If Walker’s Point wasn’t already a cultural explosion, restaurateur Peter Sandroni’s new 60-seat restaurant will put the neighborhood over the edge.
La Merenda, which means “snack” in Italian and is due to open this weekend at 125 E. National Ave. (between Barclay and 1st Streets), will serve globe trekking small plate lunches and dinners in the $4.75-9.95 price range. The photo above is a montage projecting how the finished exterior will look.
“I worked at a restaurant in Chicago -- that’s now closed -- which was a Filipino restaurant and they thought the only way to get people to really understand Filipino food was do small plates and let people try a lot of different things and share,” says Sandroni, who will run the restaurant with his wife Sonia and Nick and Melissa Cataldo. “I thought why don’t we just do this? I’ve always thought it was a great idea to do an international tapas restaurant.”
Peter Sandroni is La Merenda’s executive chef and is a Milwaukee native. He went to Marquette and has worked at Eagan’s and Dream Dance here, as well as at restaurants in Chicago and Atlanta. Sonia, born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, is business manager, UWM grad Nick Cataldo is chef (he also worked at the Savoy Room) and his wife Melissa, also a UWM grad, is service manager. She has worked at Oakland Trattoria and Sala da Pranzo.
After a few years out of town, Sandroni is realizing his dream in Walker’s Point, he says.
“I thought I’d love to do (this kind of place) in Milwaukee. I kind of jumped around a bit for a while because my family owns a restaurant in Atlanta. I had to go down there to help out after my uncle lost 70 percent of the sight in one of his eyes. Then I met my wife down there and ended up staying a little longer than I expected.”
While he got a lot of experience in Atlanta, he didn’t get much practice at the small plates. But he did do some experimenting there, he says.
“My uncle is an old-school Italian guy so we didn’t do this there, but I did a lot of little specials of that nature and they went over well down there. It was in an established, upscale suburb of Atlanta, kind of like Wauwatosa, Shorewood or Elm Grove here.”
With such a test market, why move into Walker’s Point, you ask?
“We ended up in Walker’s Point because I always loved Walker’s Point,” Sandroni says enthusiastically. “Zur Krone was one of my favorite bars. I like that it’s a mixed cultural neighborhood. It’s a very old, industrial, architecturally cool area.”
Sandroni acknowledges that other restaurants in Milwaukee offer small plate menus, but he believes La Merenda’s approach is a little different.
“Sure, people are doing small plates, but no one’s doing an international menu all in one, that I’m aware of. Balzac has an interesting menu but it’s not as international.”
La Merenda’s menu draws inspiration from Asian, European, North African, Caribbean and American cuisines.
After nearly a year of hard work and anticipation, Sandroni and company hope to open the 2,900-sq. ft. La Merenda this weekend.
“We had the health inspector in and we have to make a small change (to the equipment) to get occupancy,” he says. “But we’re still hoping for this weekend. The Health Dept. is on board once we make the small change to the (ventilation) hood, they’ll come in right away. They appreciate the fact that we’ve kept in the loop from the start.”
Sandroni says it’s been a lot of hard work, but he can smell the sautéing mushrooms already.
“We’re doing a lot of the work ourselves. It is hard, but you know we’re still working the same hours we’ll be working when the restaurant is open. It’s been a good test, sounds funny but it’s true. Right now, it’s hard when you’re tired and you’re painting tight little corners. It’ll be a lot easier when we’re cooking for people, and doing what we want to be doing.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.