By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jun 28, 2022 at 11:03 AM

It’s been over four years since guests had their last taste of the Sicilian dishes from longtime Milwaukee restaurant, Giovanni’s.

But all of that will change this fall when Safina, a new casual Italian concept comes to the historic building at 785 N. Jefferson St.

Safina, which could open as soon as mid-October, will be operated by its namesake, the Safina family, which has owned and operated numerous Cream City venues over the past 45 years including Comedy Cafe, Tutto’s, Centanni and (currently) The Sofie at 777 N. Jefferson St.

Familiar Italian fare

Giuseppe (Joey) Safina, who has spent the last few years helping out at Sanford Restaurant and working as sous chef at Harwood Place in Wauwatosa, says the restaurant will, in many ways, resemble a more casual version of Giovanni’s. In fact, the restaurant will "bring the band back together" in nearly every respect:  he and his brother David will be operating the kitchen, his brother Sal will handle front of house matters and their father, Giovanni, will, as Safina says “keep them all in line.” Even Chef Justin Aprahamian, whose family has had longstanding ties to the Safinas, will assist in helping them refine dishes for the new restaurant.

“We’re envisioning that Safina will be a casual dining spot that falls somewhere in between Tutto’s and Giovanni’s,” he says, “And our goal is to keep the menu familiar and accessible, a mix of classic family recipes and more modern twists… but nothing too fancy or foodie.”

He says the focus will be on comforting dishes with roots in Sicily and the southern regions of Italy, including offerings like frutti di mare, bruschetta, Sicilian pork chops and steak, branzino and a selection of housemade pastas served with classic sauces like slow-simmered bolognese.

If they can coordinate the logistics, Safina says they’d also like to feature olive oil at the restaurant which is harvested from an olive grove in Sicily that’s been in the Safina family for over six generations.

“When my father travels back home, he always brings olive oil back with him,” he says. “And we’d love to give our guests that taste of Sicily if we can work it out.”

An historic location

As for the location, Safina says they purchased the historic building this spring; and they did so, in part, because the Greek revival style townhouse had such a welcoming look and feel. 

Known as the William A. Webber House, the building was constructed as a residence in 1858 before being transformed into a bar and restaurant. In recent years, it housed venues including The Phoenix Cocktail Club and The Duplex. Farther back it was also home to Serum and Brio Trattoria. 

“We’ve always believed in using the best, freshest products possible and giving people the best possible service,” he says. “We want to make you feel like you’re part of our family. Part of why we were attracted to this building is because when you walk in, you feel like you’re entering a home. The space has a better feel than almost any other location we’ve had.”

Safina says they've already gotten started planning the renovations for the building, including cleaning up the front of the building and sprucing up the interior of the restaurant to give it a rustic-yet-modern Italian feel.

For the dining room, Safina says they will work with folks including Martin Dietrich of Sup Design in Riverwest (the artisan who also built the bar at Centanni) to install old world wood details in the space and renovate the back bar to give it a slightly smaller profile, allowing for a bit more space in the dining room.

The main floor, which he says will seat about 44 guests, is likely to open for dining in the fall; but they will be adding additional seating on the second floor of the building as part of a second phase in renoovations.

He says they will also be replacing the iron gates around the areaway, the small patio area below sidewalk level that includes a door that opens into the kitchen. The plan is to convert it into a private patio where guests can experience a “chef’s table” experience during which Giovanni will hand-deliver plates fresh from the kitchen.

Eventually they will also add an outdoor sidewalk patio that connects up with The Sofie next door.

"We're excited," says Safina, noting that they get inquiries from patrons at The Sofie on a regular basis, asking when they are going to open a restaurant again. “Thanks to the proximity of the bar, we’re looking forward to hosting customers there for drinks and then being able to welcome them for dinner right next door.”

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

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.