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The Rustico Alternative

Fine Italian food at pleasant prices

Jun. 18, 2013
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Zarletti is one of the top Italian restaurants in Milwaukee. It’s also among the priciest. However, there is an alternative: Zarletti’s sister restaurant, Rustico, in the Third Ward. Here you will find less expensive fare—think pizzas, pastas and sandwiches—of the same high quality.

When first entering the place it feels small, but the narrow dining room stretches a long way back. In addition, there are outdoor tables along the RiverWalk, plus a second bar and dining area on a lower level. Tables are usually readily available.

Start with one of the antipasti. Fried olives ($7.95) are a bit novel and were on the menu from day one. They are lightly breaded and stuffed with a blend of Italian cheeses. Beef skewers ($13.95) are very meaty, a starter course that demands sharing. Cubes of tenderloin are marinated and char-grilled with fine results. The two skewers are paired with roasted red peppers and sweet onions. While the meat is fine on its own, the side of horseradish cream sauce is very tempting.

There are also daily soup specials. This time of the year, you might find a nice tomato gazpacho, perfect for a hot summer day. The rustico salad ($5.50/$8.95) is available in two sizes. It’s built from romaine lettuce with seeded cucumber, cherry tomatoes, black olives and grated romano cheese and topped with a slice of pancetta; it is dressed with red wine vinaigrette with definite hints of garlic. Ordered with the beef skewers, it makes a complete light meal.

There are more than a dozen pizzas with choices like napoletana, margherita and toscana—Italian classics. The piccante ($14.95/$18.95) is the spiciest of them all. The tomato sauce is a bolder amatriciana and the meats are hot sopressata, capicola and Italian sausage. The cheeses are asiago and smoked provolone. The crust is thin and light in spirit, but not crisp. While very flavorful, the level of hot pepper is not excessive. Zarletti used to offer pasta della nonna ($11.95), prepared according to a family recipe. It’s still on the menu at Rustico, simple in appearance with a tomato sauce topped with a bit of fresh basil, but the sauce is cooked with pork and beef bones, which add richness. It remains a memorable sauce.

The sandwiches are well prepared. Veal cutlet ($10.95) is typically buried in tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. At Rustico, the veal is lightly breaded with a dusting of flour. It’s served with asiago cheese over arugula with a lemon basil mayonnaise. Decent bread completes the composition. Weekends offer a brunch with Italian touches. There are breakfast pizzas, a few frittatas and a wild mushroom benedict served over polenta. This is not your basic brunch. Rustico has aged well and continues to offer good casual Italian fare at pleasant prices.

223 N. Water St.
Handicapped access: yes


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