By Rick Rodriguez Special to Published Jul 17, 2013 at 12:02 PM

Have you ever been inside the Italian Community Center? Did you know there was a restaurant inside? Did you know it was open to the public?

You’ve probably walked down Chicago Street on your way to Summerfest or one of the many ethnic festivals at Henry Maier Festival Park and passed the Italian Community Center many times.

I’ve attended several banquets and conferences in the Italian Community Center and discovered that it has pretty good food, including pizza. Festa Italiana is this weekend, so I thought it made perfect sense to tell you about Café La Scala, 631 E. Chicago St., and its pizza.

As the Italian Community Center website indicates, "on Feb. 28, 1978, representatives from the Milwaukee Chapter of UNICO National, the Milwaukee Ladies of UNICO, and the Pompeii Men’s Club met to discuss ways to reunite the local Italian community."

They decided on re-establishing an Italian festival in a joint effort of the three organizations, and that festival would be called Festa Italiana, which made its debut Aug. 4, 1978.

Due to the immediate success of the festival, Festa organizers were able to purchase a small storefront office which housed The Italian Community Center.

Continued success of Festa Italiana, as well as membership growth, resulted in a need for a larger facility. The first expansion was the purchase of the former Kenwood Masonic Lodge in April 1980.

The next was a purchase of the former "Coachyards" from Milwaukee County where the current Italian Community Center was built. It opened Sept. 30, 1990.

According to a manager I spoke with, the center has housed a restaurant for the majority of its existence but it became Café La Scala around 10 years ago, about the same time Chef Jack McNeir took over the kitchen.

The menu at Café La Scala includes appetizers, salads, sandwiches, burgers, entrees, pizza and desserts featuring spumoni, gelato, sorbet or a lemon, peach or orange filled with sorbet.

The sandwiches include meatball, Sicilian steak, Italian beef, Italian sausage and muffaletta with Genoa salami, mortadella, capicola, provolone and olive tapenade on grilled torpedo bread.

One of the cafe's special items is the spaghetti gelato. Spaghetti is topped with vanilla ice cream or lemon gelato, which is topped with strawberry sauce or chocolate shavings and whipped cream. It sounds interesting, and I was curious about the actual plating, but I didn’t see anyone order it.

Entrees feature lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken saltimbocca, turkey tetrazzini, Sicilian steak, Italian sausage cavatappi and salmon and shrimp Siciliano, where a pan-seared salmon is marinated in lemon, olive oil, garlic and herbs, then topped with shrimp scampi and served over cavatappi pasta.

Friday nights feature a fish fry with your choice of all-you-can-eat baked or fried cod for $10.95, served with your choice of potato and veggies. Perch is also available for $10.95 but it’s not all-you-can-eat. I think that is a great price for either option. By the way, one of the potato choices is homemade potato pancakes, so they earn bonus points in my book.

Pizzas at Café La Scala are made with hand-tossed crusts in 8, 12, and 16 inches. Cheese pizzas range from $6.95 to $10.95. Add another dollar for a sausage or pepperoni pizza. Additional toppings range from $.50 to $1 each.

Specialty pizzas range from $7.95 to $14.95 and include deluxe, margherita, veggie and the pizza in bianco, which is a crust topped with a drizzle of olive oil, fresh veggies including mushrooms and diced tomatoes, red and green peppers and onions, then topped with mozzarella cheese.

My visit had a bit of a shaky start. There is a sign at the entrance that directs visitors to the bar to meet with the host. When I arrived at the bar, I saw a bartender behind the bar, but no host.

After a few minutes, a gentleman on the opposite side of the bar was scanning a book and directing servers. He seemed to be the host and manager since he also checked on the kitchen periodically.

I think a sign at a specific part of the bar reading "Host Station" or "Please Wait to be Seated" would have been helpful. During my dinner, a few other customers came in and were equally confused and looking around for someone to help them.

Once I was seated, my experience improved a bit. I waited a bit long to receive a menu and I’m not sure they knew which server was assigned to me. Once that was determined and he came to greet me, I placed my order and anxiously awaited my pizza.

First up was the pizza in bianco, which I instantly loved after the first bite. Veggie pizzas are not my thing and I prefer a pizza with sauce, but I did not miss the meat nor the sauce. The olive oil provided some moisture and enhanced the flavor of the fresh vegetables. I would definitely order the pizza in bianco and highly recommend it to you.

Next was a sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza with the house pizza sauce. The sauce was applied a bit too lightly for me but when I was able to isolate it, I really liked the flavor profile of the slightly spicy sauce. Café La Scala starts with a canned sauce and adds its own special spice blend recipe, as do most pizza makers.

I loved the flavor and spiciness of the sausage and pepperoni, but the sausage was truly the star. I figured the sausage had to be made fresh and local, perhaps even in-house.

It turns out the sausage is made for Cafe La Scala by Casper Balistreri, owner of the Venice Club. Kudos Mr. Balistreri! I would easily put this sausage in the top two that I’ve had on a pizza and could probably make a case for it to be the best.

The crust on both pizzas was crispy and chewy, as I would expect a well-made hand-tossed crust to be. While I prefer thin and cracker-like pizza crusts, the sauce and toppings at Café La Scala work really well with the hand-tossed crusts and puts this pizza on my list to enjoy again in the future.

With summer finally arriving, patio dining is picking up. Café La Scala has a very large courtyard with a water fountain in the center for diners to enjoy, although the fountain wasn’t running on my visit.

Many of the diners knew the host and some staff by first name, and the host and staff reciprocated calling them by name, giving Café La Scala the feel of a small neighborhood restaurant.

Café La Scala has a unique charm to it with great food, based on what I’ve sampled. The Italian Community Center is also a great venue for meetings, conferences, weddings, etc., with its large rooms and in-house catering.

They’re normally closed Saturdays and Sundays, but it will be open this Saturday for Festa weekend. You’ll probably get your Italian food fix at Festa Italiana this weekend, but keep Café La Scala in mind for a solid change of pace from your regular dining routine.

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.