Cool vibes and great pizza are recipe for success at Via Downer

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The main dining room at Via Downer.

When we think about gourmet cuisine, pizza rarely comes to mind. But the latest iteration of a familiar restaurant space on Milwaukee’s East Side has the potential to change our point of view.

VIA Downer, which opened in 2010, operates in the space once occupied by Pizza Piccolo and Ristorante Bartolotta – neither of which achieved VIA Downer’s popularity. The atmosphere is urban cool, and the buzz on any given Friday night is high-energy and collegial.

The menu stresses lighter meals, along with seven entrées, seven pasta dishes and, of course, pizza. In fact, there are 22 personal-sized pizzas in the traditional, specialty and garlic sauce categories.

As good as the entrées proved to be, pizza is the restaurant’s trademark item. The menu stretches the boundaries of gustatory imagination with creations so rich, so sublime, that VIA Downer’s pizza almost carves its own culinary category. And, as the busy Friday night crowd showed, diners couldn’t be happier.

Before broaching the pizzas, we shared several appetizers from the Mediterranean menu. The Bruchetta Tradizionale ($6) was a selection of toasted, garlic-rubbed Italian bread drizzled with olive oil and served with diced tomatoes. The Eggplant Fritto ($7) served up lightly battered slices of the vegetable, fried and accompanied by a thick marinara sauce. Both appetizers were more than adequate, but less than spectacular.

The entrées proved a better choice, especially the Scallops St. Jacques ($17). A handful of jumbo sea scallops, caramelized and presented in a cream sauce, were served with roasted rosemary potatoes, broccoli and butternut squash. The dish was a delightful selection of flavors, colors and textures that succeeded where the appetizers fell short.

Equally good was the Fettucine Milano ($14), a vegetarian dish in which the pasta was tossed with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, basil, garlic and goat cheese. Once again, variety ruled. Each mouthful tasted slightly different, depending on the content of the fork. The dish was comparable in presentation and taste to the scallops.

Next came the pizzas. First we tried the Prosciutto Fungi ($13), from the traditional menu. This married thinly sliced Italian ham with a variety of sliced mushrooms on a light crust topped with cheese and tomato sauce. The flavors popped delightfully with each bite.

From the garlic sauce menu we chose the La Bella ($12), which relied on artichokes and onions to balance the piquant sauce. The combination worked very well and the garlic sauce, used in lieu of the usual tomato-based sauce, proved outstanding.

Restaurants have come and gone in recent years from the Downer Avenue address, but VIA Downer appears poised to stay. The pizzas may be the primary reason, but the restaurant’s upbeat vibe and the kitchen’s focus on food that teases the senses of sight and smell as well as taste are at the heart of the restaurant’s success.

On the menu

VIA Downer

Address: 2625 N. Downer Ave.,

Phone: 414-501-4510

Hours: Sunday, Tuesday-Wednesday. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Monday, Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Entrees: $10 – $17

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