With so many restaurants opening their doors in the last decade, it's sometimes easy to forget the classics that have been around for 20 or 30 years. One such restaurant is Third Ward Caffé, 225 E. St. Paul Ave., with a cool 26 years of service under its belt.
Housed in a former warehouse on commission row, Third Ward Caffé began serving northern Italian regional cuisine in 1982, and the menu today is still heavy with dishes featuring veal, seafood and butter-based sauces.
Visits here are casual, the mood quiet and romantic, and service is unhurried and informal. One section of the menu stays fairly static with traditional, heartwarming items like polpette ($19), divine, homemade veal meatballs with linguine, marinara and fresh provolone cheese that will give you an entirely new perspective on spaghetti and meatballs; the other evolves seasonally, with seasonal herbs, and recently with cold weather impending, comfort-food type items.
An appetizer of carpaccio ($12) showcases tenderloin sliced so thin it is nearly transparent, and the flavors are brought to life by fresh lemon and capers for a delightful result. A seasonal menu offers assorti ($18), a large mixed platter of assorted Italian meats and cheeses with roasted red peppers and artichokes, that was excellent with a glass of wine and the marinated olives and breadsticks that come with each dinner.
An entrée of salmon with angel hair pasta ($18) from the regular menu was exceptional, with a light flaky piece of fish over fresh, needle-thin noodles. Like other entrees on the menu, the salmon arrived with seasonal steamed vegetables that were crisp-tender and delicious, as well as vibrant in color palate.
Sauces at Third Ward Caffé are rich and buttery precision, and fresh herbs appear in abundance. The only complaint we had was with two veal scallopine dishes that came out chewy and sporadically tough, but were remarkably still good simply due to the sauces.
Veal Marsala ($25) was mouth-watering between too-chewy bites, and a seasonal dish of veal saltimbucco ($29) also alternated between heavenly bites and pieces that were difficult to cut and bite into. Third Ward Caffé offers family farm raised veal, so I was unable to discern with any certainty if this was a function of product or cooking technique -- it quite frankly could have been either or both. But in-between bites gleamed with the beautiful flavors of fresh sage and lemony butter and made me hold out anticipation for the next; and the accompanying ground veal stuffed ravioli was beyond amazing.
Third Ward Caffe is one of those restaurants perfect for a quiet getaway from the bustle of upcoming holidays. And though some dishes may be a bit troubled, others will awe you with their brilliance of flavor. For me, this is one of the few places in the city where it's worth taking a few missteps to find that brilliance.
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.