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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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In Festival Guide Commentary

Venice Club is a must-hit dining destination at Festa.

Eating your way through Festa Italiana: A self-guided tour


Maybe it's just me, but I find that one of the best reasons to go to Milwaukee's ethnic festivals (next to the people watching) is for the food. This is particularly true of Festa Italiana, the largest event of its kind in America today.

For four short days – July 19-22, 2012 – Festa will infuse the Milwaukee lakefront with Italian culture, tradition, and ... food. I, for one, can't wait. I've even derived a plan for sampling the best of Festa's offerings.

To connect quickly and directly with the smell of Italy's most delicious eats, enter Festa through the North Gate. You can grab a glass of wine right off the bat, or simply head straight over to the food vendors just southwest of the entrance.

Pick up a plate of spinach-filled rice balls/arancini ($5) from Nessun Dorma as a first course. Split it with a friend if you can, since the rice is filling and you need to pace yourself. After all, you'll want to head over to Johnny V's for a liberal serving of fried eggplant sticks, served with marinara and lemon ($5.75). Pair that with your choice of stromboli ($6.50 for roasted chicken and spinach or Italian sausage, spinach and black olives) from Trattoria Di Carlo.

If you'd like to buy a bit of time before your next course, travel east and take a listen at the opera tent or take a gondola ride through the lagoon.

After getting your sea legs back, wander west over to the the Piggly Wiggly Cucina Showcase, where you can catch Rossella Rago, host of "Cooking with Nonna," celebrity chef and cookbook author Nick Stellino or presentations and food samples from some of Milwaukee's best local chefs. Participating restaurants include LeReve Patisserie & Café, Ryan Braun's Graffito, The Pfister Hotel, Mozzaluna, Bravo Cucina Italiana, Carmella's, the Venice Club, Buca Di Beppo, Wild Earth – Potawatomi Bingo and Casino, Maggiano's Little Italy, Ristorante Bartolotta, Mia Famiglia Italian Ristorante & Steak House, Tripoli Country Club and Zin – Uncommon California Italian.

Regardless of when you arrive, you're sure to catch a good show. And, best of all, most of the cooking demonstrations offer free samples to the audience.

By now, the kids are probably due for a break, so take them over to the Children's Play Area. While they're swinging on the monkey bars, sample the beef spiedini ($7) from Papa Luigi's. Or, if you'd prefer a vegetable option, dig in to Carini's eggplant spiedini ($7) or their brand new eggplant pasta ($7) sold right next door.

Next, you'll want to saunter through the Festa marketplace, buy yourself a festival t-shirt, and wear off a few more calories. If you'd like, head over to the Miller Lite Oasis to catch some tunes before heading off on your next culinary excursion.

On this side of the grounds, you'll have just as many choices. More adventurous food lovers should be sure to sample the sfincione, Sicilian-style focaccia topped with tomatoes, onions, anchovies and cheese. Pair that with fried calamari, a festival favorite.

For those who prefer to play it a bit safer, there's nothing better than a Sicilian steak sandwich ($7.50) from Angelo's, or an Italian sausage sandwich ($4.50) from Mille's Festival Sausage.

Want a bit of an education? Take a break from eating and participate in a wine tasting in the hospitality area at the Brigg's Big Backyard Stage. LoDuca Brothers will provide exclusive tastings from an extensive list of wines from Italy including Piemontese giants like Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera d'Alba and Dolcetto. Tastings will be held twice on Friday, July 20, three times on Saturday, July 21 and twice on Sunday, July 22. Each tasting is $20 per person.

At this point you should be ready for dessert, and I've got just the thing. You're sure to love an Italian delicacy called sfinge. These lightweight, deep-fried dough balls topped with powdered sugar are traditionally consumed on St. Joseph's Day (March 19) and highly recommended by OnMilwaukee's Jeff Sherman and Bobby Tanzilo, who calls them zeppole.

But, they're a delicious treat anytime – especially at Festa, where the calories don't count. You can get them at Nino's Italian Bakery, 5 oz. for $4.50, or Cataldo's (with or without cannoli filling) for $5.

If you've still got room (but I'm betting you won't), stop by the Gelateria Italiana for a scoop of spumoni ($4.75) or affocato ($4.75), traditional gelato served with espresso.

Otherwise, save your appetite and come back tomorrow to do it all over again.

To purchase tickets for Festa and view a complete list of activities and entertainment, visit festaitaliana.com.


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