Milwaukee dining is in a constant state of change. Beloved establishments close or move. New restaurants open in their place or set up shop in newly-erected buildings. Different concepts are explored, trends are chased, and promising pop-ups routinely make the leap from food hall tenant to brick and mortar business. Fortunately, there’s no tipping point in sight because, well, the city’s palate is evolving and our appetite is insatiable.

As these ongoing dining developments continue to transform the culinary identities of neighborhoods like Bay View, Walker’s Point, Third Ward, and suburbs like West Allis and Shorewood, one part of Milwaukee seems to be overlooked amid the ongoing restaurant boom the region is experiencing. Be honest…Riverwest isn’t anywhere close to being the first neighborhood that comes to mind when you think about local dining. However, that shouldn’t be an indictment of its restaurant quality. If anything, the neighborhood is overlooked and, in a way, done in by its culinary consistency.

Just think about it! Nessun Dorma has been a silent staple of Riverwest, no, of Milwaukee dining for close to a quarter-century. Riverwest Pizza has brought high-caliber ‘za to an approachable setting for just shy of a decade now. Company Brewing’s inventive comfort food flourishes and Centro’s semi-elevated take on pasta have both punched well above their weight on Center St. for years. While accessibility has improved exponentially, Riverwest Co-op still makes some of the city’s best vegan food. Even relative newcomer Wonderland has locked down all your breakfast and lunch needs on Burleigh St. since 2019. And of course, we need to reference one place that seems to be even more unsung than its criminally overshadowed Riverwest contemporaries: Scardina Specialties.

As Milwaukee Record contributor MaryGrace Genova Borenstein noted in her 2019 article about Sicilian businesses in and around Milwaukee:

“Scardina Specialties was opened in 2012 by Peter and Maria Scardina, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1969 from Porticello, Sicily. With both now living back in Sicily, son Damien Scardina is the current owner and operator of the business. Damien is a Riverwest native—however, he spent ages 11-18 living in Sicily and brought the traditional recipes back to the neighborhood.”

Following 10 years in its original location at 822 E. Chambers St., Damien Scardina decided it was time to relocate operations to nearby 715 E. Locust St., where the businesses has been since early last year. Though the address has changed and the square footage has somehow almost doubled, almost everything else remains just as it was in the original location.

Despite the increased space, the deli is still cozy, which is another way of saying it’s super small. However, much of its business comes from to-go customers—be it patrons picking up sausages, take and bake pizza, sides or Italian-inspired desserts to bring home or folks grabbing a sandwich or panini to bring back to work or to a nearby taproom. Still, those who manage to snag one of the four tiny tables or the single booth nestled next to the kitchen, do have the option of dining in.

On two recent occasions, we managed to get a spot shortly after the weekday lunch rush. While tucked away in the corner booth on the first visit, we enjoyed one of Scardina’s 20 self-described “specialties.” The Diavolo ($10) is a fat stack of Genoa salami and partially melted provolone topped with a creamy salsa roja, a scattering of hot giardiniera, and fresh slices of tomatoes between slices of toasted bread. It’s simple, but the concert of crunchy carbs, tasty toppings, and a pile of meat and cheese sliced mere feet away from where we sat was nothing short of delicious.

While the sandwich was plenty filling on its own, we couldn’t bypass a chance to have a cannoli. Well, we technically had four of them because they were out of regular cannoli during our first visit, prompting us to get four miniature renditions of the establishment’s renowned dessert offering. With a liberal piping of rich filling and a generous dusting of powdered sugar, they were sweet in all the right ways, but also left a little space for the outer shell to make its crisp, subtly savory presence known. Get the cannoli!

A week later, we—back in Riverwest for a mid-day interview and with another craving for deli meat—found ourselves back at Scardina with another “specialty” sandwich in our sights. While it’s not exactly reminiscent of the wet and meat-laden Chicago-style take on the sandwich, the Hot Italian Beef ($10) at Scardina is the star of the show. Here, three sizable ovals of succulent, thick-sliced roast beef with an oh-so-slight drizzle of au jus are ballasted by slices of gooey melted provolone and a lightly toasted sub roll.

Despite the pitiful amount of giardiniera we received on our sandwich, it was divine. When adding a substantial portion of fries ($3 extra), a pint of Black Husky beer that was brewed less than two blocks away, and the lunch hour soundtrack of an out of market baseball game playing on the single TV in the otherwise empty neighborhood deli, the experience was nothing short of sublime. As much as we aspire to work our way down the list of “specialties,” we fear we’ll probably just return to the Hot Italian Beef again and again. We suppose there are worse problems to have.

Yes, it’s currently a particularly exciting and altogether awesome time in Milwaukee dining with innumerable developments, a steady stream of openings, countless changes, and heaps of worldwide attention. It’s great to see and even better to taste. As we try to keep up with everything going on in the region, we’re also left feeling fortunate that a place like Scardina is quietly doing its own thing by offering simple, well-executed, and timeless specialties in a little deli in Riverwest.

About The Author

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Co-Founder and Editor

Before co-founding Milwaukee Record, Tyler Maas wrote for virtually every Milwaukee publication (except Wassup! Magazine). He lives in Bay View and enjoys both stuff and things.