Nowadays, Milwaukee is such a dining hot spot that we don’t have to look much beyond our own borders to find great restaurants. And that’s a shame because many of us miss places like Tony Mantuano’s Mangia Wine Bar in Kenosha.
But that wasn’t always the case. When Tony Mantuano opened the trattoria, 5717 Sheridan Rd. in the heart of downtown Kenosha, in 1988, with his brother Gino and their dad Gene (aka Gig), all of southeastern Wisconsin took notice.
Back then, Mangia was big news because it was the baby of Mantuano, who had made his name as chef at Chicago’s respected Spiaggia, where he is now chef/partner.
These days, Mangia is big news around here again because the recently revamped restaurant brought in former Dream Dance chef Jason Gorman, who had been hired away from Milwaukee by Mantuano in 2012. Gorman went to Chicago, where he was instrumental in running the dining operations at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Eager to try the new menu, I visited about a week after Mangia reopened. Before I got there some Kenosha friends had already tried and were raving.
What started out as an intimate nine-table restaurant has, over the years, expanded to include a bar, a couple dining rooms and a patio, which, sadly, wasn’t yet up and running when we visited.
It was the revamped Mangia’s second weekend service, however, and the place was hopping. Later, Gorman – a former OnMilwaukee.com blogger – told me there were so many covers that night that he wouldn’t have been able escape the kitchen to say hello.
The menu isn’t sprawling, but it’s got a good variety and some interesting flavors, and a range of Wisconsin products.
Among the antipasti are a Tuscan chicken liver spread with Door County cherries and a La Quercia prosciutto plate with Wisconsin parmesan. We tried the grilled calamari ($10), which was tender and tasty without the glossy oiliness that almost always accompanies breaded and fried squid appetizers.
I was also a big fan of the warm goat cheese curds ($9), served in a canning jar with toasted slices of Italian bread. The warm curds were mixed with lightly spicy n’duja and Pachino tomatoes. The result was a little sweet and a little piccante and thoroughly addictive.
A "snacks" menu includes items like spiced nuts, crispy smelts, fried cheese "for grownups," orange olives and cheese bread sourced from Rocket Baby ($6).
The salad options are especially unique. Though there are only three choices, they’re unlike salads you’ll find elsewhere. How to decide between pea, bacon and pecorino; arugula and shaved fennel; and a kale Caesar?
For an entrée, I had to order from the pasta menu, because, after all, if a trattoria can’t do pasta right, then what’s the point.
From five options that ranged from "ziti della nonna 2.0" – Maple Creek Farms braised pork, San Marzano tomatoes, Pecorino Romano – to linguine in white clam sauce. I, of course, chose the gnocchi ($19), because that’s what I do.
The house-made dumplings were light enough – it’s darn near impossible to find those pillowy soft and airy gnocchi one gets in Italy – dressed in a creamy ricotta sauce and drizzled with black truffle. I’d make the trip back just for these.
We also ordered pan seared scallops ($22), with a half-dozen tender, sweet sea scallops with pine nuts, green olives and raisins, served atop a halved and grilled head of romanesco broccoli. Other "secondi" options included Skuna Bay salmon with beans, rapini and rosemary; hanger steak; crispy half chicken and Maple Creek Farms pork ribs, among others.
Mangia also offers a small selection of panini and wood-fired pizzas, from the latter, our littlest diners selected a Margherita ($14) that they enjoyed, when they weren’t asking for more of my gnocchi.
For dessert, don't miss the crostata ($5), if it's on offer. The flaky crust masks a filling of chocolate hazelnut Nutella.
The service was efficient and friendly during our visit, though with such an interesting menu, servers might consider offering more suggestions and explanations.
With so many good restaurants right here in Milwaukee, you might balk at driving to Kenosha for dinner, but make time to go.
Combine it with a trip to ride the trolley or visit the dinosaur museum. Plan a culinary junket with a stop at Tenuta’s Italian deli and grocery. Or detour off the interstate next time you’re headed to or from Chicago.
Or, just head south for the Mangia experience itself. You won’t be disappointed.
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 can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.