Ryan Braun is having a mighty good year.
There's that baseball thing - starting lineup for Tuesday's All-Star Game, on pace to surpass his 2010 totals for home runs and RBI - but I'm talking about his restaurant in the Third Ward.
OK, so it's not his restaurant per se; the Brewers leftfielder's name is used as part of a licensing agreement with the SURG group, the new owners as of this year.
Whatever. It seems the good mojo Braun possesses in the ballpark has carried over to Ryan Braun's Graffito.
The food is more focused than it was last year, when the restaurant was Ryan Braun's Waterfront and the menu expansive to a fault.
Also better: Service was consistently good, and the dining room and bar area's décor have been warmed up a bit. Still, a Brewers fan expecting to find a sports bar will find nothing of the sort, even if the TVs in the lounge area are tuned to games and there's a framed action-shot of Braun hanging in the bar.
This time, the menu seems more personal, thanks to chef Dominic Zumpano, who helped open SURG's Umami Moto downtown several years ago. It's Italian-influenced cooking that's from scratch; that includes pasta and pizza doughs, bread and soft cheeses.
The menu travels around Italy and delivers fresh takes as well as familiar favorites. The food's flourishes and sensibilities make clear Zumpano's fine-dining background.
Graffito couldn't resist some ballpark/sports-bar nods on the menu, though: a paper cone of hot-from-the-oven pretzel bites ($7) with aged-cheddar and mustard sauces for dipping; mozzarella en carozza ($7), mozzarella sticks' classier cousin, wrapped in rich egg bread; the Mangia burger ($12), juicy and chef-ed up with charcuterie (lardo and speck) and tomato jam on a thick bun made in-house; and a wink toward Buffalo wings with ravioli (two sizes, $14 and $18) that are filled with house-made ricotta and topped with shredded chicken in hot sauce and Gorgonzola.
Graffito, from the Italian for "scratch," ties in to the kitchen's scratch cookery, as the servers will tell you. (It's also a great excuse to install a graffiti-style mural - spot Miller Park in there, and other baseball tie-ins - by artist Fred Kaems, also a server at Carnevor, on a couple of walls.)
That scratch cooking is key here. What a treat to have fresh, crusty ciabatta bread and dip it in olive oil, roasted garlic, olives and Parmigiano that have been combined tableside by the server. Or firm, fresh pappardelle ($15), the ribbons tossed with a light duck ragu and accented with shards of prosciutto made from duck as well.
Graffito starts off with nearly a dozen small plates - probably a couple more than it needs, but it's a good assortment for tables to share as appetizers or for a diner to design a meal of varying tastes and textures.
Bruschetta ($8), for example, in one jar presents herbed ricotta that's been made in-house, and in another, tomato jam with roasted tomatoes, with a stack of toasted ciabatta on the side. It's a presentation that evades soggy toasts and makes the best use of tomatoes before they're at their peak in Wisconsin.
The scallop small plate ($14) is a must-have: a single, large, perfect seared scallop on a bed of al dente risotto with white truffle oil and topped with more of that tomato jam, with prosciutto and basil oil for flavor accents.
And gnocchi ($8) served in a spicy Bolognese sauce were made with a light hand, letting the little dumplings' potato flavor shine through.
Most of the other pastas that are served as entrées now come in two sizes, after grumblings from diners that portion sizes were too small.
When it comes to entrées, the broad spectrum delivered full flavors as well.
On the one hand, there were dishes like a fairly classic, robust osso buco ($33): savory veal shank paired with perfect saffron risotto. No marrow spoon, but don't miss the treat inside the shank's bone.
On the other, there was soft-shell crab ($19), a seasonal dish that departs the menu next week, pleasingly crisp and light with its accompaniment of farro tossed with fennel, asparagus and roasted red pepper. The dish's master stroke was a grilled tangerine half, a most vivid flavor with the crab and the grain.
There are more entrées like that crab, essentially contemporary American but given a slight Italian accent - such as hearty, tender Kobe-style skirt steak ($27) sliced and fanned over potato purée that's made creamy with Fontina cheese. It's served with broccoli rabe and plentiful garlic slivers.
Graffito also has about a half-dozen thin-crust pizzas that serve one or two; it's more than the restaurant needs to offer. They're good - like one covered in crumbles of house-made spicy Italian sausage and broccoli rabe ($11) - but these aren't what make the restaurant a destination.
Desserts could, though. Some are simple but satisfying - a scoop of pink grapefruit sorbetto ($4), perhaps, tasting like the very essence of grapefruit, or a take on bombolini ($6), small doughnuts that here are served with chocolate and raspberry dipping sauces.
Some desserts are SURG head pastry chef Kurt Fogle's usual dazzling sweet endings, executed here by pastry chef Allie Howard. There's chocolate-hazelnut mousse cake ($6), a velvety dome heightened with a sprinkle of sea salt. Or a recent special, the chocolate cremeux ($6), an intensely chocolate cream so smooth it would make silk envious, served with blackberry sauce and salted caramel gelato. Amazing. No, this is definitely not a sports bar.
Menu misfires were few. Dunk the calamari ($11) into the roasted red pepper coulis and skip the sweet limoncello crème fraîche. Delicate, thin veal cutlets ($22) simply got lost in their Parmigiano-crumb breading.
And saltimbocca ($17) was a fine dish, presented in a fresh way: two chicken quarters with crisp skin and creamy polenta, with dried prosciutto and fried sage. But fans of saltimbocca undoubtedly will compare it with the classic version, which fuses the bold flavors of prosciutto and sage with the meat. As good as Graffito's version is, the whole still is greater than the sum of its deconstructed parts.
There's not much that was missing from Graffito, but . . . an Italian restaurant without an espresso machine? That's like pasta without sauce. Chalk it up to various delays; the restaurant just got its machine this week.
It does have smart cocktails and a reasonably priced list of mostly Italian wines. Most important, Graffito offers a successful menu and pays attention to good service. Looks like a winning season, all right.