What seems to be a revolving door at 223 N. Water St. has opened once again with Brian Zarletti's Rustico, a casual pizzeria serving a smattering of sandwiches, salads and pastas.
Rustico is the fourth restaurant to open in this location in recent years. After Onyx closed its doors in the early 2000's, Borrego's and Riverwalk Bistro occupied the space before Zarletti opened his third restaurant there in spring.
Diners can expect the interior to remain sedate and quiet as it was with the bistro, and both tiers of the Riverwalk patio are still available for scenic dining.
Food and service at Rustico was disappointing, especially considering the consistent quality evident at Zarletti on Milwaukee Street. Even the lovely riverwalk view couldn't quell that disappointment.
The menu at Rustico begins with basic antipasti: fried calamari ($8.95), fried eggplant ($7.95), antipasto platter ($10.95 for two, or $18.95 for four), bruschetta ($5.95) and meatballs ($6.95). We were enthralled with the fried olives ($6.95), which were pitted, breaded, fried and charmingly served in a martini glass with tiny wooden skewers and a side of marinara. Fried calamari, however, was woefully overcooked, with one tentacle so rubbery I struggled to bite through it, and the antipasto platter was sparse and the quality of the meats was sub-par.
On two separate visits, our entrées arrived within minutes of our appetizers, not allowing us enough time to even make our way through half of the starter items. On the first visit, our server delivered two Italian sausage bomber sandwiches ($5.95) instead of the meatball bombers ($6.95) we had ordered. After receiving the correct sandwiches, we found them to be of slightly lesser than average quality, but admittedly, the pricing here is so economical, perhaps I should not have expected anything better.
On our second visit, we sampled a caprese ($7.95) and a Rustico salad ($7.95), both of which were quite salty. The Rustico contained a disproportionate amount of pancetta and croutons, overpowering what may otherwise have been a quite enjoyable salad.
A Toscana pizza ($12.95 for a 12-inch, $16.95 for a 14-inch) was slightly heavy, although the thin, crisp, and yes, slightly rustic crust here is good. Rustico's pizza sauce carries a sweetness which I suspect may play better with some of their other, largely vegetarian pies.
A special of chicken parmesan ($14.95) featured bowtie pasta beneath pomodoro (diced tomato, garlic and olive oil), and an overcooked breaded chicken breast that separated into tough striations as I worked to slice through it. Water service at Rustico is a problem, too. We sat many times with no water, another time a server filled our glasses with unpleasantly warm water with no ice. They brought ice over several minutes later at our request.
On our second visit, our bill was tabulated incorrectly, with a carafe wine special advertised at $10 but billed at $15. After mentioning it to the server, it was promptly corrected, but with so many good pizza options in the Third Ward area, the issues at Rustico must be addressed quickly to allow this restaurant to flourish.
With Brian Zarletti's talent and flair for opening quality restaurants, I am confident that with a little work and time, Rustico could be a welcome permanent tenant of 223 N. Water St. It just is not quite there yet.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.