By Sarah Van Harpen   Published Nov 20, 2002 at 5:46 AM

If you hear someone say "Centanni!" they may not be giving you the Italian salutation meaning, "May you live 100 years." They might be talking about one of Milwaukee's newest nightclubs, located in the Third Ward.

The Italian connection is no coincidence, as Centanni's owners come from one of Milwaukee's oldest Italian restaurants, Giovanni's. Father and son, Giovanni and Giuseppe Safina opened the bar with Robert Head, a former bartender at the restaurant.

According to Head, the threesome wanted to open an establishment that was sophisticated and energizing, without the techno vibe found at other Milwaukee area nightclubs.

"It's a modern interpretation of a classy '40s night club," says Head. "Very Rat Pack-esque."

This description really does sum up the décor and overall feeling of the club. As you enter, a sitting room with a few tall tables and a comfortable love-seat and lounge chairs sits to your right. A flat-screen TV hangs high, playing music videos of the classic variety (the night OMC visited, it was a Frank Sinatra concert).

A large corridor connects the front room with the main bar and music area. Two-seat tables line one side of the hallway. Track-lighting alluminates both the black and white Italian photos hung above the tables, and the three large vintage paintings of Italian fashions adorning the adjacent wall.

According to Head, the layout of the bar is set into zones of soft, mild and loud, giving patrons the option to move from dancing to vibrant conversation. However, the "mild" and "soft" rooms feel too far removed from the main bar area. (Consider the phenomanom during a house party when everyone gathers in the kitchen. Even though the living room may be more comfortable, people naturally gravitate toward the action in the kitchen.)

The corridor opens up to the club's 'kitchen,' a nice main bar and the music room. A large painting of Grace Kelly hangs next to a small, elevated stage holding a baby grand piano. A few glowing steps lead up to the stage, and an art-deco inspired mural on the wall serves as the stage's backdrop.

Smaller black and white prints of the Sinatra, Sammy and other Rat Packers are clustered together on another wall. A few bar-height tables sit next to a one large, plush velvet booth. The bar is substantial in size with a dark polished granite top and wood molding on the sides.


The club features live music daily, except Mondays, when it is closed. One regular is Milwaukee native Earnest Collins -- "one of the best piano players in the Midwest," says Head, who adds that Collins has a repertoire of more than 1,000 songs, "from Sinatra to Billy Idol, he knows it all."

Another favorite is Joe Scalissi, who does a Dean Martin-ish bit. "He's not a Dean Martin impersonator. I'd say he's more like Dean Martin reincarnated," says Head. Apparently, Scalissi is so close with the Martin family that he wears the gold-plated key to Martin's Rolls Royce on a chain around his neck.

Head says the club -- which has a full bar, including a small selection of grappas and an Italy-focused wine list -- will soon feature a cocktail hour from 5-7 p.m. with complimentary hors d'oeuvres and live piano music.

Centanni is located at 218 N. Water St. For more information call (414) 221-6565.