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Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012

Zarletti Among Milwaukee's Best

Rich, bold flavors in Italian food at its finest

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Café Zarletti opened in South Milwaukee about 10 years ago, offering panini, Italian sandwiches and a few pastas. In 2004, the simply named Zarletti opened its doors at the corner of Mason and Milwaukee streets. Though Milwaukee Street was not yet the hot spot it would become, Zarletti quickly proved popular.

The original café has since closed, but today the growing Zarletti group includes Rustico and Stubby's Pub & Grub. The décor at Zarletti remains unchanged, with tall windows and clean, streamlined décor. Tables feature white linens with butcher paper—the paper is emblazoned with a printed black 'Z'—and a vase of cut flowers. Attention is paid to detail.

There is a nice bar, though it seems to serve mainly as a waiting area for tables. Outdoor tables are great people-watching spots.

The menu is much larger than at the original café. The lunch menu offers panini and sandwiches not found on the dinner menu, along with salads, antipasti and pasta entrees. The dinner menu offers many more choices, especially for the antipasti. Pastas are listed under “Primi” and meat entrees under “Secondi.”

Dinners are strictly a la carte, though fresh bread is provided along with butter and a small plate of olive oil with herbs. Perhaps begin with bresaola e Parmigiano ($12.95), thin slices of air-cured beef with Parmigiano Reggiano and a bit of arugula. It is reminiscent of carpaccio minus the capers and with beef that is not raw.

The Caesar salad ($4.95) is a nice one—a lemony fresh version. The crisp romaine lettuce comes with dressing that is dominated by fresh lemon juice. It is extremely low in calories.

The soups ($2.95-$4.95) are minestrone della casa and zuppa del giorno. The minestrone is filled with vegetables, including tomato, zucchini, carrot, peas and celery. A recent soup of the day was chilled beet, a creamy reddish puree with a dash of salt—the right idea for a hot day.

Diners eating as a pair should consider splitting a “Primi” course along with a “Secondi.” There are about a dozen of the first to choose from, including the classic pasta al pomodoro ($13.95)—coin-shaped pasta in a sauce of tomato and garlic with fresh chopped basil. It looks like a light dish, but the sauce is bold and rich in flavor. Among the second-course choices are a few seafood dishes, pork tenderloin, New York strip and a chicken breast saltimbocca. A neighboring table ordered vitello al limone, two large pounded veal cutlets in a lemon sauce. It looked very tempting.

I ordered the ossobuco ($28.95), two thick slices of veal shank slowly cooked in a rich wine sauce with diced carrot and onion. It is served with risotto Milanese, short-grained rice with a hint of cheese.

Plan on a lunch visit to try the panini ($6.95-$8.95). The one named Parma has fresh mozzarella, arugula and a paper-thin slice of prosciutto on properly grilled bread. This sets the standard locally. The lunch menu also has pasta fruitti di mare ($14.95), which is not found on the dinner menu. It is linguine with whole shrimp, calamari, mussels in the shell and chopped fresh tomato. The sauce is a delicate citrus butter.

The wine list is separated between reds, whites and sparkling; Italian vintages are listed apart from the international. Expect to pay at least $30-plus for a bottle.

The menu here, with its northern Italian touches and delicate flavors, should be found more often in this area. As it is, Zarletti just might be the best Italian restaurant in the city.

Zarletti

741 N. Milwaukee St.

(414) 225-0000

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zarletti.net