By Rick Rodriguez Special to Published Jan 11, 2013 at 12:02 PM

Across from the south end of Southridge Mall is a strip mall. As I quickly scanned the names of the businesses in that strip mall, I noticed "PIZZA" in large red letters. I went in for a closer look and found the name "Klasiana" next to those letters.

From the outside, I could tell this would be a small storefront. I wasn't expecting much more than a counter and a kitchen behind it.

However, what I found when I entered Klasiana, 5487 S. 76th St., was a well thought-out and executed design to maximize the use of the limited space. The colors and lighting make the space look larger than it was.

Four dining tables stand upon light beige floor tiles, and the walls feature a combination of sky blue paint and dark woodwork. A small build-out resembling an older Italian home complete with a window and roofing section with Villa Tiles adorned the north and west walls.

The service counter is covered with a canopy of artificial grape vines. Saloon doors behind the counter provide the entrance to the kitchen.

I've never been to Italy but the décor made me feel like I was on a patio outside of an Italian café, minus the snow and 10-degree wind chill.

Ylli Proko started Klasiana over six years ago. The name "Klasiana" comes from a combination of his children's names. Ylli started working for Patrick Cudahy when he first came to Milwaukee over 20 years ago.

He also worked nights and weekends, and later full time, at three area pizzerias where he learned the pizza business. He reached a point where he felt he was ready to venture out on his own and Klasiana was born.

Ylli's two brothers and his wife help with the cooking and Ylli's neighbors chip in to help with pizza deliveries.

The menu offers pizza, appetizers, sandwiches, chicken, fish, shrimp and Italian specialty dinners such as the Tortellini Casa Mia featuring homemade tortellini stuffed with porcini mushrooms and topped with two sauces, tomato and forestiere (a mushroom sauce).

The pizzas come in six sizes starting with a 10-inch small and ending with an 18x27-inch Party pizza. You also get to choose from five different pizza crusts: original hand-tossed, thin crust, pan style, cheese-stuffed crust, or "Chicago" style, which is the pan pizza topped with another layer of crust and sauce.

The small cheese pizza with original or thin crust starts at $5.99 and $.85 for each additional topping. A cheese Party pizza starts at $19.99 and $2.40 for each additional topping. The pan style and Chicago style are not available in the 18-inch Family or Party pizza size, in case you were wondering.

There are also nine specialty pizzas to choose from including the Mount Olympus featuring fresh tomatoes, seasoned olive oil, black olives, mozzarella cheese, feta cheese and spinach.

I decided to start with an original crust and selected one of the other specialty pizzas, the Alfredo, featuring cheese, fresh tomatoes, chicken, spinach and Alfredo sauce.

I actually ordered the Alfredo pizza because asparagus was listed as one of the toppings and I've never had asparagus on pizza before. When the pizza came out, there was spinach in place of asparagus.

One of the cooks told me they stopped using asparagus several months ago, perhaps because asparagus is out of season or maybe they chose thought spinach was a better option. If you see asparagus as a topping for your pizza, you should confirm availability.

My Alfredo pizza had potential. I liked the toppings. The chicken was cut into large cubes, about .5-.75 of an inch in size. It was a bit dry but I think that is common with chicken on pizza unless it is smothered in BBQ sauce.

The crust was sturdy with a somewhat crisp texture, but I felt it was a little too dense. I probably should have gone with the thin crust for this one. All I could really taste in the crust was the flour.

I think a layer of olive oil under the Alfredo sauce, or just more Alfredo sauce could have helped. Otherwise this pizza was a good option for the health-conscious. I placed most of it in a to-go box and moved on to the next pizza.

I ordered the pan-style pizza with sausage and mushroom, and then I felt inspired, so I added mild giardiniera to the pizza. Why not? Life is short. Am I right, people?

This pizza was more to my liking. The crust edges were close to 1.5 inches tall and crispy like a thick cracker, yet did not have a dry, cracker-like flavor similar to the original crust on my Alfredo pizza.

The sausage chunks were small, but spicy and delicious. The mushroom slices were canned but also had a nice flavor to them. I felt the giardiniera added a little crunch for a nice contrast to the otherwise soft texture of the pizza.

The sauce had a thicker base than most pizza sauces I've had and was on the mild side in terms of flavor. However, I thought the giardiniera really brought the flavors of the sauce to enhance my tasting pleasure.

The thick, delicious layers of cheese were an added bonus. I tried to imagine another layer of crust and sauce on this pizza to guess at how the Chicago style might have tasted.

Proko proudly told me that all of the recipes are his own, created from the knowledge and experience he gained over the years working at the various pizzerias. He adds his own seasoning blend to the pizza sauce base and the dough is made from scratch.

Klasiana's location can be easy to miss, so it relies heavily on repeat business and word of mouth. They will occasionally hand out flyers and frequently receive calls asking for a clarification on their location, since the callers struggle to picture it.

Some of the repeat business comes in the form of large orders from Greendale High School and area businesses. Klasiana has four large ovens, so it can handle these large orders, including as many as 85 pizzas, easier than most other pizzerias can.

When speaking with Proko, I could hear the passion and enthusiasm in his voice. I think there are enough crust and pizza topping varieties available on his menu for most of you to find something that suits your pizza pie preference.

Rick Rodriguez Special to
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, and I plan to stay in Milwaukee forever. I'm the oldest of three children and grew up in the Riverwest neighborhood. My family still lives in the same Riverwest house since 1971.

I graduated from Rufus King High School and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a business degree.

My true passion for Milwaukee probably started after I joined the Young Professionals of Milwaukee (now called FUEL Milwaukee) which just celebrated its one year anniversary at the time. The events that I attended, and sometimes organized, really opened my eyes to what Milwaukee had to offer, as well as its potential for the future. So for the past, present, and future FUEL Milwaukee corporate sponsors out there, that organization does produce results (editorial)!

I love all of the Milwaukee Sports teams, professional and amateur. I love the Milwaukee arts scene and all of the festivals. I love that you can find a free concert in the summer just about every day of the week. I love the various neighborhoods around the Milwaukee area and the unique characteristics that they offer. I love the people who take the time to tell us about those unique characteristics. I have to hold my breath and count to ten when someone tells me that there is nothing to do in Milwaukee. Then I prove them wrong.

Most of all, I love the Milwaukee dining scene. I love how it continues to evolve with modern dishes and new trends while the classic restaurants continue to remind us that great food doesn't have to be "fancy schmancy." However, I also love the chefs that create the "fancy schmancy" dishes and continue to challenge themselves and Milwaukee diners with dishes we've never seen before.

Our media provides attention to the new restaurants, which is great, but I don't like seeing the older great restaurants close their doors (Don Quijote, African Hut) because they've been forgotten, so I try to do my part to let Milwaukeeans know that they're still out there, too. I do that through social media, online reviews, and a dinner club I run for my friends, where we visit restaurants they haven't heard of before or try ethnic cuisine they haven't had before.

My dream is that one day I can mention a great experience in Milwaukee and not have someone respond with "have you been to Chicago?" I don't like those people very much.