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Fortunately, whatever kinks the restaurant needed to work out, it did, and I had great service and a really nice dinner. (PHOTO: Whitney Teska )

One space, two radically different dining experiences


The last time I set foot inside the building that now houses Rustico was during the week or so that it was a now-departed Mexican restaurant called Borrego's. Last night, I returned for a social / work dinner, and the experience couldn't have been more different.

I remember suggesting to our group of six that we try this new Mexican restaurant, located at 223 N. Water St. It turned out to be a debacle from the moment we walked in until the moment we left. The experience was so bad, in fact, that I scrapped the review I had planned to write, as I was sure that if I wrote it honestly, I might put Borrego's out of business.

It turns out the restaurant didn't need my help, nor did its successor, the Riverwalk Bistro, or its predecessor, Onyx.

Indeed, this gorgeous space seemed jinxed, and going back to OnMilwaukee.com food writer Amy Schubert's review of Rustico from last summer, I might've been dissuaded from even checking it out last night. She didn't have a great experience at the time, but noted that owner Brian Zarletti had a flare for opening quality restaurants, and perhaps Rustico just needed a little time.

Fortunately, whatever kinks the restaurant needed to work out, it did, and I had great service and a really nice dinner. Finally, the quality of the restaurant did justice to its excellent location.

Since our dining critic is far more qualified to write a proper review than I am, I'll defer to hers, and instead, I'll talk about the other stuff that made an impact on me. I remember that Borrego's turned the downstairs bar into a speakeasy-themed mockery that smelled disturbingly of sewer gas. Thankfully, Rustico killed the gangster motif and got rid of the odor. Now, the restaurant is quiet and subdued and tastefully decorated with art created by one of the restaurant's managers.

Similarly, I remember the atrocious service at Borrego's. This time around, both the waitress and the manager were attentive, friendly and approachable, knowledgeable but not pushy. It's the kind of place I'd to visit again in the summer, when I can bop from Water Buffalo to the Ale House and finally back to Rustico.

I'm searching my mental archives for a restaurant space in Milwaukee that has undergone such a subtle yet important transformation, and I'm coming up empty. Rustico got it right last night, and it leads me to believe that there aren't as many "cursed" locations as foodies would have you believe.

Maybe it's not so much where you're located, but what you do when you get there.


Talkbacks

Rose | Feb. 5, 2009 at 12:23 p.m. (report)

Went there last night for the first time and first impression coming in the door.. nice staff, great atmosphere. Wait staff was nice, informative & attentive. Pizza and Pecorino app were great, awesome house wine ($10/carafe on WED). My only complaint was the strawberry gelato. It was good, but tasted like store bought Edy's. I've had real italian gelato which is amazing!!!! but this was no gelato. All in all it was great but skip dessert.

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cowboysteve | Feb. 2, 2009 at 10:14 a.m. (report)

They DELIVER too! Congrats on finally swinging back by this place...it's a true gem in the Third Ward! Check out Brian's Mom's meatballs! Delicious pizza!

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Yumyum | Jan. 28, 2009 at 12:19 p.m. (report)

RUSTICO ROCKS! On a recent Friday night a friend insisted we go out - It was Gallery Night in Milwaukee. Now I'm an art lover but it was SUB-ZERO TEMPS. However my frig was empty and I wasn't cooking so...we decided to grab some dinner first so we went into the first place we saw - Rustico. I was amazed to find the restaurant so packed we had to have a drink at the bar before getting seated. What was going on? Were all these people out for Gallery Night? Nope, turns out they just wanted a meal at Rustico. We settled in at the bar, had a cosmopolitan, a house salad (delicious dressing) and outstanding designer pizza - thin crust, fresh ingredients. Long story short, we had our own GALLERY NIGHT AT RUSTICO. The walls are covered with gorgeous photos of Italy and artwork by local artists. I particularly loved the watercolors which I discovered were painted by one of the bartenders - a Door County boy. Would I go out in subzero temps again? Probably not....but next time you're in the area and want excellent food at reasonable prices, a sophisticated & friendly ambiance and outstanding service, check out Rustico. TWO FORKS UP!

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alba | Jan. 28, 2009 at 10:31 a.m. (report)

It's a nice place, especially out by the river in summer. But it's rarely busy, so that worries me.

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ducknut | Jan. 28, 2009 at 10:02 a.m. (report)

Love the place. Great pizza and staff.

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