Milwaukee's Italian Heritage Takes Center Stage Next Month
Byline: Mike Michaelson
Although Milwaukee might be better known for brews and brats than for pasta and pesto, it does boast a strong Italian heritage and a vibrant Italian presence with an estimated 45,000 residents of Milwaukee County of Italian descent.
In fact, Italian art, architecture, culture and cuisine are readily evident around the city. Check out the mosaic floor in the rotunda of the public library, dating from 1888, and the ornamental plasterwork and gold bas-relief in the Pfister Hotel - all the work of Italian-Americans. Or head for Brady Street on the East Side to sample the fare at a clutch of Italian restaurants, grocery stores and bakeries.
Best of all, visit Milwaukee during the month of February and sample some of the finest in visual and performing arts as the fourth annual International Arts Festival (Feb. 1 through March 4) celebrates Milwaukee's Italian heritage.
More than 35 of the city's visual and performing arts organizations will present more than 45 performances throughout the festival at a variety of venues, including theaters, museums, libraries, colleges, universities and the Italian Community Center. Offerings range from classical concerts and opera to films, ballet and art exhibits. They include many internationally known performers as well as extensive programming for children.
Choose from "An Evening of Favorites From Italian Opera" and performances of "Romeo & Juliet" and "Galileo," a ballet. You'll also find poetry reading and a presentation of works by Italian playwright, political activist and comedian Dario Fo (accompanied by a reception with Italian food).
And, as a fresh idea for celebrating Valentine's Day, check out "Early Music Now," a performance of 17th-century Italian music paired with a chocolate reception. The performance is the work of nationally acclaimed La Luna, a quartet of violins, viola dagamba and harpsichord. One West Coast critic noted, "The group has a way that draws one into music, making it seem freshly minted."
Find a distinct Neapolitan flavor on Milwaukee's East Side where a renaissance is in full swing along a stretch of Brady Street. One of Milwaukee's hottest restaurants, Mimma's Cafe, draws many Chicagoans as a destination eatery (reservations essential). Featuring more than 50 different pasta dishes, this stylish cafe is decorated in black and white (the waitstaff wear natty black-and- white polka dot ties) and is presided over by founder Mimma Megna. With a talented kitchen and opulent ambience, the restaurant has undergone two expansions that increased seating from 30 to 160.
Nearby Gloriosso Brothers, founded in 1946, is a well-stocked Italian grocery with meats, cheeses and shelves stacked with pastas, dry goods and colorful cans of olive oil. A newly expanded deli offers olive salads and other Italian specialties. The grocery also stocks Italian candies and cakes and makes three different types of Italian sausages fresh daily, from a 100-year-old family recipe.
Across the street, Peter Sciortino's Bakery has served as a Brady Street fixture for close to half a century, offering a tempting array of Italian bread and cookies. Arrive early for crusty loaves and such pastries as fogliatelle, filled with Italian custard, vanilla sandwich cookies, macaroons and pipatelli, almond- filled biscotti. Sprinkled in among Brady Street's Italian emporia you'll find coffee bars and New Age shops and some of the city's best live music clubs.
Highlights of the International Arts Festival include three performances of a Marvin Hamlisch and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra salute to Italy. Conductor, pianist and composer Hamlisch includes his innovative "rent-a-composer" segment in which he asks for song titles from members of the audience and then composes lyrics and a tune on the spot based on the title. …