When The Trade Hotel opened on May 18, we gave you a brief peek at the interior of Il Cervo, the new Italian restaurant located on the 9th floor of the hotel at 420 W. Juneau Ave. But we went back to the restaurant late last week to gather more information on the concept and what diners can expect.
Il Cervo is the first Milwaukee-based restaurant operated by Food Fight Restaurant Group. The established hospitality group operates numerous Madison area restaurants including Cento, Monty’s Blue Plate Diner, Johnny Delmonico’s Steakhouse and Bassett Street Brunch Club.
According to Food Fight Managing Partner, Jordan Bright, the group has been eyeing up a location in Milwaukee for some time. When the opportunity arose to operate a restaurant in the Deer District, they asked themselves key questions: What does the neighborhood need? What would appeal to hotel guests? And what concept can be executed at a high level, but also handle the volume of busy nights near Fiserv Forum?
The answer: an upscale casual Italian concept.
“Our intention is to provide high quality, high-level fare and excellent hospitality,” says Bright. “But we want people to come as they are, feel comfortable and enjoy. Whether a diner shows up in a suit before a business meeting or in a jersey to attend a Bucks game, we are here to give them a fantastic, memorable experience.”
As for the menu, Bright says it’s founded solidly on both the simplicity inherent to Italian fare and the best practices of farm-to-table dining.
“We want to marry what’s best in Italian cuisine with what’s fresh and beautiful from Wisconsin,” he says. “The seasons in Wisconsin pair up very well with multiple regions in Italy; the North is a great match during the winter months, whereas coastal cuisine is perfect for hot humid days during the summer.”
Il Cervo offers numerous dining experiences in its expansive space. Guests can choose from more casual cocktail service and casual appetizers in the restaurant’s chic lounge.
Or opt for more formal dining in the main dining area, which offer both ninth-floor views of the city and a glimpse at the restaurant’s open kitchen.
Meanwhile, their four seasons dining room connects to the bar, offering open-air dining during clement months and beautiful views throughout the year.
Il Cervo’s wrap-around patio offers views of the Deer District as well as the surrounding city to the East. It seats about 60 at a combination of dining tables and soft seating perfect for pre- or post-dinner drinks.
Il Cervo also offers flexible quarters for private events, easily accommodating 40 to 70 for sit-down dining or 100 for standing appetizer-style service. The full space can also be bought out for larger affairs.
At the bar
The bar boasts a collection of over 110 wines curated by Food Fight Vice President Caitlin Suemnicht. The collection focuses primarily on Italian varietals, with a few domestic selections and champagne to round things out.
Similarly, the beer list focuses on craft brews, including 10 Milwaukee-based brewery selections on tap, plus a more broad-reaching selection (including brews from Illinois, East Coast and Belgium) in bottles and cans.
As for cocktails, General Manager Evan Ackers, says that the menu features a combination of Italian classics and more playful signature cocktails.
“We definitely wanted to do some new cool things,” he says, “But we also wanted to ensure that we incorporated Italian spirits and ingredients into our cocktails.”
Among the classics is a draft negroni made with Twisted Path gin and a collection of four Venetian spritzes made with draft prosecco. House-made limoncello, which riffs on a recipe Ackers learned from Naples native and Bar Corellini Chef Giovani Novella, is also a feature.
Among their signature drinks, Ackers recommends quaffs like Friend, Lover, a spirit-forward cocktail using prosciutto fat washed Whistle Pig “Piggyback” 6 year rye, along with Scorch The Earth, a mezcal based drink that incorporates Amaro Montenegro.
“The amaro lends a sweetness to the drink, which is earthy, smokey and a little bit spicy,” he says. “The smoked salt rim gives it a little pop and a bit of fattiness that really rounds out the cocktail. It’s a best seller and one of my personal favorites.”
In the kitchen
Il Cervo’s kitchen is headed up by Chef Chris Myers. A graduate of Madison College, Myers began his culinary journey at Bayona in New Orleans working alongside Chef Susan Spicer. When he returned home to Madison, he joined Food Fight Restaurant Group where he headed up Fresco Rooftop Restaurant and later Cento Ristorante.
Working alongside Myers is Chef de Cuisine Sam Kazick, a recent alum of Ca’Lucchenzo; and Sous Chef Jacob Garcia, who worked as a private plant-based chef during the pandemic. Both contribute to the operations in the scratch kitchen, which produces all of the restaurant’s fresh handmade pasta (cut, extruded and stuffed) as well as hand-pulled mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.
There’s also an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients, including Italian sausage from Bunzel’s Meat Market, sourdough loaves from Rocket Baby Bakery and gelato from Baron’s Gelato in Sheboygan.
“I don’t want anyone to feel intimidated by the restaurant or the food here at Il Cervo,” notes Myers, who designed the menu to have wide-reaching appeal, but also to surprise more adventurous diners. “Ultimately, I want people to think about this as a neighborhood restaurant where they can go on a regular basis.”
As a result, the menu was designed to accommodate a wide variety of diners from casual everyday visitors to folks celebrating special occasions.
Someone popping in for a drink might order a few appetizers like Il Cervo’s Calabrian chili crisp mozzarella served with finocchiona salumi alongside the restaurant’s signature crisped Roman artichokes, which are painstakingly peeled daily, fried until crisp and served with lemon aioli.
In fact, one could make a meal of their appetizers, which include options like steak tartare, salmon crudo and Kazick’s current favorite: braised octopus served with crispy chickpeas, pickled fennel, preserved tomatoes and grilled alliums.
"It's really really fresh," notes Kazick, "A great summer dish."
And then there’s pizza
Prepared using the restaurant’s gas-fired Wood Stone Fire Deck, Il Cervo’s 13-inch pizzas begin with slow risen dough made with Rocket Baby sourdough that’s topped and fired at about 600 degrees. Just about 12 minutes later, the result is a slightly chewy crust with beautifully crisp edges that hits somewhere between New York and Neapolitan styles.
Guests can choose from classic options like the Margherita or branch out with toppings like pancetta with braised chicory, mascarpone, spring alliums and sous vide egg. As for Myers, he says he’s currently enamored with the squash blossom pizza which features a base of San Marzano tomato sauce topped with fresh squash blossoms, house stracciatella and toasted pepitas.
Housemade pastas are also compelling, with simple comforts like spaghetti served with Sunday sauce dry-aged meatballs, lamb merguez sausage, Italian sausage and parmesan. But there are also fun indulgences like squid ink gnocchi with butter-poached lobster, squash blossom cream, Calabrian chilies and lemon olive oil.
While the menu accommodates anyone, Myers says it was designed for large groups, especially those who love to share.
“Italian dining, classically, embraces the idea of a large group of people who are eating and socializing and sharing food,” says Myers. “So we intentionally built the menu to accommodate that style of meal.”
In addition to appetizers, pizzas and pastas, shareable entrees include grilled spring chicken with roasted grape verjus; whole branzino prepared with speck, cauliflower caponata and pine nuts; or the restaurant’s Bistecca alla Florentina featuring a 36-ounce butter-basted prime porterhouse seasoned with rosemary, pepperoncini, salsa verde, horseradish cream and charred lemon.
Before you go
Il Cervo is open Sunday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to midnight and Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. A late-night menu is available after 10:30 p.m. daily.
Reservations are recommended at Il Cervo and can be made online.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.