke with Chef Lawrence who told us they started the special a while ago as a way to bring more people in, especially locals. Now it’s so popular, he says, they can’t take it away.
A week later, again on a Thursday, we bypassed the burgers and ordered off the menu because, after all, Dino’s is an Italian restaurant. From Starters, Arancini, fried rice balls, had none of the heaviness often associated with them. It could have been the fresh mozzarella, the mascarpone, or the ricotta mixed with the rice that made them so light, or perhaps someone in the kitchen with magic hands.
The meatballs in the Meatball Sandwich, Grandma Rita’s recipe, also had that same delicate light consistency, nothing like an ordinary chunk of meat shaped into a ball that passes as a meatball.
It’s hard to leave without dessert when Tiramisu and Migliaccio are on the menu. The large serving of freshly made tiramisu, potentially a shareable, had all the right stuff: coffee-laced custard, whipped mascarpone, and a dusting of cocoa. With my good intentions to eat just half, each bite enticed me into the next until I had scoured the plate. The moist creamy migliaccio had a subtle lemon flavor. With a drizzle of strawberry puree, this cheesecake-like dessert made another elegant finale to the meal.
A week later I returned for the Sunday brunch with high expectations. At our server’s suggestion we ordered Eggs and Toast, Crab Cake Benedict, and Princess Paul.
“Princess Paul?” we asked. It seems there was a regular customer named Paul who special ordered this dish every Sunday. When other diners saw what he had, they wanted it too, so Chef Lawrence put it on the menu. It’s a house made biscuit cut in half with arugula, red onion, a fried egg, American cheese, and calabrese hollandaise. They serve it, as well as all the brunch dishes, with crunchy cubes of breakfast potatoes, a tour de force for a potato lover. They were addictive. Only the hollandaise, lost in the mix, needed a louder presence.
That same hollandaise seemed a little thin on the otherwise sufficiently crabby crab cakes in the benedict. We wanted a rich lemony sauce to enrich the dish, not this pretty sauce that looked like hollandaise, but lacked flavor.
The winner in the brunch category, Eggs and Toast, was an understated description of this dish with its grilled ciabatta, speck (aged Italian ham), aged provolone, poached eggs, and spicy tomato sauce. The bits of speck added texture and flavor to the chunky tomato sauce, the perfectly poached eggs mingled with the sauce and the ciabatta made a platform to hold it together.
We decided Dino’s doesn’t need those $5.00 burgers to keep the locals coming. On each visit we noted a full restaurant and plenty of on street parking right in front. At least on a night with nice weather like that one, most people came on foot, suggesting it’s a neighborhood favorite. Anthony and Lawrence Lococo can be proud that their generation has kept Dino’s on the map in Riverwest.
On the Menu
- Location: 808 E. Chambers St.
- Phone: 414-562-9171
- Hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wed-Thu, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fri, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sat, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sun
- Website: http://dinosriverwest.com/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DinosRiverwest/
- UM Rating: 3.9666666666667 stars (average of Yelp, Trip Advisor and Zomato)