By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 31, 2011 at 8:29 AM Photography: Andy Tarnoff

It's sometimes hard to judge a restaurant based on a sneak preview. On one hand, you have to cut the staff some slack because you're there for them to practice on. You know going in that everything might not be perfect.

On the other hand, if the food is super awesome, is it because they're not in the grind of daily dinner service yet and the kitchen staff is giving it 110 percent to get a good early buzz going?

An early visit to Ryan Braun's Graffito, 102 N. Water St., offers some evidence to what can be expected when the restaurant has its soft opening today and its official grand opening on Monday.

First off, had we not known we were at a preview, we'd, well, never have known we were at a preview. The waitstaff was attentive, cheerful and helpful and it's hard to conjure a memory of even a single misstep.

That leads us to the food. Everything we had -- and we had a lot -- was indeed awesome. But, having sampled Chef Dominic Zumpano's skills before, I don't think the quality was a fluke. I suspect he works hard every day, not just for previews.

Zumpano was top gun at Charro and Umami Moto before returning to Chicago to be closer to his family last year.

Now, he's back in Milwaukee and the time with his Windy City Italian-American roots must have really made an impression because Graffito's menu is strictly Italian, dishing up the best chicken saltimbocca I've tasted -- juicy chicken atop a fontina-laced polenta (served with a razor thin, crispy prosciutto chip!) -- great thin crust pizza, homemade pasta and dishes made with house-pulled fresh mozzarella.

Zumpano is also clearly a big fan of prosciutto, which figures into many dishes on the menu. And that's just fine with me.

If you're looking for menu suggestions, I'm happy to tout that saltimbocca or a great prosciutto-wrapped pork loin as main dishes, the pan seared scallop served atop a rich lobster risotto and the guanciale-wrapped grilled shrimp off the small plate menu and the pappardelle in duck ragu from the pasta selection.

I'm hard-pressed to decide whether to suggest the crimini and oyster mushroom with goat cheese pizza or the bianca, with mascarpone, prosciutto, white truffle spread and artichoke version. So, just try 'em both.

As for Kurt Fogle's desserts, I recommend them all, based on the ones we had. See the photos above to get a look at his super rich chocolate and hazelnut mousse cake that is a must-try.

The only potential pothole I see for Ryan Braun's Graffito has nothing whatsoever to do with the kitchen or the front of house staff.

It's the fact that beyond a handful of stadium-themed dishes -- burgers, fries, pretzels and the creative "sausage race" platter that includes a brat, a chorizo and an Italian sausage on a single plate and hot wing ravioli (just what it sounds like!) -- there's more Graffito than Ryan Braun.

Folks more interested in Ryan Braun than Dominic Zumpano might be disappointed by the lack of No. 8 jerseys and memorabilia and food that  doesn't appear to have any connection to Braun, the Brewers or baseball.

For someone like me, who is focused on the food, this entirely a non-issue. Frankly, I'd rather enjoy this satisfying, hearty Italian comfort food in the restaurant as it is, with Brew City graffiti murals along the north wall and windows overlooking the patio along the southern exposure of a bright, contemporary but comfortable dining room.

Sure, I'd prefer Braun to Zumpano in leftfield, but in the kitchen, it's the latter who is the real slugger.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.