By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Jul 26, 2005 at 5:40 AM

{image1}A long-vacant Riverwalk restaurant space in the Cawker Building, 108 W. Wells St., will be home to a new restaurant called "Yaffa" -- which means "beautiful" in Hebrew -- in September.

For John Chitko, who is currently honing his skills at Michael Hemeid's 2 Sweet International Delight on the East Side, "Yaffa" has big, beautiful meaning. During a 2001 voyage to Costa Rica, Chitko met Oded Gabay, from Israel, who encouraged him to follow his passion for cooking and enroll at the Art Institute of New York City, which he did.

The 1993 Franklin High grad grabbed much of what he wants Yaffa to become from a free flowing, casual place in Costa Rica called Tamarindo ("Lazy Wave").

"We had the greatest times just hanging out, drinking beer and eating excellent seafood," says Chitko. "There was no care in world at this open air restaurant ... there was always tomorrow."

With this concept in mind, Chitko marinated on ideas during his time in New York, where he worked at the Mercer Kitchen under Jean-Georges Vongerichten and with Chef Zak Pelaccion at Chicken Bone Café in Brooklyn. He also became a big fan of Mediterranean food.

"If you go from Morocco to Algeria to Israel to Palestine ... all have very similar spices, customs. And the food is so exciting, it's the exotic food of the world."

How so? Says Chitko, "A lot of ginger, a lot of saffron, cilantro ... it's all about big flavors. I said, back home, we don't have anything exactly like this. How can I use the inspirational flavors of the region and put my own twist on it?"

So, he returned home to work as he crafted his vision, cooking for Mark Weber at the recently closed Watermark, and received true creative freedom at Sendik's in Mequon.

"That's where I really got intense with Moroccan cooking. I had just a great mix of people say, 'this food is amazing.'"

Build out and excavation work on the restaurant has begun with up-start firm, Nagel-Tobiczyk Architects, LLC (NLTK) doing the design work. When complete, Yaffa will have a "New York meets Mediterranean" feel, with dinner seating for 58, 20 more seats in a bar area and a lounge. There will also be patio access on the Riverwalk.

"I want a place where people can come to relax," he says.

Yaffa will specialize in teas and wines by the glass, and of course, Chitko hopes his team will excel at atmosphere, style and service.

"It's going to be a place to relax and have a good time, and a place to be comfortable, not feel intimated. Down tempo acid jazz will fill the space, but not overwhelm it," he adds.

Yaffa will feature a tapas/mesas menu, traditional entrees with a rotating menu and non-traditional dishes like venison and ostrich. Variety will be key, according to Chitko. Paella, seafood, salads, couscous, rice, spreads and hummus will be on the menu.

"This will be the exotic food of the world and big flavors," promises Chitko, who says that for him, success will be making people happy.

"The biggest kick I'll get out of this job will be watching people enjoy my food. It's not about me, it's not about having my own place, it's about people enjoying what I do."

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.