With its subtle signage and storefront, you can easily miss Centro Café, 808 E. Center St., on a quick drive down the busy street.
Once inside, however, tiny marble tables, antique-looking mirrors and an open kitchen consisting simply of a gas, multi-burner commercial stovetop, an open grill, and a pasta steamer welcome you.
While the prep work for Centro's foods happens beyond the dining room in a larger (but not much larger) prep area, the majority of the cooking and plating comes from the small, but well-constructed kitchen in the front.
On a busy night, take a few moments to sit at the marble bar area and watch the food preparation -- but eat at a table, as the lovely masked lights overhead do double duty as heat lamps, and food is plated right in front of you on the narrow marble bar top, making this an awkward place to sip a drink.
On my visits to Centro, I tried two appetizers, both of which came layered over mixed greens in a lemon-herb vinaigrette that was excellent when mopped up by the accompanying slices of bread.
Grilled asparagus rolled in prosciutto ($6) outdid the grilled calamari with scallops ($9). The asparagus spears were tightly wound with a slice of prosciutto and ever so slightly charred on the grill for a wonderful fresh saltiness that made me long for warmer days. Calamari and scallops lacked seasoning, but a shaker of black pepper on the table did wonders for the dish, on which the seafood was otherwise expertly prepared.
I learned quickly on my first visit here that pasta is Centro's forte, and it is, without a doubt, what you should order.
After having a less than satisfactory experience with a stuffed chicken breast entrée special, served with mashed potatoes, I wouldn't have been enthused to return except for my companion's raving about the spaghetti a la marinara ($7) with meatballs (two for $5.50). The homemade red sauce was stick to your ribs thick, with bright flavors of fresh tomatoes, and the meatballs were tender, flavorful and perfectly spherical -- absolutely picture perfect.
On a second visit, I, too, found something to rave about.
Centro offers gluten-free pasta options as a substitute for any of its standard pastas on the menu (excluding the three homemade pasta options -- gnocchi, tortellini and garlic ravioli, $12 each -- for obvious reasons), and it succeeds in preparing a gluten-free offering that is more than passable for its wheat containing counterpart. The pasta is not remotely gluey, as is often the case with wheat-free versions, and as is also the case with most wheat-free pastas, it stands up wonderfully to a sauce.
In my case, I sampled the penne con salsiccia ($9) which paired ground Italian sausage with pieced of portobello mushrooms mixed in tomato sauce and topped with shredded fontina cheese. The results were divine, with just a hint of spice, a homey heaviness with the sausage and mushrooms, and the creaminess of the melted cheese.
Capellini al pomodoro ($8) covered fine strands of angel hair pasta with the Italian trifecta of tomatoes, basil and garlic with just enough olive oil to coat the pasta without making it oily on the lips.
Portions at Centro appear minimalist at first sight, but don't be fooled; I needed a take home box for my pasta dish. But if you want a little something on the side, Centro does offer the addition of meat or vegetables for any dish with a modest charge. Vegans should rejoice, as well, as nearly 10 items can be prepared vegan, even a vegan "neatball," which was just as beautifully round as its carnivorous counterpart.
Service here tends towards the slower and more forgetful side, and you shouldn't expect technical perfection, either. We had to ask on multiple occasions for items like water, additional bread, and glasses of wine. And if you're on a wait list for a table, Centro sits by table size rather than order on the list, which in the small, 30-plus-seat restaurant can leave you waiting far longer than later arriving guests.
But if you're looking for a low-maintenance, warm-your-heart pasta dinner and you aren't under time constraints, Centro may be a great find. While you're there, take a look at the wine list. With options ranging from $7 a glass to over $100 a bottle, there's a taste for every palate. Just be sure to hit an ATM before you get there, as Centro only takes cash.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.