By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jan 09, 2012 at 9:02 AM

Several restaurateurs may be cooking up a new dining concept in the Milwaukee suburbs – quickly prepared Italian dishes that don't taste like fast food. Orders are placed at a counter and eaten at tables or carried out.

Portabella Bakery & Cafe officially opened in the fall in New Berlin after spending the summer gradually morphing from being an Atlanta Bread Co. franchise. It has a full bakery operation, and the owners are looking to expand to other locations.

The Dish opened in Oak Creek last month with an even greater commitment to speed. A customer can place an order for a pasta entree at a drive-thru window and have it handed to him in less than four minutes. Pizzas, available in three sizes, are delivered to a car in 12 minutes.

The restaurant also has an attractive dining room, with modern art on the walls and a soaring cathedral ceiling, that seats about 35. The first O&H Danish Bakery location outside of Racine County shares the space. O&H is legendary among kringle connoisseurs.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at The Dish, which opens at 6 a.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. on weekends. A full range of breakfast items and platters are offered, from sandwiches ($1.69 and $2.89) and french toast ($2.95 for a half order and $4.50 to full) to buttermilk biscuits and gravy ($2.50 and $4.25) and a farmer's platter ($5.99) that includes scrambles eggs, a hashbrown casserole, toast and bacon, sausage or ham. A wide assortment of bakery items from O&H are also available when the restaurant opens.

The menu for the rest of the day is eclectic and extensive. Small plate offerings include coconut shrimp served with a raspberry melba sauce ($7.99), deep fried calamari with marinara sauce ($6.99) and N'awlens crab cakes accompanied by chipotle ranch sauce ($7.99).

Among the salad selections are a steak gorgonzola featuring beef tenderloin medallions and a seafood with grilled ahi tuna and tiger shrimp, both priced at $10.99. Sandwiches run the gamut from braised chuck roast with grilled onions and mushrooms on a pretzel roll ($6.99) and cajun chicken breast with bacon, provolone cheese and red pepper mayo on ciabatta bread ($6.99) to grilled ahi tuna with lettuce, tomato and wasabi mayo on grilled flat bread ($8.99).

A range of panini ($5.99 to $7.99) is also offered. But pasta and stone hearth pizza are at the center of The Dish. Pasta selections include wild mushroom ravioli ($8.99), lasagna with spinach, sausage and pepperoni ($8.99) and shrimp, mussels, langostinos and tomatoes over angel hair noodles. ($10.99).

Beef stroganoff is served over egg noodles for $8.99. Diners can build their own pasta dishes from a broad variety of items.

Customers can create their own thin crust pizzas with toppings that include spinach, jalapenos and two types of bacon – Canadian and standard. The most unusual specialty pizza is the Mardi Gras, which features bell peppers, onions and spicy andouille sausage with a cajun sauce. In three sizes it sells for $8.95, $12.95 and $16.95.

The O&H Bakery portion of the restaurant offers everything from long johns and jelly filled donuts to a wide variety of breads ($2.25 to $5) and such local favorites as kolaches and seven sister coffee cakes. Kringles range in price from $7.50 to $10.

The Dish's concept developed in the mind of chef and general manager Val Secor, who has been running kitchens in Racine and Kenosha counties for 25 years.

"This is my vision. I've always wanted to do this," he says. "It's something a little nicer in fast food. It's upscale but very fast and affordable."

The restaurant is the newest holding of the Willkomm Companies, a Kenosha County-based group of businesses owned by Secor's high school friends Jim and Michael Willkomm. The group includes an oil and gasoline distributorship, three gas station-convenience stores in Kenosha, a gas station-convenience store and Burger King franchise in Racine, and the Petro Travel Plaza truck stop at I-94 and Hwy. 20 in Sturtevant. An Iron Skillet restaurant is part of the truck stop.

During the summer, Willkomm bought a vacant structure at 9540 S. 27th that had previously housed a deli. "We pretty much gutted the entire building," Secor says.

Only a few hundred feet south of Ryan Road, the location appears to be ideal. The large Oak Creek Industrial Park is nearby, as is I-94.

If business goes well, other Dishes will be opened. "We would like to have these everywhere. We already have some more sites in mind," the chef and general manager continues.

Expect the new restaurant's menu to have some seasonal changes. "We're a little heavy on Italian right now. I would like to add some Asian items," Secor says.

Intrigued by how a restaurant can deliver fresh and complex pasta entrees in less than four minutes, I asked the man behind the concept to explain. "We keep our home-made sauces hot, and we keep a big pasta boiler boiling. We get an order and we drop the pasta into the boiler."

That's how you get rigatoni with beef tenderloin gorgonzola ($10.99) at a drive-thru.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.