Dino's makes a comeback
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It's been three months since Dino's reopened in Riverwest at 808 E. Chambers St. Brothers Anthony and Lawrence LoCoco – grandsons of the original owner, Leo "Dino" Dinon – have worked tirelessly to fine tune the menu and create an inviting space that's appealing to the Riverwest neighborhood and beyond.
The new Dino's is very different and yet similar to the establishment that Dinon opened in 1968. The south wall of the dining area is now a bank of windows, adding a completely spacious and fresh feel to the space, and new tables and lighting combined with vintage booths and photos create a retro-modern feel.
The photos deserve more than a shout out: dozens of framed black-and-white snapshots of Dinon and his friends and customers adorn the wall. Some are so joyful to look at that even the non-nostalgic might want to revisit the past just to experience the good times in the photos.
"I found those in the attic," says Lawrence. "That's my grandfather in middle of the large photo and the cast of characters around him are his old buddies and drinking pals. These are priceless to us."
The new menu – created by Lawrence – is small but solid, with appetizers, sandwiches, salads, Silcilian-style pasta dishes and a Friday night fish fry.
The fish fry was the staple meal at the former Dino's, but in the LoCocos reinvented Dino's, it's important but no longer the menu's crown jewel. However, the fish fry remains such a draw that the cozy restaurant is packed with diners on Friday evenings and, consequently, is the only night that reservations are not taken.
"Friday nights are really great around here. I shake every person's hand who comes in on Friday nights," says Anthony.
The fish fry is $12 and features lightly beer battered or pan fried cod in olive oil, homemade tartar sauce and choice of waffle fries, baked potato or penne pasta with garlic butter or red sauce. The fish is also available Sicilian pan fried with white wine, parsley, pepper and salt.
"Everything on our menu is made completely from scratch, with the exception of the side of pasta served with the fish fry," says Lawrence.
The appetizers range in price from $5 to $10; sandwiches are $9 and entrees cost $12-15.
During a recent visit, we sampled the arancini, calamari steak and pesto gnocchi. All three were extremely fresh and flavorful. The arancini was our favorite – the rice balls made with house ricotta and mozzarella were perfectly fried, creating a tantalizing mix of crispy and soft. The sauce – a traditional Sicilian red sauce made with meat, sweet peas and carrots – was hearty yet mild.
"The recipe for the sauce is an old school sauce that comes from my nana's nana," says Lawrence. "I owe it all to my nana, Rita. I'm not a classically trained chef and she gave me all of my basics and foundation for cooking."
The calamari steak was tasty, too – a great option for anyone who finds fried calamari too rubbery. Served in larger, rectangular pieces, this calamari was soft on the inside and again, featured a perfectly lightly fried exterior. It was served over arugula and salsa verde that served as a mini salad.
Finally, the gnocchi was some of the best we've eaten. Tubular in shape and completely not pasty, the gnocchi came tossed in pesto, fried pine nuts and fresh tomato.
Next time, we plan to try the roasted beet salad, grilled portobello sandwich and chicken saltimbocca – a pounded-thin chicken breast floured and sautéed in white wine, capers and olive oil that's topped with prosciutto, sage and pan sauce.
"The menu has gone over really well," says Lawrence. "There have been a lot of clean plates."
Lawrence says the menu has – and always will be – a work in progress. They are figuring out the staple dishes and will constantly rotate specials.
"As winter approaches, we'll have more winter / comfort food," says Lawrence. "More meat dishes, but all with our Sicilian spin. The goal is to keep a small menu, but customers will see something new every time they come in."
Lawrence is definitely busy in the kitchen – even with sous chef Mike Van Akren.
"It's OK, though. Instead of stressing out about all the food I am going to make – like I did before we were open – now I am stressing over all the food I am making," he says.
Next week, Dino's will release a new, wintry bar menu featuring ciders and hot drinks. The Dino's Old Fashioned – made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Demerara syrup, three kinds of bitters and a burnt orange peel – will remain on the new menu.
As for the future, Dino's will have a new patio / beer garden next spring and the brothers hope to offer lunches soon, too.
"The old Dino's was great, it served it's purpose, but now we're going for a different atmosphere. Some of the same recipes, but definitely more with a twist," says Lawrence.
Dino's is open Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday from 4 to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays feature a late lunch / early dinner menu and drink specials during Packers games including $5 Bloody Marys.
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