Graffito hits an Italian home run

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Graffito offers several small plate meals, like gnocchi with arrabiata sauce. Photo by Jennie Jorgensen/jennifer.jorgensen@marquette.edu.

Italian cooking means one of two things to me: chicken parmesan accompanied by a Caesar salad and opera music repeating through the speakers at Schroeder, or Betty Crocker’s microwaveable Bowl Appétit from my dorm room futon. So when my waiter at Ryan Braun’s Graffito said, “We do things a little differently at Graffito,” I was more than enticed.

Formerly known as Ryan Braun’s Waterfront Grill when it made its debut in April 2010, the restaurant temporarily closed in late November and reopened as Graffito just in time for the Brewers’ home opener on April 4. The restaurant’s interior, staff and menu underwent an entire redesign in order to create a celebration of urban Italian tradition.

Upon entering the restaurant, the first thing I noticed was the graffiti mural-covered walls, featuring vibrant colors and contributing to a fun, modern vibe.  The next thing I noticed was the pristine white tablecloths — tablecloths that made me fear that this may not have been the most inexpensive option for a Friday night out.

I was pleasantly surprised, though, when I glanced at the menu. The only option over $20 was “The Rossini,” a barrel-cut filet; most everything else fell under the $9 to $15 umbrella. I was especially surprised when our waiter, Ryan (unfortunately not Ryan Braun, but still a nice guy), explained that everything on the menu is made completely from scratch.

The menu is also built to allow you to plan your meal in a number of ways. It features a number of small plates, as well as a variety of pizzas, pastas, larger plates, more casual burger options and a dish appropriately called Sausage Race.

In the mood to try a little of everything, I decided to do just that. To start, my dining partner and I ordered two small plates, gnocchi and calamari.

I’ve always loved gnocchi as I’ve known it — small potato dumplings in a white cream sauce — but the Graffito version comes with an arrabiata sauce. Apparently, I need to brush up on my Italian because I had no idea arrabiata sauce meant “bright red with quite a kick.” While I’m usually one to handle spicy foods well, I found myself chasing every bite of gnocchi with a bite of the house ciabatta bread roll.

The calamari proved to be the better option, served fried with “limoncello crème fraiche,” which had the appearance and texture of heavy whipping cream and significantly enhanced the fish’s flavor with a subtle hint of lemon meringue.

For our main course, we decided to split one pasta dish, mezzaluna, and one pizza, the strange-sounding sweet potato pie.

Ryan raved about the latter: sweet potato puree blended with house mozzarella and Italian sausage. Served on thin, delicate, delicious dough, the creamed sweet potatoes proved to be a mostly successful combination. For whatever reason, though, the smell of the sausage turned me off, so I found myself picking it off my slices.

The mezzaluna was the daring dish winner of the evening. Comprised of butternut squash, goat cheese and that same limoncello crème fraiche all stuffed in ravioli-like pillows of pasta and served under a pancetta meat sauce, everything about it, even the pasta noodles, screamed homemade. The squash gave the pasta a sweet flavor, which, combined with the savory, yet delicate meat sauce, was a scrumptiously unique option.

Our dessert was the perfect encore: rhubarb semi freddo. It was described as a half-frozen mousse topped with strawberry crumble, fresh strawberry and brown sugar whipped cream, but when it arrived we weren’t sure we were given the right dish. We expected some sort of pink, whipped mousse tort, but we were instead served a small, beige, smooth, half-cylinder-shaped bit of ice cream.

Despite its unusual appearance, we were blown away by the voluminous rhubarb flavor. This, served with fresh strawberries, proved to be a dangerous compilation, as we nearly licked the plate clean.

We also tried Graffito’s version of the classic Italian dessert tiramisu, which differed greatly from the traditional layered cake. The dessert was in fact not a pastry dish at all; it was the equivalent of a delectable coffee-flavored ice cream sundae, but with homemade gelato instead.

Needless to say, I left stuffed – Italian style. Rarely do I leave a region-specific restaurant feeling like I just left the location in question, but the combination of Graffito’s homemade, authentic touches and its cozy atmosphere left me feeling a little more Italian than I did the day before. Certainly more Italian than Schroeder or Betty Crocker ever could.

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