Italy’s lush, robust flavors flourish in Zarletti’s urban-chic dining room

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Italy’s lush, robust flavors flourish in Zarletti’s urban-chic dining room. -PHOTO: Courtesy

Owner and executive chef Brian Zarletti’s seven-year-old enterprise specializes in northern Italian cuisine. It has one of Milwaukee’s finest kitchens. The intimate L-shaped dining room and its commanding view of the Milwaukee and Mason streets intersection has made it a mecca of sorts for diners in search of a very special evening.

We arrived 10 minutes early for our 8:30 p.m. reservation on a recent Saturday and found the urban-chic dining room filled and the staff moving briskly through the maze of tables. We sat at the bar and ordered a glass of the evening’s featured wine, a 2008 Speri Sant’Urbano Valpoilicella D.o.c. Classico Superiore ($13, or $52 for a bottle), a wine grown in the Veneto region north of Verona. 

The northern Italian wine was produced from single-vineyard, hillside-grown grapes that had dried for close to a month to concentrate their flavors. The wine, primarily a blend of native Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes grown in largely volcanic and chalky soil, boasted rich fruit and a firm body with significant depth and a lingering finish. The same area produces Speri’s amarone, one of Italy’s very best wines, and this one is similar in style and delivery – but for a much lower cost.

In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we ordered a bottle to accompany our meal once we were seated.

Zarletti’s menu is divided into antipasti (appetizers), insalate e minestre (salads and soups), primi (primarily pasta selections) and secondi (entrees). The Italian tradition, our waitress told us, is to choose appetizers and entrees and share a pasta dish, so that’s what we did.

Our appetizer of the olive della casa ($6.95) was a small plate of some 24 different imported un-pitted olives bathed in olive oil and herbs. We admit not to know our olive varieties, but enjoyed every one. The first of several baskets of warm bread, served with Parmesan-laced olive oil, accompanied the appetizer.

We had also heard much about the Calamari Ripeni ($12.95), which offered four larger pieces of squid stuffed with crab, tomato and bread crumbs sautéed in a white-wine tomato sauce. The components were all present, but they failed to strike up the richness of flavors we had expected. If there was a soft spot to the evening, that was it.

We did share our pasta course, the Ravioli del Giorno ($23.95), and this is where Zarletti really began to shine. The dish was the restaurant’s fall seasonaal ravioli, filled with roasted butternut squash then braised and served in a sage brown butter sauce. Each bite offered a warm, luscious burst of flavor that couldn’t have been better.

We were quite satisfied at this point, but the best was yet to come.

Zarletti prides itself on its veal and our waitress boasted about the Ossobuco ($29.95), two Strauss veal shanks served in a robust and richly flavored sauce with a side of Risotto Milanese. “I’ve had several people tell me it’s every bit as good as what they tasted in Italy,” she enthused.

I don’t remember having Ossobuco when I visited Italy, but if Zarletti’s preparation is authentic, then I will move the dish to the top of my next visit’s must-do list, ahead of the Sistine Chapel and the canals of Venice. The veal was fork-tender, the sauce succulent and risotto sweet and lustrous. The entire dish was an intoxicating blend of flavors and textures, and this was the only time my restaurant service included a tiny fork to spear marrow from inside the bones.

We also tried the Halibut al Pistacchio ($28.95), the pan-seared fish having been crusted with pistachio nuts and served with a Door County cherry buerre blanc and Gorgonzola mashed potatoes. Good though they were, the potatoes paled next to the richness of the risotto, but the nut-crusted fish and buerre blanc with the dried cherries was definitely one of the best halibut preparations we have ever enjoyed.

Add Zarletti to your dining list and visit soon. The Ossobuco and halibut will always be there, but you don’t want to miss the butternut squash ravioli.

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