Milwaukee Welcomes an Italian Renaissance on Brady Street

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Michaelson

The biography of Italian immigrant Girolama Megna, currently being played out on Milwaukee's Brady Street, reads like the storybook American success story.

She was born and raised in Sicily, in the seaside town of Porticello, where her father was a commercial fisherman. There, she learned to cook at the side of her mother and grandmother. In 1963, she journeyed to the United States and settled in Milwaukee.

Now known as "Mimma," she worked long hours at a number of restaurants and ran a catering service as she gained experience and carefully saved the money to open her own restaurant.

In 1989, with a stake of $15,000, she realized that dream. With eight tables and a four-burner stove, Mimma's Cafe was born on Brady Street, an old Italian neighborhood on Milwaukee's northeast side that itself is in the throes of a renaissance, with Mimma actively involved in its revival.

"When I arrived, Brady Street was a ghost town and not a very safe place to be. What is now the restaurant was two duplexes with an alley in between," says Mimma.

Today, Brady Street flourishes as a focus of dining, funky shopping and the location of some of the city's best live-music clubs, with Mimma's as the brightest star in its firmament, truly a destination restaurant, with about 30 percent of its clientele driving up from Chicago.

With seating for close to 190, it offers regional Italian cuisine drawn from across Mimma's native land and including more than 50 pasta dishes. She has earned national recognition (for food and wine) and a toque-full of awards. This month, Mimma opens a neighboring sister restaurant, Vucciria's ("voices of people"), specializing in pizza and named after a famous market in Palermo, Sicily.

Brady Street is not the typical "Little Italy" that is exclusively Neapolitan. It is dotted with coffee bars and New Age shops populated by a sprinkling of time-warp hippies and punkers with bushy hairdos in red and green. You'll also find well-groomed professionals walking well-groomed dogs and not a few foodies headed for an Italian grocery and an Italian bakery that long have been Brady Street fixtures.

In the 1840s, Brady Street served as the main gathering place for Milwaukee's immigrant communities of Irish, Germans and Polish, followed by Italian settlers in the 1930s and '40s. Because most of the buildings in this trendy neighborhood were constructed between 1860 and 1930, the architecture is an intriguing tapestry of styles.

On Saturdays, people head to Brady Street to browse its kitschy clothing shops and line up for crusty loaves and fresh cannoli at Peter Sciortino Bakery, established a half-century ago. It also is the spot to find tutu, a moist chocolate cookie filled with walnuts and topped with icing, as well as vanilla-coconut macaroons, vanilla sandwich cookies and pastries filled with Italian custard.

On the next block, Glorioso's Specialty Shop, founded in 1946, is a well-stocked Italian grocery, with imported hams and cheeses, meats and shelves stacked with pastas and colorful cans of olive oil. A handful of sidewalks tables allows customers to sit out and enjoy custom-made sandwiches.

Another casual stop is Bella's Fat Cat, an old-style custard stand that also offers excellent shakes, burgers, fries and onion rings. …