By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Aug 29, 2014 at 1:03 PM

#Italianish is a hashtag used on twitter that’s used to describe fare containing Italian elements like tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese.

And it turns out #Italianish would likely be a good way to describe Onesto, a new restaurant at 221 N. Broadway in the Third Ward, which opened earlier this month.

Onesto, which means "honest" in Italian, is upfront in its approach. There are no promises of authenticity. No bravado when it comes to décor or presentation. Just simple rustic dishes that most will find accessible and familiar.

And that’s really the goal, says Joe Sorge, president of Hospitality Democracy, whose memories of Italian fare hearken back to his grandparents' restaurant in Corning, N.Y.

"They opened the restaurant on June 5, 1951," he says. "It was a casual place with an open kitchen and seven booths."

The restaurant served housemade pasta, which Sorge says he remembers making.

"I remember being in my grandparents’ basement, pin-rolling fresh pasta dough and sealing ravioli," he says. "I remember the smell, and I can envision the tables where we rolled out the dough."

Although Sorge says the restaurant really isn’t an homage to those memories, he admits that he connects with it through his Italian heritage and that of his family.

And freshly made pasta is one way the restaurant makes that connection. The kitchen below Holey Moley Coffee and Doughnuts is where it’s made daily, along with fresh bread and desserts constructed by pastry chef Katie Romenesko.

The décor is warmly modern with exposed cream city brick walls, rustic wooden tables, chairs with burgundy covers, and canvases of art with bright swaths of color. Teardrop-shaped light fixtures cast a golden glow on both the dining area and bar, and modern vocal pop jazz music – think Harry Connick Jr., Jamie Cullum and Norah Jones – provides an apt background.

On a first visit to the restaurant for lunch, we sampled four dishes – a jar of white bean dip with walnut pesto ($7), wild mushroom ragu with housemade gnocchi ($11), meatballs and pasta ($10) and lemon ricotta cheesecake with basil syrup ($6.50).

The white bean dip, which was served with a demi-baguette was flavorful. Walnut pesto gave the otherwise pureed bean mixture a nice texture as well as a notable flavor boost.

Although the spread was served cold, I found that the flavor deepened when left on the table and sampled later, the notes of the olive oil coming through more clearly, along with the flavor of the fresh pesto.

The gnocchi, which were freeform in shape, were pillowy and light – not rubbery or tough. And they made a lovely backdrop for the sauce, which was bright with acidity from the tomatoes. While I would have loved for the wild mushroom ragu to exhibit a bit more earthiness – such as you might find with the addition of porcinis – the sauce was tasty. Large pieces of shiitake, cremini and oyster mushrooms were visible in the dish, and the portion was fair for the price.

The second plate of pasta was served lightly sauced with the meatballs alongside – rather than atop – the mound of pasta. The flavor of sage was prominent in the otherwise bright tomato sauce, which was also slightly sweet. The pasta was rolled thin, but served al dente, so there was a pleasantly toothy quality to the dish.

The meatballs – which can also be found inside lunchtime sliders – were firm and meaty. They possessed plenty of flavor and very little apparent filler, instead bearing visible bits of herbs and fennel seed thanks to the Berkshire pork sausage which rounded out the meatiness of freshly ground beef brisket.

Though not usually tempted by dessert menus, I did find myself eyeing up the lemon cheesecake made with housemade ricotta. And I wasn’t disappointed. The cake was light and creamy with a pleasant lemony flavor.  A light-handed drizzle of lemon basil syrup gave the dish an earthy, summery quality that wasn’t cloyingly sweet.

Should you visit for dinner, you can expect slightly larger portions and pricing in the $14-18 range, with entrees maxing out at $28 for dry aged filet served with cremini compound butter.

Desserts, priced at $6.50 each, include a flourless chocolate cake made with olive oil and garnished with pistachio brittle and clear caramel, an apricot crème brulee with mascarpone whipped cream and wild berry semifreddo served with fresh berries.

A moderately sized beer list offers tap beers in the $5-9 range and bottles for $4-5.50, along with moderately priced wines ($8-18 per glass) and  a cocktail menu – designed by Bar Manager Mark Sprott – featuring variations on classics for $9.50.

Onesto is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and on weekends until 11 p.m.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.