Via Downer holds its own

 Via Downer holds its own

By Kate Kallenberger

Rating: 4/5 Spatulas


A few blocks past Boswell books and Downer Theatre, walking distance from the UW-Milwaukee campus, Via Downer buzzes with a full house on a Wednesday night.


With the edition of the Mediterranean-Italian fusion restaurant in late May and the completion of seemingly endless sidewalk construction, restaurants like Café Hollander, Mosaic Piano Bar and now Via Downer (at 2625 N. Downer Ave.) are creating a new east side trend spot.


Via Downer is the younger sibling of Transfer Pizzeria in Bayview. The owners kept many of the same topping combinations and the tasty crust that put Transfer on the map. Head Chef Vasyl Lemberskyy returns at Via Downer. Brothers John and Russ Rosetto own the bistros with Krys Zielinski.


With the rampant success of Transfer, it might have been easy to create a carbon copy with Via Downer. But the piece by piece approach of Transfer’s decoration is replaced with a blended ceiling of finished woodwork and exposed pipes and electrical wires.


A somewhat standard cream colored brick covers three walls that meet at a crimson accent wall near the back of the restaurant. Local art dons the walls for a look that whispers “modern bistro chic.”


The gentrified appearance of the Via Downer dining room is at first underwhelming. Without careful attention to the fine tuning of the appetizers, pizzas and open concept of the restaurant, one might neglect to see that Via Downer is all about nuance.


For starters, the kitchen is fully exposed, giving the restaurant a one-room schoolhouse feel as the kitchen staff creates fresh pizzas over your shoulder.


The first taste of Chef Lemberskyy’s vaguely minimalist approach came in the form of the Parvardeh Crostini appetizer ($7).


At first bite, the kalamata olive seems to be the main attraction with a fruity undertone that compliments the chopped walnut’s natural sweetness. The flavors work well together to create a sweet contrast to the appropriately bland bread. The Parvardeh Crostini is topped with feta cheese and served on a small bed of arugula and soft, rather lightly toasted bread.


The bread is the only issue here. While the softness of the French bread was a welcomed variation, the bread should be crispy. Crostini is not only traditionally served toasted to a brown crisp; it is nearly always served this way. What makes French and Italian bread original is the satisfying crunch.


From traditional-style pizza with pepperoni or sausage to the Thai Chicken with peanut sauce, the pizza is definitely the headliner.


The Greek Pizza ($12) was a knock-out. It was one of the best pizzas I have eaten in years- and I include my ten days eating true Italian pizza along the Adriatic Sea in Venice in this time.


The measure of a great pizza is not the quantity of the toppings but the level of restraint. The Greek pizza is a perfect example of Chef Lemberskyy’s penchant for minimalism. With a recipe card listing garlic sauce, tomatoes, kalamata olives, and feta, it would be tempting to pile on the toppings to compensate for a somewhat unoriginal combination.


But as Transfer has proved to me time and time again, the devil is truly in the details.


The entire pizza (about eight medium sized slices) has only a small handful of whole kalamata olives, filling every few bites with a robust fruity flavor. The half cherry tomatoes were soft, well-seasoned and suitably sparse.


The crust, the same at both establishments, is a tremendous combination of airiness and heavy crunch. It is precisely what crust is should be.


Another all-star pizza is the Verde ($13); a dish with main ingredients the color green. Spinach and avocado are the dominating flavors here but that is no fault. The avocado tastes as if it were picked earlier in the day.


The different hues of green make for a pretty picture and the asiago cheese and onion toppers make for a lovely presentation.


I had incredibly high expectations for Via Downer because of my passion for Transfer’s unique Mediterranean pizza combinations and outstanding crust. Via Downer did not disappoint in food by a long shot. In two visits, I have yet to be let down by the pizzas or appetizers.


My only complaint is the slower than necessary service I experienced on one occasion at Via Downer. On a Wednesday night around 7:30, we waited at the bar for a two-person table for over 30 minutes.


It struck me as odd the hostess did not take our name or write down any identifying information. At first it seemed impressive but two Diet Cokes and a two innings of a baseball game on the flat-screen TVs later, it just seemed inefficient.


Via Downer lacks a certain ruffian charm that Transfer holds. It may be the fairly gritty location of Transfer at Mitchell and Kinnickinnic in Bayview (my last visit was spent eating the Cubano Panini whilst staring at an overturned industrial garbage bin) but the latter just has a certain quality of thrown-togetherness that appeals to me.


Via Downer’s décor maybe a bit contrived but the perfection of the Italian-style pizza crust and the freshness of the ingredients outshine any unoriginality and slow service that may otherwise lessen the experience.


Via Downer (414-501-4510) is located at 2625 N. Downer Ave. The hours are Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday
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