I lived in Rome for several years and, for the most part, the go-to restaurants for my friends and me were not in the city center, but just outside. Romans flock to these off-the-beaten-path haunts, called trattorias, as much as the tourists make a beeline for the chintzy piazza eateries near the monuments, with their laminated, multilingual, and overpriced menus.
I usually found that the nicest places, the ones we’d return to again and again, were noteworthy for their combination of typical Roman style and refreshing rustic simplicity. The atmosphere was cool, the food traditional. The best of both worlds. The menus featured dishes that were excellent combinations, consisting in relatively simple ingredients, grilled steak and potatoes, fresh pasta with a great pesto sauce, simple bruschetta with garlic, juicy tomatoes and superb olive oil. Nothing fancy, just top-notch ingredients: homemade pasta, fresh herbs, combined and cooked to perfection, all washed down with a glass of delicious house wine. Excellent food and great memories all seemed pretty effortless at those places.
As someone who enjoys throwing together a meal, I have adopted the rustic, no-drama philosophy of cooking that I learned to appreciate in Rome. My theologian friend and CCC contributor, A.L.P., spent those years in Rome as well. He is an excellent cook who passed on to me the secrets of authentic, Italian cuisine. Our small group of international friends spent countless nights in his small kitchen (just a stone’s throw from Piazza della Repubblica) talking about art, culture, liturgy, politics and of course, food.
With simple ingredients and a little know-how, gleaned from time-tested recipes handed down from generations, great meals can be amazingly easy to make. Restaurants that run with this philosophy soar to the top of my list. And yet, back home, it’s hard to find an authentic Italian restaurant. For the real deal, check out Tenuta’s in Bay View. First, a little history from the website:
Cesare and Antonia Tenuta came to America from Southern Italy in 1961. They brought with them original family recipes from a variety of Italian regions. It is these original sauces, pasta and pastry dough that influence our famous pizza recipes and signature pasta dishes. Everything from Tenuta’s is made fresh daily just the way our ancestors did it in the old country. We pride ourselves on serving up great Italian dishes the old way.
So there you have it. The requisite ingredients for a good restaurant are already here.
The building that houses Milwaukee’s best trattoria used to be a pharmacy, believe it or not. Stepping inside, it’s easy to imagine it, in days past, as the quaint neighborhood pharmacy just down the street. It’s an intimate space, as older historic buildings with lots of character tend to be, but it definitely has a trendy feel to it. Old meets new.
Much like those great Roman trattorias, the small tables in Tenuta’s are situated closely to one-another. (Personal space is often overrated.) In the evening, when I tend to go there, the modern lighting is dimmed, and your table is illuminated by the soft glow of a candle. There are always fashionable people perched at the bar, rubbing elbows and sipping cocktails and wine, kibitzing amiably with the bartender in perpetual motion. Before long, the scene at Tenuta’s is a bustling hive of activity that is so reminiscent of the places I used to visit in Rome.
The friendly wait staff, donning black and deftly maneuvering the maze of free space in-between the tables, is exceptional. (Truly good service is hard to find!) They know their menu as though it’s a part of their personal biography. In other words, they care deeply about their work, and you. The menu at Tenuta’s is not an enormous book consisting of dozens of mediocre faux-Italian dishes. Their focus is quality, not quantity. They have perfected a generous amount of fixed dishes, and their alternating specials, often fish or seafood, are not to be overlooked. Last night I had the carbonara and it was outstanding. The portion was perfect, not over-the-top. The pasta itself brought me back to the fresh, homemade pasta in Rome.
As for other recommendations: the calamari is a must for an evening starter, the maiale alla griglia, grilled pork tenderloin, served with squash will keep you coming back. The pasta bolognese is always a very safe choice. Whenever I can’t make up my mind, which happens often, I’ll check that box and have zero regrets later. An after-dinner espresso, paired with an exceptional tiramisu, finishes the experience.
Go to Tenuta’s.