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School of Sauce
In the name of all things classic Italian comes Little DeMarinis, an homage to a beloved Bay View pizzeria.

Photo by Chris Kessler

The calendar is flipping. Back, back it goes to 1996 – a big one for a Bay View pizza-tossing family.

It was the year brothers Dom and Phil DeMarinis left the family business – Mama DeMarinis, on Wentworth Avenue – and opened up their own shop just a few blocks away, on Conway Street. Back on Wentworth, Mama’s continued on its Italian way with the DeMarinis matriarch at the helm. The families never publicly disclosed the reason for the split.

They continued to run without interruption (Dom and “Mama” Lucille have since passed) until Mama DeMarinis’ closing in June 2012.

From that point on, Veronica Cieslak – the founders’ granddaughter – embarked on a mission to bring back Mama D’s. The Wentworth building was no longer available, but those digs didn’t make this joint what it was. It was the dough, the sauce, the meatballs, the sausage. The “original” recipes that, over generations, had worked their way into the family’s DNA.

Now, the recipes are getting a workout at LITTLE DEMARINIS, a mile south of Mama’s old stomping grounds. Cieslak and her business partners (her husband, Joe, is one) didn’t just get 40 seats and a bar in the lower level of the George Washington Bay View Post 180 on South Kinnickinnic Avenue. They also inherited a zealous fanbase.

Veronica’s brother Vince rides herd in the kitchen (as he did at Mama D’s) and, in these early, heady days, tries to keep the pans coming out in a timely fashion. But it’s difficult, since the crowd is practically pounding their fork-clenching fists on the tables in anticipation.

Once the crowds have abated (if ever), Cieslak says they’d consider bringing back more of Mama, including more ambitious pizza offerings. But a lotta Mama is here – mozzarella sticks ($7.25), pasta and chicken parm dinners ($9.50-$13.75), and pizzas built on a thin crust hefty enough to support a jungle of toppings ($9 and up).

Italian cuisine is not necessarily enhanced by the more elegant the plate or highfalutin the ingredients. Little D’s epitomizes that. And a VFW hall is the perfect, albeit anomalous, location. Other assets are practical: The joint comes equipped with a handicap ramp in front and a parking lot in back (rare in Bay View).

Beyond the entrance doors, diners say buon giorno to vinyl tile flooring, a friendly square-shaped bar, and a thematic deference to that little beauty of Italian engineering, the Vespa.

The aroma of warm tomato sauce pervades the room. Little D’s mozzarella marinara reminds me of sticky July nights waiting for the fireworks to start at Festa Italiana. There’s no illusion what you’re eating – a cheese stick wrapped in breading and deep-fried. Best enjoyed by dunking it in tomato sauce. Breading encases the chicken parm ($13.75), too – a breast pounded thin and pan-fried. Mozz and parm form a melted sheet. Underneath is a bed of spaghetti topped with sweet, paste-like tomato sauce.

Mama’s was known for its balls, er, of meat. They’re pretty good ground beef balls, all in all. Dense and mildly seasoned, they let the sauce do the talking – sparingly. The tomato sauce is smooth and sweet, just thick enough to cling to hollows of chewy mostaccioli ($12.75), but devoid of bells and whistles. (Other sauce choices include pesto, garlic and olive oil, garlic butter, and marinara – spicier than the tomato.)

If you want meat – meat that defined Mama D’s and is destined to define its progeny – it’s the Italian sausage. When you order it on a pizza, it’s the alpha and it should be. One night at Little D’s, I order the 18-by-13-inch rectangle with “the works” – onions and green peppers, mushrooms (canned or fresh) and fresh tomatoes, black olives, sausage and pepperoni ($25). This monster staggered to my table an hour later. What gives? my facial muscles communicate to the server.

“When you order a lot of toppings, the longer it takes,” she says apologetically. A bite of this pizza without the homemade sausage – meat courtesy of Groppi’s Market – is almost not a bite worth having. This pizza gives me old-school goose bumps. When Milwaukee is labeled a city resistant to trends, a town that looks lovingly back at its melting pot history … that’s not always a bad thing. 
This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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