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Second Place
Colorful chef Michael Feker spreads his culinary catechism across town to the Knickerbocker Hotel.

Photo by Chris Kessler

Michael Feker, wearing his trademark white chef’s smock, waves patrons into the dining room. Arms gesturing emphatically, the bald-pated chef says, “We’d need an extinguisher to extinguish all this flavor!” He then blows a kiss to the patrons of a C-shaped booth framed by mirrors.

Feker, the owner of Il Mito Enoteca on Tosa’s North Avenue, is holding court at his new Downtown place, Il Mito East. He’s happy (“Fekered up” might be the term) to be back in the city, which he left in 2006 after shuttering the first Il Mito in Walker’s Point. A year later, the self-described celebrity chef had relocated to Tosa, channeling Fekerian passion into mushroom risotto, osso buco and others.

The Iranian-born chef’s choice of the name Il Mito (“The Myth”) was meant to dispel the notion that Italian cuisine need be expensive. It’s a theme carried through at his new joint, where the small plates ($4.95-$7.95) show the better Feker.

Speaking of sides, the flamboyant chef has chipped away at the visual reminders of previous restaurant occupants – from Osteria del Mondo (for 17 years) to Sally’s Steak House. Feker calls his somber color choices “old-school,” but the only thing that old-schools this place is the music – songsters of the Dean Martin and Andy Williams ilk. That and an antique radio set against a plywood wall. Beaded light fixtures hang in cascade-like fashion from the ceiling, creating shadows against the bedrock wall on the far end of the room. It sounds a little Vegas, but it’s really far from it.

Although Mito keeps the menu prices capped at $21.95, like the Tosa location, the place doesn’t feel as lively and boisterous as its brother. But then, it is new.

The waitstaff’s style suggests it’s trying to be elegant (“May I?” a server asks before reaching for a plate from a just-finished course) but needs more practice – confidence, knowledge and, well, grace. (Servers are quick to mention the new ladies room just outside the restaurant entrance. But the same doesn’t apply to men. They still have to walk down two hallways to a public hotel restroom.)

Once the plates start arriving, the Feker vibe fuses with the steam coming off the food. The cocktails-and-appetizers crowd is on his radar, so there’s a dozen small plates to choose from. And they’re more than two-bite creations. On the richer side are the dense, sausage-like veal-chicken meatballs (two) in a citrusy tomato sauce over very light pecorino polenta ($5.95). Nicely golden and crispy, the roasted vegetable risotto cakes were otherwise dry and bland ($5.95). I doused the two cakes with my “bouquet” of mesclun greens, tossed with a subtle, peppery mustard vinaigrette.

The menu’s use of “The Fekerized version of” or “Il Mito’s famous” and similar phrases signifies a chef with a healthy confidence level. It’s all breathily there on the laminated menu of panini (Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-3 p.m.), pizza, pastas and protein-based entrées.

There’s room for good 9-inch grilled pizzas on an Italian menu. Just one problem. More disappointing than the doughy, gummy crust under my “exotic” mushroom-fontina pie ($10.95) was the sharp, overwhelming flavor of char on the crust.

Feker’s eggless tortelloni –its stuffing spilling out beef tenderloin mixed with potatoes and ricotta – didn’t exude decadence, even with a Gorgonzola sauce pooled over the plate ($13.95). I just couldn’t get past the seasoning in the filling, a discordant mingling of thyme, rosemary and nutmeg. I preferred the turkey tenderloin scaloppine, served with the weightless polenta and a respectable Marsala wine cream sauce ($16.95). The turkey cutlets escaped the mushiness and, conversely, the tough frame that scaloppine can have.

The tiramisu ($6) – a dessert of mascarpone cheese (flavored, in this case, with a citrus liqueur) and ladyfingers “soaked” in espresso – was appropriately served with a spoon. Espresso saturation made this very wet dessert sadly off-balanced.

 

With his grand gestures, the extroverted Feker knows how to make his patrons feel important. Cooking classes and TV appearances have built up his visibility in town, but the city is a more competitive arena. He’ll have his work cut out for him.

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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