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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014

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In Dining

La Merenda puts a twist on tapas


If Walker's Point wasn't already a cultural explosion, restaurateur Peter Sandroni's new 60-seat restaurant will put the neighborhood over the edge.

La Merenda, which means "snack" in Italian and is due to open this weekend at 125 E. National Ave. (between Barclay and 1st Streets), will serve globe trekking small plate lunches and dinners in the $4.75-9.95 price range. The photo above is a montage projecting how the finished exterior will look.

"I worked at a restaurant in Chicago -- that's now closed -- which was a Filipino restaurant and they thought the only way to get people to really understand Filipino food was do small plates and let people try a lot of different things and share," says Sandroni, who will run the restaurant with his wife Sonia and Nick and Melissa Cataldo. "I thought why don't we just do this? I've always thought it was a great idea to do an international tapas restaurant."

Peter Sandroni is La Merenda's executive chef and is a Milwaukee native. He went to Marquette and has worked at Eagan's and Dream Dance here, as well as at restaurants in Chicago and Atlanta. Sonia, born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, is business manager, UWM grad Nick Cataldo is chef (he also worked at the Savoy Room) and his wife Melissa, also a UWM grad, is service manager. She has worked at Oakland Trattoria and Sala da Pranzo.

After a few years out of town, Sandroni is realizing his dream in Walker's Point, he says.

"I thought I'd love to do (this kind of place) in Milwaukee. I kind of jumped around a bit for a while because my family owns a restaurant in Atlanta. I had to go down there to help out after my uncle lost 70 percent of the sight in one of his eyes. Then I met my wife down there and ended up staying a little longer than I expected."

While he got a lot of experience in Atlanta, he didn't get much practice at the small plates. But he did do some experimenting there, he says.

"My uncle is an old-school Italian guy so we didn't do this there, but I did a lot of little specials of that nature and they went over well down there. It was in an established, upscale suburb of Atlanta, kind of like Wauwatosa, Shorewood or Elm Grove here."

With such a test market, why move into Walker's Point, you ask?

"We ended up in Walker's Point because I always loved Walker's Point," Sandroni says enthusiastically. "Zur Krone was one of my favorite bars. I like that it's a mixed cultural neighborhood. It's a very old, industrial, architecturally cool area."

Sandroni acknowledges that other restaurants in Milwaukee offer small plate menus, but he believes La Merenda's approach is a little different.

"Sure, people are doing small plates, but no one's doing an international menu all in one, that I'm aware of. Balzac has an interesting menu but it's not as international."

La Merenda's menu draws inspiration from Asian, European, North African, Caribbean and American cuisines.

After nearly a year of hard work and anticipation, Sandroni and company hope to open the 2,900-sq. ft. La Merenda this weekend.

"We had the health inspector in and we have to make a small change (to the equipment) to get occupancy," he says. "But we're still hoping for this weekend. The Health Dept. is on board once we make the small change to the (ventilation) hood, they'll come in right away. They appreciate the fact that we've kept in the loop from the start."

Sandroni says it's been a lot of hard work, but he can smell the sautéing mushrooms already.

"We're doing a lot of the work ourselves. It is hard, but you know we're still working the same hours we'll be working when the restaurant is open. It's been a good test, sounds funny but it's true. Right now, it's hard when you're tired and you're painting tight little corners. It'll be a lot easier when we're cooking for people, and doing what we want to be doing.


Talkbacks

terriannie | Sept. 29, 2007 at 10:57 a.m. (report)

Just ate there last night for the first time - FANTASTIC! The food was excellent and inexpensive. We had the Panang Curry, the Wisconsin Cheese Plate, the Tostones, the Chicken Satay, the Polenta, and the Lobster Mango Ceviche. The stars of our meal? The ceviche, for sure, the polenta, and the curry. The cracker plate was good but they served regular store-bought crackers along with the cheese. Very strange and out of place, we thought. The service was timely and friendly, the environment was nice (minus the smoking, thank god they're going smoke free 10/1), and the selection of beers was nice. We will go there again and often!

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rniam | April 28, 2007 at 4:53 p.m. (report)

My paramour and I went there a few weeks back and bumped into some friends who had just enjoyed an amazing course of tapas. They had many suggestions, which upon our sampling, were phenomenal! We sat at the bar where the service was quick and attentive. Despite the fact that they were preparing for an onslaught of pub-crawlers, we were not neglected or fogotten. We will definitely be back, and hope that there will be patio seating this summer! Buen provecho and buenas suerte La Merenda!

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funhouse | April 9, 2007 at 2:52 p.m. (report)

I've eaten there a handful of times now, and it's been consistently great each time. Some favorites are the osso buco, som tum salad, sambal goreng udang, argentinian beef, and patatas bravas. The food is excellent and the service has been pretty good. My wife also loves the place and my friends & coworkers have enjoyed it, as well. Thumbs up!

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DebiL | April 9, 2007 at 4:41 a.m. (report)

My experience at LaMerenda was far from positive. In fact - it was the service that my group found to be the greatest dissatisfier. Most any problem or complain can be turned around with an apology and finding a way to make the situation fine for the patron. However, at LaMerenda, any complaint my group had (a total of 3 complaints) was met with a complete dismissal. Food was served at the wrong temperature, the pita bread should have been called bread sticks, wine tasted like vinegar - and no staff person, let alone an owner, seemed to care that anything was wrong. Before being seated, one person in our group sent back a glass of wine while at the bar because it seemed to have turned. This was not a big deal because we all knew that this could happen anywhere - and does appen even with a reshly opened bottle. However - we were told that there was nothing wrong with the wine - and we were responsible for the charge. The server confirmed this policy with the owner. Against our better judgment, we did decide to stay. Dinner was, for the most part, fine -there were some things that we found exceptional and others not. At some point during dinner - someone, clearly someone who worked there, approached our table and said "Is there anything you want to tell me?" There were a lot of blank looks in the group, considering no one knew who this person was. Finally, my friend said "Why? Who are you?" Well -that question was never answered - but then this gentleman said "Anything about the food?" So we proceeded to tell him - this was good, this was not good, etc. When one person asked if a dish was supposed to be served cold, he said "No. It must have been sitting there a while." This statement did nothing for our appetites. And -then he left. We assume he was an owner - but he did not seem engaged at all in our satisfaction. I was mortified since I suggested this location. The restaurant was not busy and it seemed adequately staffed. Our party was comprised of 7 professionals - who had come straight from work. We all left feeling like we did something wrong - not like we were guests or that we even mattered. Despite truly enjoying some of the dishes and hoping to see this neighborhood flourish, no one in our group shall return to LaMerenda.

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JSchilling | March 30, 2007 at 7:07 a.m. (report)

Was just there last night and the food was awesome. The plantains are fantastic - a must have, as well as the egg-roll item! Service was fine - not great, not horrible. Funky interior. Prices aren't horrible - we did five selections, three drinks, and a dessert for $55 for two gals. Nice bonus - you're close to downtown, but don't have to spend a ton of time search for parking. I'll be back.

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