By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Jan 12, 2017 at 11:01 AM

A new Bay View restaurant, Santino’s Little Italy, will officially open to the public on Friday, Jan. 20 at 352 E. Stewart St.

The cozy Italian restaurant is a collaboration between owners Greg Huber, Santo Galati and Nick Anton, longtime co-owner of La Perla Mexican restaurant in Walker’s Point. And it’s been a long time coming.

Anton, who purchased the building in 2015, says the build-out for the restaurant was challenging from start to finish. Built in the 1800s, it was most recently home to Nautical Bar. But in decades past, it also served as a home for one of Milwaukee’s brothels. Unfortunately, years of neglect put the building in disrepair, and countless upgrades were needed, from structural footings to a new foundation, basement, plumbing and roof.

"There were many times when we wanted to give up," notes Anton. "It was really overwhelming. The building had been completely neglected. Ald. (Tony) Zielinski broke his back to help us. He went above and beyond to really move this forward."

The goal, he says, was to capture the spirit of a classic East Coast Italian restaurant.

"We had a vision of what we wanted," explains Anton. "We were trying to be as 1890s Brooklyn as possible. The industrial feel to the area really made it feel very East Coast, and we wanted to capture that vibe."

A look inside

And the partners weren’t without a sense of humor as they built out the space. Take for example the exterior door, painted with an obvious nod to "The Godfather."

Inside, red lighting calls attention to the stunning ceiling, which was painted by Bay View artist Emmanuel Fritz.

To reinforce the old school vibe, televisions in the restaurant will broadcast Italian movies, including classics from Federico Fellini. A state of the art sound system, which enables music to be played with little disruption to conversation, will also feature an eclectic playlist that includes crooner classics along with more contemporary tunes.

Vintage family photos – including some of Galati’s family in Sicily – don the walls. Newspapers from the World War II era, which were found in the walls during demolition, will also be framed as showpieces.

A taste of Italy

The menu errs on the side of affordability with most items priced in the $6-15 range. Highlights include antipasti like bruschetta, cured meats and cheeses, and Sicilian patata arancini made with potatoes, stuffed with basil and cheese, and served with housemade marinara.

There are also salads, including caprese and Greek along with another featuring tuna filet with avocado, marinated carrots, cherry tomatoes, onions and cucumbers drizzled with balsamic reduction.

Pastas include housemade stuffed meatballs, carbonara and Santo Stefano, a pasta dish made with either chicken or shrimp.

But the star of the show at Santino’s is pizza, which is made in an imported Italian wood-fired oven by veteran pizza maestro Vasyl Lemberskyy, best known for his time at Transfer Pizzeria. Based loosely on the Neapolitan style, it features a crust made with Napoli Caputo OO flour, a high protein flour that ensures a crisp exterior that holds up well against the sauce.

"In today’s world, people are pizza connoisseurs," says Galati. "So you have to bring your A game when you take on this business. We tasted through countless pizzas to settle in on a style that we really love."

Highlights include the Giardiniera with thinly sliced Italian beef, hot or mild giardiniera and fresh mozzarella, as well as the Pizza Paisano featuring a tomato and pesto blend, spicy Italian sausage, cherry tomatoes, shaved asiago and shredded mozzarella cheeses. A gluten free crust, as well as non-pork toppings, are also available upon request.

The emphasis, notes Huber, is firmly grounded in high quality ingredients including locally sourced vegetables to pizza toppings like pepperoni and giardiniera. In fact, the team spent countless hours tasting ingredients, including olive oil, to ensure the quality of the ingredients used in the food.

"I remember one day, Nick invited me over to La Perla," Huber says. "And I get there and there are shot glasses on the table. It turns out they were tasting olive oils. We tasted through so many before settling on the kind we’d use for the pizza."

Desserts include Dolce pizza with ricotta cheese, berries and berry syrup, tiramisu and a selection of authentic Italian cookies including amaretti and biscotti made by Galati’s sister Grace using family recipes that date back generations.

Santino’s features a full bar with cocktails and a wine list that focus on Italy. Italian beers, including brews from San Gabriel in Busco Abbey Italy will also be available, along with nine tap beers, including brews from Brenner and Enlightened Brewing Company. Trained baristas will handle coffee service, including espresso.

There’s also outdoor dining to look forward to beginning this summer. A sizeable patio space has been built out to the east of the restaurant and will feature a gas fire pit during clement weather. There will also be an outdoor space developed adjacent to the restaurant that will feature bocce courts.

Beginning Jan. 20, Santino’s kitchen will be open Tuesday through Thursday from 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 4 to 11 p.m. The bar will open for happy hour beginning at 3 p.m. and will remain open through bar time. There are also plans to extend hours to include lunch moving forward.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.