One of the things that makes this job so fascinating is that I am constantly introduced to new restaurants that I may not otherwise have sought out on my own.
Ilija's Place, 3701 E. Squire Ave. in Cudahy, is one such venue. Nestled on a primarily residential Cudahy side street, Ilija's place has a homey, comfortable feel to it, and a lovely hidden patio in the back.
Owned by Ilija and Djurdjica Zoric (Djurdjica does all of the cooking for lunch and dinner, six days a week) and with son Neven doing double duty as bartender and server, the restaurant gives the impression of eating in the Zoric's home. The friendliness and light-hearted charm of the service here make up for lack of technical perfection and speed.
During one visit, Neven explained the arduous process for making ajvar, a Serbian roasted red pepper spread that mixes the peppers with eggplant puree and is best when paired with kajmak, a blend of cream cheese, feta and butter. During another, he told of a stuffed baked and cored apple dessert and a strudel his mother prepares occasionally for the dessert menu, which varies daily with the exception of a standard cheese cake.
Everything we tried at Ilija's was well-prepared and seasoned, and the food here is definitely worth repeat visits, although we found them to be out of several selections on both evenings we visited. If you're looking for something in particular, it may be wise to call ahead. Be aware, too, that unless you're on the patio, the smell of smoke lingers here slightly, but that is quickly forgotten once you're looking down at a beautiful plate of food.
Serbian tomato salad ($3.50) was a traditional delight, with ripe red tomatoes, bell peppers and onion in a slightly sweet vinaigrette, sprinkled with Serbian cheese. Chicken noodle soup ($3) was also a great way to begin a meal with a hearty broth and thin noodles swimming within.
All four entrees we tried were excellent and rang with home-cooked comfort. Stuffed peppers ($17.50) were filled with a combination of veal, pork and beef with rice, and the red sauce in which they were slow-cooked was rich with spice, and so good we used bread to clean the plate. A lamb shank ($18.50) came tender and delightfully juicy, served with pan roasted vegetables of cauliflower, zucchini and potato wedges.
We also enjoyed the veal paprikash ($17) on Neven's recommendation, cubes of veal which arrived in a tomato based sauce over noodles. And my personal favorite was the chevapchichi ($16.50), finger length Serbian sausages of seasoned veal and pork served with sliced of ripe red tomatoes and white onions.
We didn't receive an ordered appetizer of prosciutto and cheese ($6.50) on one of the visits, but that left room for dessert ($3), which was a puff pastry with baked apple filling and vanilla ice cream that was a wonderful contrast to classic apple pie.
And in fleeting moments when Djurdjica snuck out of the kitchen, I was again taken with the fact that she does all of the cooking. That on its own will make me come back to Ilija's, knowing the food is consistent, and made consistently with love.
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.