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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ryan Braun's Graffito Off to a Strong Start

Executive chef Dominic Zumpano adds flair to Italian flavors

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Ryan Braun's Waterfront restaurant opened a little more than a year ago at a prime location, where Water Street meets the Milwaukee River. Though it was named after the Milwaukee Brewers star, it was a restaurant rather than a sports tribute place. Despite an elegant white interior and a menu with moderate prices, however, it closed a few months ago. The place recently reopened with a new look and new name, Ryan Braun's Graffito.

Graffito is operated by the SURG Restaurant Group, which owns several area restaurants. But the real news is the return of chef Dominic Zumpano, who earned a James Beard nomination as the head chef at SURG's Umami Moto on Milwaukee Street.

The restaurant's layout is the same, but the finishes have changed. The front lounge area offers high-top tables, a wall mural depicts the Third Ward and, with some exposed brick, the place feels warmer now. The elegance of the former Waterfront has disappeared in favor of a casual atmosphere.

The menu is also very different. At Umami Moto, Zumpano excelled at Asian fusion. This time he focuses on Italian. The menu seems simple at first glance, with calamari, pizzas and pastas. A section called "The Stadium" even features burgers, sausages and pretzels. (Elsewhere, items are grouped as "Salads," "Small Plates," "Pizzas," "Pastas" and "Bigger Plates.") But the kitchen packs surprises in the ingredients and presentation.

Two servers will arrive shortly after you order. One will offer complimentary bottles of sparkling or still water. The other will bring bread with a blend of olive oil, cheese and olive tapenade (the ingredients are blended on the spot).

For eye candy, you might want to start with the scallop small plate ($14), a single, large diver scallop served over a bed of white truffle risotto with lobster and prosciutto and topped with tomato jam. Many ingredients, yes, but they all work. Be sure to order the gnocchi ($8). These tiny dumplings have a rich arrabiata sauce with just enough hot pepper. It also comes with sausage, grated cheese and fresh herbs. A larger serving would make a wonderful entree.

There are three salads. The house ($5) features chopped lettuces, artichoke hearts, fennel, red onions and tomatoes. With simple vinaigrette, it is good and straightforward. The Caesar ($7) offers romaine with shavings of aged Parmesan and a white anchovy fillet. The watermelon and beet ($7), which is all about presentation, is the one to try. Rounds of purple beet are topped with a watermelon slice and placed over grilled ricotta. Mache lettuce comes on the side, and the plate has a dusting of crushed Marcona almonds. The dressing is of red wine. This type of food reminds me of Umami Moto at its best.

There are seven pastas. Pappardelle ($15) comes with wide noodles, a rich duck ragu with mushrooms and even richer pieces of duck prosciutto. The serving is not large, but the duck meat is abundant. Hot wing ravioli ($14) is more than your typical sports-bar fare. Chicken strips top a pair of ravioli filled with ricotta, as hot sauce, Gorgonzola and tarragon swirl beneath. This is a pleasant dish that is not especially spicy.

Among the "Bigger Plates" section is pork ($17), a round piece of tenderloin with a thin wrapper of prosciutto, served in slices over a warm celery root puree. A side of grilled radicchio accompanies. The plate has dollops of apple mostarda and celery root carpaccio.

The wine list offers 40-plus choices, including international options. All glasses of wine are under $10, and most bottles are in the mid-$20 to low-$30 range. On the beer list you will find Graffito Ale No. 8, brewed by the local Lakefront Brewery.

Service tends to be very good at Graffito, with a staff that is knowledgeable about the food. Hopefully this place will have more staying power than Waterfront. With this menu, Graffito's should make a run at being one of the top Italian restaurants in the area.

Ryan Braun's Graffito

102 N. Water St.

(414) 727-2888

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Credit Cards: All Major

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ryanbraunsgraffito.com