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A recently renovated SALA remains an easy-breezy spot for Italian.

An early spring not too many years ago, seated at one of the two-top window tables at SALA, I glanced out the rain-speckled windows and dug into a bowl of red sauce over angel hair pasta with a couple of dense, fennel-laced beef meatballs. Whatever stresses that day had brought, this classic Italian-American dish was the balm to that. I’ve been enjoying the comfort of that dish since I was a child.

And it’s still a go-to at SALA (Italian for “room”), which celebrated the start of its 17th year by making some changes that will allow it to grow. The Italian-with-an-emphasis-on-Sicily place closed for a few weeks in January to expand the kitchen and bar, completing a project that began with the addition of red upholstered booths in the dining room.

To East Siders in this mostly residential pocket just east of UW-Milwaukee, SALA is like a comfy, nicely broken-in cardigan that serves a good chicken Marsala and pasta arrabiata. The dining room’s ambiance has grown homier over the years, partly owing to the ever-increasing number of canvases on the red walls. Co-owner Teresa Balistreri-Warsh says it was always the goal to use the dining room to showcase art, created by family and friends. Teresa’s brother and business partner, Anthony Balistreri, is also a visual artist. As for the timing of the remodel, Teresa says they looked at opening a second location, but not finding what they wanted, they decided instead to invest in their one-and-only.

The renovation doubled the hood size in the kitchen and accommodates a larger pizza oven. (Pizzas were added to the menu some five years ago.) Now the L-shaped bar can seat five more people, but no longer allows a fascinating bird’s eye view of prep work of dishes like SALA’s simple, delicious carpaccio – wafer thin-sliced rare beef drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and fresh Parm, dotted with briny capers and served with lemon wedges ($14). Other reliable starters are the baked eggplant wrapped around a thick ricotta filling, topped with mozzarella and served with a chunky tomato sauce (which just needed a little more seasoning/splash of acid the last time I had it, $11) and the baked goat cheese in house tomato-basil sugo ($10). Their house tomato-basil soup, often available along with minestrone, is also good – slightly sweet, slightly chunky and good with crusty Italian bread ($6).

The pizzas are built on medium-thick, chewy crusts, which I respect and enjoy (Saltine crusts are not universal), especially the salty-tangy Rita (with banana peppers, fresh mozz and prosciutto) and the carbonara, with pancetta, a cracked egg and not-too-heavy alfredo (pizzas, small-large, from $10-$30.25).

On Tuesday nights, SALA runs a $7 special of angel hair in sugo with one of their meatballs. Delicious, but it shouldn’t dissuade you from trying other pastas, my favorite being the chicken and mushrooms in subtly sweet Marsala wine sauce over angel hair ($24) or the di mare – shrimp and scallops in mild, rich tomato cream sauce over linguine ($23). That seafood pasta has been on the menu since the early days.

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SALA keeps the fire burning for those old standbys, although the recent renovation is inspiring the cooking staff to tweak and add to the menu. For now, the staff is getting used to more room to “play” in the kitchen and more spots to seat diners. Making things more comfortable is a smart way to grow.


‘Bigger Nights’ appears in the April 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning April 2nd, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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