Restaurant Review: Santino’s Little Italy is a Bay View Pearl

Santino’s Little Italy is as serious about the ambiance as it is about the pies.

The film Moonstruck could not be a more appropriate choice for a starry, frigid-though-windless night at the shadowy Bay View hideaway Santino’s Little Italy. On the flat screen TVs, that is. Cher and Nicolas Cage (with a wooden hand!) make googly eyes at each other amid the backdrop of Brooklyn Heights brownstones.

Sadly, the Puccini-et-al soundtrack is on mute. But there’s Connie Francis and Dean Martin on the stereo, and plenty of atmosphere in this turn-of-the-century building. “It’s the place to go if you’re on the lam,” says co-owner Greg Huber of this 2-year-old pizzeria. Exactly.

Santino’s Little Italy. Photo by Chris Kessler.

If I were on the run, say, from the heat, I’d think of Santino’s Bocce Ball appetizer – a 10-ounce meatball in marinara and melted mozz, and speared with a skewer of kalamata olives ($11) – as a meal worth risking my freedom. Really! It’s delicate and tender from packing the ground beef, pork and veal balls ever so gently. This comforting Italian-immigrant dish is one of the items co-owner Santo Galati knew needed to be on the menu. It was Huber’s idea to make it the size of the metal balls used in Italian bocce. Bada-boom! It was an instant menu hit.

The partners’ love of Italian food isn’t limited to old-school Italian-American classics, though the menu has them (like baskets of crisp-supple fried calamari with the sweet dipping sugo, $10, and a well-executed pasta carbonara in lightly smoky cream sauce, $15).

They also love the charred, pillowy, chewy crust pizzas originating in Naples, Italy. So does their chef, Vasyl Lemberskyy, the former pizziolo at Transfer on First and Mitchell. Huber and Galati invested in a 6,000-pound, Italian-made Forno Bravo wood-burning oven, which required a forklift and the removal of a wall to get it in the building.

The 12-inch pizzas, baked over cherry wood and oak, are good. The blend of pesto and tomato sauce and spicy Italian sausage in the Paisano ($16) is bold and zesty. I also like the salty Italian ham that defines the Capricciosa ($17), also topped with black olives, mushrooms, artichokes and Grande whole-milk mozzarella.

But pizza – plus a few more Italian odds and ends – isn’t the end of the story here. Galati and Huber like to make a good final impression. That explains and justifies Mama Galati’s Italian cookies ($7) – a dessert plate of crunchy, sweet hand-formed and cookie-pressed beauties baked by Galati’s sisters. The last face you’ll see before pushing the door open into the quiet street is one of the owners’, wishing you good night. An old-school touch that makes this hideaway a little Bay View pearl.

Santino’s Little Italy

352 E. Stewart St., 414-897-7367
Dinner, Tues-Sun
Pizzas, pastas; $11-$18
Attentive, quick, knowledgeable

“Pizza Italiano” appears in the February 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.