By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Dec 10, 2001 at 5:44 AM

As anyone who's attended UWM knows, there's a great little space on Hampshire Street, just off Downer Avenue, that has been home to Rainbow Jersey cycling shop and a range of cafes, most recently The Couch.

But nothing has seemed to work for very long there. Hopefully, the Sala da Pranzo (Italian for "dining room"), with its casual feel and simple, delicious food, will make a go of it.

On a recent Friday night, my companion and I were pleased to find that although a number of dozen or so tables in the cozy restaurant were filled, we were seated immediately at a warm wooden table with modern wood chairs near a window.

A friendly server, who doted on us all evening, quickly appeared to share with us the specials -- a lemon sole with gnocchi, penne with tomatoes, mushrooms and fresh mozzarella and steak with pepito cheese -- and brought us two glasses of surprisingly full-bodied and tasty house reds -- a Sangiovese and a Cabernet Sauvingon -- from a handful available by the glass or bottle.

Although not extensive, the appetizer menu offers some gems, including the Eggplant con Pane (peculiar mix of languages in the name, eh?), which we sampled. This spiedini-like dish has battered eggplant slices rolled with breadcrumbs, ricotta and tomato sauce and topped with mozzarella.

Other appetizers include a caprese salad, seared scallops and ravioli. Warm, hearty and tender, the eggplant got our juices flowing for the main course. But first, we shared a spinach noce salad (others on the menu are cucumber/tomato, Caesar and a house salad), with tossed gorgonzola, chopped walnuts and sliced radishes with crisp spinach and topped with a balsamic vinaigrette. Fresh and generously portioned, this salad would get a boost if the walnuts were toasted.

A bowl of the minestrone was satisfying and tasty, with a dollop of fresh parsley on top and a tomato battuto.

Nearly a dozen pastas are on offer as well as a trio of chicken dishes, a tuna steak, a tenderloin and a New York strip steak.

We opted for the Chicken Saltimbocca and the Pasta da Mare, both of which arrived in ample portions. The classic chicken dish comprised a pair of perfectly-sauteed tender chicken breasts beneath melted gorgonzola, prosciutto and bay leaves. A side of sauteed red peppers, squash and zucchini accompanied it.

The pasta was a bed of linguini topped with sea scallops, bay scallops and shrimp, all cooked to perfection and topped with a light tomato cream sauce, sweet onions, basil and chopped parsley.

We finished off our meal with two espressos (thankfully not burnt as so often is the case in Milwaukee), passing up the sinful-looking tiramisu and cheesecake. There simply was no room left.

Despite the harsh lighting emanating from the open kitchen area and the sometimes uninspired decor, our food was delicious. With good buzz and the completion of what looks like it could be an unfinished interior, Sala da Pranzo, which also features a lunch menu, could become an East Side hot spot. Be sure to pick up a sack of basil for $1.50 as you leave!

Sala da Pranzo is located at 2613 E. Hampshire St. Call (414) 964-2611 for reservations or more information.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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.