For the fifth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2011."
Tomatoes are one of those foods I've come to appreciate more with age (mine, not theirs). For years, I was turned off by the gooey seediness, despite loving tomato sauce on pasta and pizza.
Growing them and picking them fresh for a caprese salad has certainly helped (so has becoming adept at seeding them). But what my younger palate really could have used was Graffito chef Dominic Zumpano's Tomato Dinner.
The seven-course dinner – rightly described on the menu as "an experience in tomatoes" – served Thursday night at the Third Ward Italian restaurant, presented heirlooms of all varieties in a surprising and delicious ways.
Each course was paired with a wine, starting with Nino Franco's bubbly "Rustico" Prosecco and ending with Cusamano's Inzolia, an indigenous Sicilian varietal.
In between there was Tuttobene Rosso, a Tuscan blend of Merlot, Sangiovese and Canaiolo that was a favorite at our table, thanks to its soft tannins, though I preferred the spicier Lungarotti Rubesco, another Sangiovese-Canaiolo blend – this time minus the Merlot – from neighboring Umbria.
We also tasted a Casa Silva Sauvignon Blanc from Chile and a Campanian Falanghina from Vesevo.
The meal opened with "Progression," six tastes of a variety of tomato preparations, from agrodolce to out and out candy sweet. Presented on soup spoons, these little flavor explosions went down like oyster sliders.
The "Crudo" course, with pickled onion, taro root and pepper jelly, got everyone talking. Large, shallow bowls arrived with the ingredients prepared in the center. Servers followed with carafes and added earthy "tomato water" to each plate.
The "BLT Breakfast" course was perhaps the best of the night, with a coddled quail egg, romaine butter (yes, butter that tasted exactly like lettuce!), a black pepper biscuit, tomato cremeux and, on top, some delectable candied bacon.
Diners – there were a few dozen of us enjoying this treat – were abuzz again when "Tomato Soup" arrived with its miniature grilled cheese in the center and a giant Goldfish cracker.
"Fried Green Tomato" spotlighted quartered green tomatoes deep fried along with a rich truffle fondue and fennel shortbread. And the final "Pigs in a Blanket" paired two spicy hot Italian sausages with bits of croissant dough, a spicy ketchup and yummy mustard foam, which is exactly what the name suggests.
The only place that, for me, the tomatoes didn't quite work was the "Tomato Jam" dessert. I enjoyed the brown sugar cake with spiced milk gel and soy compressed peanuts more without the tomato candy on top.
Zumpano and his crew created a really memorable meal. What could have been gimmicky and run of the mill was instead fresh and fun and interesting. Most important, Zumpano never forgets that it's dinner, so it can't be just inventive and pretty, it also needs to be delicious.
He says that next month, he'll do an oil and vinegar dinner at Graffito. Then, Zumpano promised two Italian regional dinners in each month for December and January, hinting that Sicily and Tuscany may be among those featured. These promise to bring a little sunshine and warmth to the deep Wisconsin winter.
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 OnMilwaukee.com 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.