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In Dining

Peter Sandroni has a comfort food weakness: meatballs.

What chefs eat: Peter Sandroni of La Merenda & Engine Company No. 3

There's no shortage of articles and television shows that showcase the dishes that chefs love to cook at their restaurants. But, what do they love to eat at the end of their exhausting 16 hour days? Or on their days off?

In this series, we ask Milwaukee area chefs to share their favorite dishes -- both from area restaurants and for eating at home. In this edition, we talked with Chef Peter Sandroni of La Merenda and Engine Co. Number 3. Sandroni will be among eight featured chefs at the upcoming 3rd Annual Moveable Feast event at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Sandroni grew up cooking Italian food. But food wasn't his first thought when it came to choosing a career. In fact, when he graduated from Marquette University with a degree in political science, a job as a chef was the last thing on his mind. Instead, his passion for learning led him to enroll in the master's program for medieval history. It wasn't until he moved to Atlanta, Georgia to assist his aunt and uncle with running their Italian restaurant and deli, that he found his calling. Culinary school followed, and Sandroni unearthed a flair for creating internationally-inspired fare with a local focus.

And Sandroni's favorite foods follow suit.

"My approach to eating has changed since having kids," notes Sandroni as we discuss his favorite dishes. "Between all the extracurricular activities for my kids, and my schedule, we're a really busy family. So, we don't eat at restaurants very much. In fact, eating -- and enjoying meals -- revolves more around keeping everyone happy than anything."

Ginza's Wauwatosa Roll

"We started going to Ginza after my daughter's swimming practice at Wauwatosa West; it's so close, and it was a matter of convenience. We kept going back because there were things that the entire family liked. They do a really great avocado salad and a great miso soup. I love the spider roll, but the family favorite is really the Wauwatosa roll: shrimp tempura, avocado and topped with spicy lobster. That combination -- the creaminess of the avocado and the spiciness of the lobster are really great together. And then there's the crispiness, the texture, from the tempura. And everything on your tongue is working: sweet, salty, spicy and umami."

La Merenda's Empanadas

"If I don't have time to come home and cook, I'll bring home food from the restaurant. When that's the case, I bring things that everyone likes. My kids will eat almost every flavor of empanada. But, they love the red wine braised beef, for which we alternate between either a Malbec or Cabernet for the braising. The filling also has bacon and mushrooms. They don't really like mushrooms, but they never seem to complain about them in the empanadas. And my wife is happy because the empanada dough comes from her family, so there's happy memories there."

Pizza with a side of spinach

"We like to make pizzas at home. I have a recipe for the dough I got from my aunt and uncle's Italian deli in Atlanta. And we have a family recipe for sauce. From there, we tend to use what's on hand. The other day it was soppressata. Sometimes we use grilled chicken. My girls really love sauteed spinach, so we sometimes put it on the pizza, but often we just eat it as a side. It's the same as what we serve at La Merenda. It's fresh spinach sauteed with garlic and olive oil. You take the hot spinach -- only cooked about three-quarters of the way through -- season it with salt and pepper and put it on a plate that's covered with parmesan. Then you sprinkle more parmesan on top."

Ultimate Comfort food

"Meatballs. I'm nuts about meatballs. The first thing I do whenever I go home is raid my mom's fridge to see if she has meatballs. I'll eat them hot, cold, spicy, not spicy, however. In fact my favorite way to eat them is cold the day after. They've been soaking in marinara. And they're just so good.

"As kids, we made them every Sunday with my mom. And for me, it's all about that flavor memory. It's one of the few recipes I have memorized, because I made it so much. We always made them with beef and pork, and for each pound of ground meat, there's one egg, a half cup of dried breadcrumbs, ¼ cup of freshly grated parmesan, salt, pepper and fresh basil. We bake them off and then add them to marinara sauce. They're simple, and I can make them quickly. I can also make a ton of them and freeze them."


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