By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Aug 25, 2009 at 4:32 PM

Earlier this year, Riverwest lost a longtime Italian eatery, Albanese’s, which left the already slim neighborhood dining scene extremely lean. Riverwest’s crown jewel, Nessun Dorma, 2778 N. Weil St., continues to thrive, and Rio West Cantina, 2730 N. Humboldt Blvd., offers up Mexican eats in a kid-friendly setting, but the neighborhood was champing at the bit for a new place to nosh.

Finally, on June 18 -- after almost five years of construction -- Peg Karpfinger and her husband and business partner, Patrick Moore, opened Centro Café, 808 E. Center St. The couple purchased the building in September 2003.

"The idea of the restaurant was Pat’s," says Karpfinger. "It was his dream. He wanted to create a neighborhood restaurant that served Italian food and he wanted to be the shopkeeper out front sweeping the sidewalk."

Karpfinger, who is also a landscape architect, says the rehab process was long because Moore had to divide his time between working on Centro and managing and restoring his other buildings. Plus, Karpfinger says, Moore’s friendly personality slowed things down a bit.

"Whenever anyone stopped to ask what he was up to, he would stop what he was doing to chat," says Karpfinger. "He’d introduce himself and give a tour of the space. He knew a lot of our customers before we were even open and if he did not know their names, he definitely knew their dog’s."

Centro’s menu is affordable and offers a mix of meaty, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free appetizers, salads, pasta dishes, sandwiches and side dishes.  Karpfinger says the vegan white bean dip ($4) is one of the most popular items on the menu.  

"We make it easy for our guests to get their servings of vegetables in for the day with our grilled asparagus, mushrooms, peppers and zucchini," she says. "We also offer vegetable side dishes of broccoli and spinach."

Plus, there are 12 pasta dishes on the menu from a very light spaghetti marinara to a heavy dish of penne pasta with sausage and mushrooms.  Other menu highlights include the vegetarian gnocchi ($12), penne con salsiccia ($9) and the rocket salad ($5).

Diners can customize their orders with add-ons that range from calamari to vegan meatballs to grilled vegetables. Centro’s chefs are Walter Williams, formerly from the Riverwest Co-op, and Sergio Fusco, originally from New York.

Centro's bar features beer and wine. Most of the wines are from Italy and range in price from low to moderate. Karpfinger says they plan to expand Centro's wine offerings and that helping customers discover new varieties is one of her favorite aspects of the business.

"We tried to create a wine list that was unintimidating and accessible and we believe in helping people to select a wine that fits their tastes," she says.

Centro’s indoor dining area seats about 30 people, with additional seating on the front patio. The interior is clean and comfortable, with mirrors on the walls, fresh flowers on the bar and massive windows that are open on nice days.

Ruth Weill is a server at Centro, and she notices that many of the neighborhood’s young families are stopping by the new cafe.

"Having a nicer restaurant in the neighborhood is great for all the younger parents who want a date night closer to home," she says. "And it helps kill the stereotype that Riverwest is for hippies and thugs. So not true."

So far, Kaprfinger says diners are traveling from as far as Bayside, Franklin and Pewaukee to check out Centro.

"It pleases us, of course, for our own sake, but in a broader context for the neighborhood," says Karpfinger. "The local news focuses on all that is negative about Riverwest and in spite of that, people from the suburbs are coming to the center of Riverwest to sit on the sidewalk and enjoy a glass of wine and some pasta.  That makes us very, very happy."

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.