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Down to Earth
It’s not wild, but it is earthy down in the Valley. Buried deep inside this center of smoke and clanging slot machines is good, rustic Italian dining.

The Potawatomi Italian's frutti di mare pasta.
Photo by Chris Kessler

The first time I had arancini in Milwaukee, it was at a place now buried in the graveyard of local restaurants, Maniaci’s Café Siciliano. The year is a blur. The experience is not. Arancini, a Sicilian street food, is thought to be elderly. The breaded, deep-fried rice balls – named for the Italian word for orange, which they resemble – may have been introduced in the 10th century. Cut into one, and ground beef, cheese, mushrooms, even pistachios might spill out of the smoking-hot middle.

What spills from each little “orange” in this appetizer plate at Wild Earth Cucina Italiana is a creamy, subtly cheesy clump of risotto, the breadcrumb hull around it unburdened by grease. The red pepper aioli adds tart and tang. But the plate is already feeling the tart and tang of its brisk Menomonee Valley setting, the seat of all things gambling.

Wild Earth is the first new Potawatomi Bingo Casino restaurant since 2008, when another joint also called Wild Earth, peeled players from the high-stakes tables with a cuisine marked by local, sustainably sourced ingredients. The theme seems like no big deal now. Everyone’s doing it. But Audrey Vandenburgh, the Iowa-reared chef whose past includes gigs at the Pfister Hotel and Lake Park Bistro, made it feel like a fresh, natural extension of a casino owned by a Wisconsin Native American tribe. The old Wild Earth, however, took its final breaths approximately a year later.

The name resonated strongly enough with the tribe to bring it back – in the same second-floor room accented with potted shrubbery, deep booths, wood floors and amber lighting. Vandenburgh, who’d left Potawatomi for another restaurant launch (at table-tennis emporium Spin Milwaukee), also returned, lured by the challenge of another opening. It’s a good fit for her and a bonus to have her second-in-command, sous chef Maggie Haller, a beacon from the Mason Street Grill kitchen.

A menu was in place when they arrived – straightforward but respectable. The aforementioned arancini ($7), a caprese salad ($8), spaghetti and meatballs ($13), roasted beef strip loin ($25), pan-roasted halibut with tomato ragu ($27). The acidity and sweetness of the ragu combined succulently with the mellow halibut, its texture flaky yet creamy. The caprese, too, caused a fireworks effect of chopped heirlooms and rich mozzarella under a mist of fresh pesto. There was wistfulness on that plate – mourning for the season’s end.

But it’s hard to not embrace the deep baritone of winter in other parts of the menu. The chicken carbonara – strings wound around asparagus, mushrooms and pancetta, and dressed liberally in Parmesan cream sauce ($16). It’s a fairly simple pasta but often not done well. The sauce is not an alfredo, but based on the flash cooking of cheese, egg and oils from the pancetta. The pork and veal lasagna ($14), buried in a thick embankment of beef Bolognese, is so hearty, it takes diligence to make a dent in it.

A pizza or flatbread is standard procedure for an Italian menu. And letting the toppings speak without gobbing them on Pizza Hut-style is a purity thing. The Wild Earth flatbreads are a little bit light meal, a little bit sharing appetizer. They have a firm presence – the servers like to suggest them. The signature Laughing Bird shrimp flatbread ($11) – topped with farm-raised shrimp from coastal Belize, pancetta, fresh mozzarella, pesto and some fresh arugula – is salty and piquant. Best is that it rests atop the crust like a salad.

The chefs recognize – and assert – the assets of a pork loin chop. It’s not an expensive cut; it doesn’t take a great deal of finagling to enhance the flavor and coax the proper texture. Again, rustic and simple work in tandem in this pan-seared chop served with caramelized cippolini onion and sweet piquillo pepper, kale and roasted potatoes ($19).

By the time you read this, Vandenburgh will have added menu circumference with veal Parmesan, Chianti-braised short ribs, baked whitefish Siciliano, and a sweet-savory pear and prosciutto flatbread.

The kitchen turns out, without question, some respectable food, and its audience could be the retiree slot-machine enthusiasts, the middle-aged couple dining before a show at the Northern Lights Theater or the destination diners. It’s those latter visitors I’m concerned with. Will they come? Or will this remain the enigmatic casino restaurant?

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