Divino Wine & Dine
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a publication more disappointed by the shuttering of Murray Avenue’s Palermo Villa. Tucked-away, affordable, and down-home, the kitchen knew how to top baked dough, poured tall with the vino, and always left us wondering why we didn’t come there all the time. Luckily, new owner Dean Cannestra knows a thing or two about such qualities, as his Riverwest joint, Nessun Dorma, fits the above description to a teaspoon. We popped in recently to the newly donned Divino Wine & Dine, fingers crossed both for merit in the “same pizza recipe” promise, and for finding parking on the East Side on a Friday night.
The space: Among the young-ish North Avenue strip, there is a noticeably grayer, calmer, more-suited, less-pink polo crowd packing Divino. Being from the old school ourselves, we found this refreshing. Whether you prefer getting snooty about a bottle of Montepulciano or wiping greasy mitts on your favorite Packer sweatshirt while wolfing a pie, you won’t feel uncomfortable. We’re fine in the middle with a draft Peroni ($5), basketball on a 46-inch Vizio, and ensconced by enough Cream City brick to build a reasonably sized pizza armory. We’ll leave it to the art students up the road to debate whether the behind-bar mural—made up of reflective tiles and in the relative shape of our understated skyline—was more or less gaudy than the Bucks’ new uniforms dancing before us in hi-def. In the end, all we know is there’s food here until midnight every day of the week, 1 a.m. on weekends.
The service: Not ones to be told what to do, the “come here” hand beckon—palm up, fingers motioning toward the face—can be a risky proposition. But this was just the hostess to pull it off: Whooshed out of the frigid night, caressed from the bar after our accurately predicted 15-minute table-wait, and offered a far “better” spot once one opened up, we felt taken care of, tenderly pushed around as if by a stern, Sicilian aunt. Warm, nourishing, going above for our comfort, it was like a touch of hospitality from the old country.
The A.V. Club’s food: As un-manly as it sounds, there’s something to be said for pasta half-portions. The Bolognese ($14, or $7 for our dainty/pizza-focused appetites) was chocked with ground beef, veal, Italian sausage, pancetta, onions, carrots, and served atop penne noodles. Hearty, rustic, peasant-level gravy let the tomatoes do the talking, while yielding enough animal protein to take that winter chill out of the bone. As basic and comforting as American/Boot cuisine comes, it allowed us to easily guess what the Lasagna ($12) might taste like, and requited anything but a house Chianti ($5) as far too fancy.
Still, it was all but pleasant foreplay for the pizza (16’ cheese - $13, $3 per topping): greasy, in that good way; tenderly and sparsely sprinkled with oregano; black dust on our fingers indicating a loving stone-oven char job; big and plenty with the pepperoni. It was near as zesty and enriching as we remembered. The middle pieces were undoubtedly left a bit on the soggy end of the spectrum (perhaps our own fault for the addition of feta cheese?), and cholesterol-counters might feel the need to wave their white flag with the napkin-soak technique. But the outer edges approached the delicious char/goo consistency of the old Marchese’s Olive Pit. And with that restaurant forever gone, Divino might now be as essentially Chicago thin-crust as Milwaukee gets. Reason enough to stop reading and go now, or to stop writing and get ourselves back across the Hoan.
The verdict: What with the full-wall mural of a wine cellar, some new open-concept-ish ceilings, and a dimmer switch on the lights, the joint is definitely headed toward an updated realm of Italian class—on par with, say, Artie Bucco’s Vesuvio. But all comparisons aside, Divino is the best place for pizza on the East Side.