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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014

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In Dining

Ida Spack assembles the ingredients for chocolate chip cookie batter at Nona's Cafe. (PHOTO: Damien Jaques)

In Dining

Tom Spack slices meat loaf. (PHOTO: Damien Jaques)

Nona's Cafe: Home cooking from mom and pop


Tom and Ida Spack operate the definitive Mom and Pop business. They own and are the sole employes of Nona's Cafe on South Milwaukee's main drag.

They are also mom and pop to five adult children, and they run their restaurant as if it were their home. Hugs are liberally dispensed to customers. First names are used on first meetings.

House plants and knick knacks fill the space at 2206 10th Ave., which had been a Grebe's bakery for more than 40 years.

And the kitchen produces homey comfort food from a bygone era. Feel like a jumbo chocolate-dipped marshmallow on a stick? It costs 75 cents.

Ida makes her own ricotta cheese to fill cannoli, and she bakes elephant ears, brownies and all sorts of cookies.

Did you grow up eating kluski noodles? Tom makes the Polish dish with mushrooms, sauerkraut and noodles in a cream sauce. It's one of the sides offered with the Friday fish fry.

Speaking of the fish fry, it has special status. Nona's is a breakfast and lunch cafe, but it stays open to 6 on Fridays to serve baked or fried cod, or deep-fried shrimp, all priced at $7. Home-baked rye rolls and a home-made cole slaw that contains pineapple accompany it. Diners get a choice of steak fries, potato pancakes or the kluski.

Other feel-good items served by the Spacks include french toast made with home-baked cinnamon raisin bread, and baked oatmeal with apricots and raisins (both $4.75). Ida's maiden name was Cialdini, and she sometimes uses family recipes to make pans of lasagna or stuffed pasta shells as daily specials.

Her Italian cookies are available some days, and she bakes eight different kinds of biscotti that are sold at her restaurant and Sven's Downtown and Bay View cafes. Nona's serves Sven's coffee.

Another special, Italian breaded beef filet ($8), is almost always ready in the kitchen. It comes with a choice of pasta or potato.

The Spacks are particular about their suppliers, going small and local when they can. The Polish sausage served with breakfast comes from Cudahy's Adamczyk Foods.

The Casper Sausage Company in Brookfield, operated by Casper and Sara Balisteri, makes the Italian sausage also offered with breakfast and used in a sandwich accompanied by mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce. Ida says no other Italian sausage available here can match it.

Not everything on the menu is traditional. Nona's serves decadent chocolate waffles made with cocoa in the batter and a healthy brown rice stir-fry, offered with a choice of ingredients.

A wide selection of conventional cafe items – omelets, sandwiches, paninis, salads – is also on the menu.

Tom Spack is an MATC culinary arts grad with more than four decades of restaurant experience. He has cooked at the long-closed Velvet Chair in the Marcus Center, the Old Fountain Blue in Cudahy, Buck Bradley's Downtown, and he did two stints at DeMarinis restaurants in Bay View and West Allis. He was the sous chef at the Hyatt restaurants when the Downtown hotel opened in 1980.

For all of the family recipes and cooking know-how the Spacks bring to their four-year-old eatery, the defining ingredients at Nona's are intangible. The cafe has a small town warmth and folksiness rarely found in a city.

A young man comes in for a late breakfast, and Tom and Ida thank him for cutting the grass at their Cudahy home. He's their next door neighbor.

A middle-aged woman breezes in and announces, "I have to eat something really fast." She sits down at a table, and her lunch is soon in front of her.

Ida mixes ketchup, brown sugar and dry mustard in a bowl. "I promised some people meat loaf today, and Tommy will paint this topping over it," she explains. Customers can place requests for specials.

When Ida bakes her Italian cookies or popular black and white cookies, she calls customers who have put their names on notification lists.

Tom and Ida run food from the kitchen to the tables after orders are placed at a counter. He may be frying a cheeseburger one minute and delivering it to you the next.

"Thank you, dear. Say hi to your son," Ida sings out as a customer leaves the cafe. You don't hear that at McDonald's.

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