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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014

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The Palermo pizza on a thin crust. Rick, however, recommends a thicker crust for this pizza.
The Palermo pizza on a thin crust. Rick, however, recommends a thicker crust for this pizza.
There was a significant amount of buzz when Palermo Villa transformed into the current Divino Wine and Dine.
There was a significant amount of buzz when Palermo Villa transformed into the current Divino Wine and Dine.
The garden pizza on thick crust.
The garden pizza on thick crust.

In search of the perfect pizza: Divino Wine and Dine

Early last year, there was quite a bit of buzz over the transformation of Palermo Villa into Divino Wine and Dine, 2315 N. Murray Ave., and equal buzz about Dean Cannestra taking over the space after closing his previous venture, Libiamo.

Cannestra grew up in a family of cooks and attended Brown Deer High School, which offered a culinary program at the time. After high school, he studied restaurant management and continued his culinary education.

In December 2012, Cannestra -- who worked for years at Palermo Villa when it was owned by his sister Kathy Mirenda -- his wife Mary Howard and his niece Tina Conley opened Divino with the goal of maintaining the quality and tradition that Palermo Villa stood for, while modernizing the space and upgrading equipment where appropriate.

Minor changes were also made to the menu, including the addition of small plates and half portions of the pasta dishes.

Divino’s entrance leads you into the bar, which features cream city brick and matching floor tiles stamped with the names of various wines. The dining room offers booth or table seating, warm colors, paintings and a large mural of wine barrels. The paintings were transferred from Libiamo.

The menu is broken down into six main sections: mezza piatta (small plate), entrees, sandwiches, pasta, pasta al forno (baked pasta) and pizza. The pasta and sauces are made from scratch.

Grilled octopus, arancini (rice balls filled with cheese and meat or spinach) and cipolla – a ciabatta bread topped with ricotta cheese, charred onions and fresh rosemary – were small plate items that caught my eye. I plan to order them on a future visit.

Pasta comes in 12 preparations, and half orders are available, allowing diners to explore more of the menu or simply enjoy a lighter meal.

Divino also offers a Friday fish fry. Diners can choose from beer-battered cod, breaded walleye or baked cod. The baked cod is served with a side of pasta, while the fried fish is served with seasoned waffle fries.

Pizza crust sizes come in 8, 12, and 16 inches, with cheese pizzas ranging from $8 to $13 and extra toppings running from $1.25 to $3 each.

Most of Divino’s pizzas are made on a hand-stretched thin crust, but thick crust can also be requested. The dough is made daily using chemical-free flour and ferments for two to three days before use. 

Pies are prepped by a dedicated team of kitchen staff focused on pizzas only, while the rest of the kitchen staff supports the other menu items.

Fresh ingredients, housemade Italian sausage and Wisconsin cheese help add to the level of quality that Cannestra seeks for Divino’s pizzas.

Specialty pizzas include the Palermo, white pizza Neapolitan, garden pizza, Florentine, Mediterranean, pesto and a spicy Hawaiian topped with pineapple, pepperoni, giardiniera and mozzarella.

I started with the garden pizza, which is topped with green peppers, tomato slices, garlic onion and mozzarella cheese on a thick crust. The crust was crispy with a soft, chewy center. The pizza sauce was generously applied and had a delicious, slightly spicy flavor.

The slices were strong enough to hold the toppings and did not flop over when I lifted them. The ratio of toppings was well balanced, so no one topping overpowered the others.

Next up was the pesto pizza, topped with chopped artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, fontinella and mozzarella cheeses over a basil pesto sauce and a thin crust.

The crust was crispy and, again, soft in the center. When I viewed the slice from the side, I saw small "air pockets" similar to what you would find in a doughnut. Cannestra explained that their goal is a light and crispy crust.

Again, the toppings were applied with a balance preventing any one from overpowering the rest, and the slices flopped a bit, likely due to the weight of the toppings.

I would have liked a little more pesto sauce, but this may have been my favorite of the three pizzas I tried based on appearance, flavor and texture of the toppings.

The last pizza that I tried was the Palermo, topped with pepperoni, fresh mushrooms, onions and a Dentice Brothers-style Italian sausage, made from scratch in the restaurant using ground pork shoulder and Divino’s own blend of seasoning.

Divino’s slightly spicy sauce is created by adding a house spice blend to a canned base, as I’ve found to be a very common method. The sausage and pepperoni also contribute to the extra flavorful heat, which is nice to find and not as common as you might think.

I enjoyed the pizza but was a little disappointed at how easily the pie slices flopped over. I know this is to be expected with a thin center crust combined with heavy toppings that also generate a lot of grease, but consider yourselves warned. 

In the future, I would skip my routine and order the Palermo on a thick crust instead of thin crust.

Divino features specials each week, including half-priced bottles of wine on Tuesdays and half-priced beer on Wednesdays. The kitchen is also open until midnight during the week and 1 a.m. on weekends, which provides late night diners with a better option than fast food.

If you haven’t visited Divino yet, I recommend that you do. Even if you prefer different style pies, there are plenty of other great looking items on the menu to warrant a break from your normal routine. You may find yourself with a new spot to add to your rotation.

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