By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Oct 26, 2010 at 9:01 AM Photography: Whitney Teska

October is the fourth-annual Dining Month on All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delicious features, chef profiles, unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2010."

Brian Zarletti did not grow up expecting to be a restaurateur. There were no dreams of wearing a chef's toque and commanding a kitchen dancing in his little head.

But his family was populated with foodies before that term was coined. "We would finish Sunday dinner and immediately start talking about what we would have for breakfast the next morning," he said during a mid-afternoon chat at his Downtown flagship restaurant. It seems natural that food would become the center of the Kenosha native's life.

The Zarletti Restaurant Group opened its third Milwaukee establishment, Stubby's Pub & Grub, in August in the former Bayou space at 2060 N. Humboldt Ave. Stubby's joins the fine Italian dining Zarletti, which is approaching its sixth birthday, and Rustico, opened in 2008, in the group.

Brian Zarletti owns the restaurant bearing his name and is managing partner of the other two.

Although Italian food was the staple of Zarletti's childhood, his mother is German. The restaurateur's Italian grandmother taught her the techniques and gave her the recipes that formed his palate. "My mom is the keeper of the flame of many of our family traditions," he said.

His restaurants do not use the family recipes, Zarletti added, but "they have inspired me, we use my interpretations of those recipes." And his mother has a direct influence on his business.

"My mother critiques the meatballs. She is never shy with an opinion. I think if I please my family I have a head start on pleasing the guests who come in here every night."

Zarletti began working in restaurants in high school. He regularly cooked Sunday dinner for his fraternity brothers at Northwestern, where he was a political science major, and when he left school before getting his degree in the early '90s, he took a job waiting tables at the Main Street Bistro in Racine.

"I went to work there while I was figuring everything out, and I was inspired by the cooking there. It was an eye opener. I got exposed to things like sweetbreads and working with the high temperatures of a wood burning oven."

With his now ex-wife, Zarletti opened his first restaurant, Cafe Zarletti, in South Milwaukee in 2002. "We served panini, salads, light pastas. It was very casual, and we began with counter service," he recalled. "We served high quality food with fresh ingredients."

Two years after the South Milwaukee restaurant debuted, Zarletti added his fine dining location Downtown, at the corner of Milwaukee and Mason Streets. It consistently scores a place on lists of the city's best restaurants.

Zarletti closed his South Milwaukee cafe and opened Rustico in 2008. "The customers we had in South Milwaukee were supremely supportive, but there weren't enough of them," he explained.

"We were the only game on the block, and that was the lesson learned -- location, location, location. I want to be around other good businesses, especially restaurants. I want to see thriving businesses all around me."

Rustico is the result of Zarletti's desire to own and operate a pizzeria. Appetizers (fried olives!), salads, panini and a half dozen pastas join pizza on the menu. The space, at 223 N. Water St., backs onto the Riverwalk, where the restaurant has tables.

"It's a humble little sliver of a storefront, and it has its limitations," Zarletti said of the venue. "It has a minuscule kitchen, a shoebox really, but it is for a pizzeria, and it can work.

"For customers, it is such a cozy place, and that is what we wanted."

Only a few months after Rustico opened, the economy took the steep dive that is still affecting many persons, and the restaurant business felt the pain. "You could chart it on a graph," Zarletti said.

"When the bottom fell out, we really fell out. We probably don't have any business being open today. We were all in survival mode, suppliers and restaurants. Some (restaurants) didn't make it."

Zarletti said his business has rebounded. "We have had a really strong year. It is not the same as it was, but those days may never be back. Maybe we needed to get back to the basics, dial things back a bit.

"When things are so easy, you tend to take the consumer for granted."

Zarletti has enough confidence in the economy to open Stubby's with operational partner Brad Todd, who has been the general manager at Rustico.

"We had been thinking about opening a sports bar, and then when we saw the size of the kitchen (at the former Bayou) we knew we had to have food, too," Zarletti said. Chef Paul Young, formerly of the Capital Grille and several major Chicago restaurants, was added to the equation.

Stubby's emphasizes barbecue and food with a Southern American roadhouse flair. You can get a hush puppies appetizer, a shrimp po boy, and Memphis style ribs.

But the Zarletti Italian influence is also obvious, with a smoked tomato and pepper bruschetta appetizer and smoked pomodoro linguini.

Bayou's rather upscale interior has been removed in favor of a pool table, custom-made shuffleboard table and lots of TV screens. "We want to be a place where you come to watch the game," Zarletti said about Stubby's. Live music is also planned for the location.

Italian wine is emphasized at Rustico and Zarletti -- 100 percent of the wine menu at Rustico is Italian, and 80 percent at Zarletti -- but beer is the beverage of choice at Stubby's. The bar and restaurant has 53 beers on tap, with the vast majority being small craft brews and foreign suds. Five beer flights are offered.

"We are especially focused on small craft beers from the Great Lakes area," Zarletti said. Wisconsin breweries represented include Oso (Plover), Potosi (Potosi), Central Waters (Amherst) and Furthermore (Spring Green).

Zarletti was asked to recommend a meal from each of his restaurants. At Rustico, he suggested the Napoletana anchovy pizza. If those salty little fish don't float your boat, try the Bianca, a four-cheese pizza sans tomato sauce.

For Zarletti, order the handmade ravioli and veal osso bucco, to be shared by two persons. At Stubby's, have a craft beer and a pulled pork sandwich.

"Barbecue is the great unifier," Zarletti said. "Black, white, male, female, rich, poor, everybody likes barbecue."

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.