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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Via Downer: Light Meals in an Attractive Setting

Appetizers, pastas and pizzas worth a visit

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The spot on Downer Avenue that once housed the Coffee Trader has seen mixed success over the years. The Original Pancake House has occupied part of the spot since 2006, but the other half saw Pizzeria Piccola and Ristorante Bartolotta fail to take off. Now there is a new contender by the name of Via Downer.

Via Downer is a new venture by the owners of Transfer Pizzeria, a very popular Walker’s Point spot. Transfer is noted for the great pizza crusts of chef Vasyl Lemberskyy. While pizza is prominent on Via Downer’s menu, diners will also find appetizers, sandwiches and pastas. The prices are just a tad higher than at Transfer.

The striking interior includes wooden tables in addition to a very sleek bar with a lower section that serves as a lunch counter and a taller one for imbibers. The front face is made of strips of wood that match the color scheme of the tables. The interior has never looked this good before.

There are 16 appetizers on the menu, as well as a soup. The soup is gazpacho ($5), the chilled tomato soup of Spanish Andalusia. The primary ingredients are puréed, but the center is topped with minced bell pepper and onion. This is a refreshing soup for summertime.

When it comes to appetizers, bruschetta and crostini have their own section. The toppings tend to be Mediterranean—cheese, olives, roasted vegetables, etc. Crostini with mango and Gorgonzola ($8) consists of lightly toasted bread slices topped by a thin spread of Gorgonzola cream and minced ripe mango with a bit of basil. The Gorgonzola’s flavor is just a whisper and the mango is so sweet that it feels like it should be served for brunch. The crostini with roasted vegetables and feta seems like a better choice. Arancini Menominee ($5), a play on the rice ball appetizers of Sicily, is made with short-grained Italian rice and a touch of wild rice. Usually arancini comes in a small serving, but this plate offers nine! The light texture makes them extra-good when dipped in a bit of marinara sauce.

As you’d expect from the owners of Transfer, the pizzas at Via Downer are of top-notch quality. The thin crusts are a bit puffy, not especially crisp. The selection is small, but there is plenty to like. There are garlic sauce white pizzas like La Bella ($12), which is topped with mozzarella and artichoke hearts. A fine traditional pizza is the pepperoni ($11), featuring zesty tomato sauce, oregano and mozzarella. The pepperoni and the sauce seem made for each other.

A good option for two diners is to split a pizza with an appetizer or a salad. The bazilio ($9) is a salad of chopped romaine, leaf lettuce, cucumber, bell pepper, pieces of curried chicken breast, grated mozzarella and a dressing with plenty of garlic. The gentle curry allows the garlic to take over. The lettuce comes in proper bite-sized pieces.

The three entrees and seven pastas are strictly a la carte. A welcome choice is pork brajola ($16), a roulade of pork with a filling of spinach and provolone with hints of anise. The pork, coated with seasoned bread crumbs and served over marinara sauce, is served with addictive roasted red potatoes and less-compelling broccoli. Even better is the scallops and linguini ($16), which has caramelized jumbo sea scallops and thin slices of mushroom in a white wine cream sauce. Everything hits the mark. The linguini is a perfect “al dente” and the scallops brim with maritime flavor. Let’s hope Via Downer continues to expand its selection of entrees and pastas.

The focus is clearly on food rather than beverages. With two-dozen options to choose from, the beer list is good enough. But the wine list seems a little limited. There are about 30 vintages, with some sold by the glass ($6-$8) and all by the bottle ($22-$45).

Will Via Downer be a success? Its concept seems to be directly in the middle of Pizzeria Piccola and Ristorante Bartolotta. The setting is attractive, the thoughtful menu is aimed at lighter meals, and the prices are very fair. Perhaps this is the place Downer Avenue has been waiting to see.

Via Downer

2625 N. Downer Ave.

(414) 501-4510

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