Aperitivo restaurant in downtown Milwaukee thrives in historic site

Kristine M. Kierzek

When Richard Kerhin set out to open Aperitivo, 311 N. Plankinton Ave., he had decades of service industry experience in Milwaukee, from Elsa to Eagan. He knew exactly what he wanted. That meant a cozy gathering space with happy hour, small plates, and a curated cocktail list.

Located in the Pritzlaff Building, Aperitivo opened in January 2020. Nothing in the past two years has been what it might have expected, but it’s optimistic. In November, he added a private dining space to accommodate larger events, and he looks forward to pulling out the patio tables and grilling when the weather warms up.

Catering to building residents and area office workers, Aperitivo is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 9 p.m. Saturday, and closed Sunday.

Kerhin and his wife also operate Richard’s Cafe, 700 W. Virginia, Suite 203, in the Tannery Building, serving breakfast and lunch from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Question: How did you start cooking?

To respond: I was certainly influenced by my mother and my grandmother, who are both very good cooks. When I was 16, I went to restaurants. It became something I was good at.

Q: What led you to open your own establishment?

A: I met my wife when I was a bartender. She was a customer. …I bounced back for over a decade. What can I do more stable? My brother had a computer company. … The building in which we now have Richard’s Cafe is where his office is. My brother said, “Richard always wanted to have his own place.” They put me up (in the Tannery Building). It will be eight years in October…

I had assumed the cafe would be a jumping off point for another location. Meanwhile, my current business partner, owner of the Pritzlaff building, had space to rent. It was between 5,000 and 6,000 feet. It is too big ; I’m not going to jump from a three-stool sandwich to 6,000 square feet. He said I had thought of putting a bar/cafe for the tenants, a smaller footprint. He showed me the space I am in now. It was perfect.

Aperitivo, 311 N. Plankinton, is in a 19th-century building that's one of six built between 1875 and 1919 to house Pritzlaff Hardware Co., one of the nation's largest hardware wholesalers.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you have encountered since opening Aperitivo?

A: I worked with Kendall Breunig. … If I hadn’t associated with him, we would have already left. We opened in January 2020. He was very patient. He understands that the situation is abnormal, probably one of the worst times in history to open a restaurant.

Now we have turned the corner. Next patio season I expect to be very busy. We opened in January (2020), followed by the pandemic in March. They tore up the street in May…

It just grew slowly and steadily. We also added a private dining room in November. We share it with Pritzlaff events.

RELATED:Downtown Aperitivo is starting its European-style happy hour soon, with free food

Q: Do you have anyone you consider a mentor in Milwaukee? Did you receive any specific advice before setting up your own business?

A: I remember having a conversation with Mike Vitucci. If you are going to open a place and the inspectors say something is OK, ask them to put it in writing. I spoke with Scott Johnson about how to write a business plan. I worked with people who were good examples to follow.

I worked at Elsa’s with a bartender, Jim Sweeney, he worked there for 40 years. He opened the place in 1980. I worked there in the late 90s. He probably had the same conversations over and over for years. He said that’s the job. You have to stop before entering, to put yourself in a good mood.

Q: Tell us about Aperitivo. What will people find and what is your goal?

A: The name is the Italian happy hour, Aperitivo. It’s the Italian after-work ritual. … The idea is just that I really wanted to work on getting a good lively happy hour crowd and then go home. I didn’t want to go out before 2am, I did all this for years…

I am 52 years old. I want to be able to hear friends when I go out and chat. … I wanted to create a place designed for people to sit and talk comfortably for a while.

Q: What is the biggest influence on your menu at Aperitivo?

A: In the building there are offices and apartments, so we open at 8 am. We have a full coffee line and a limited breakfast. Lunch is quite busy. … At night, things move. We don’t have a hood. Everything is electric. We have an oven, a panini machine, induction hobs. Nothing with fat, nothing fried….

At happy hour you get small plates. …Cevapi (Serbian sausage) is something I always like. We manufacture them in-house. … I also expanded the offerings for sandwiches and pizzas. Soups are seasonal and homemade, but we don’t always have them.

A medianoche sandwich, also known as a Cuban sandwich, is one of the lunch options at downtown Aperitivo.

Q: How did you create your cocktail menu?

A: Most cocktails, I think if they exist and are still relatively popular after 70-100 years, there’s probably a good reason. …I want stuff that still tastes great and is a classic drink but doesn’t take forever to make. It also opens up space on the aft bar for a large number of Italian aperitif liqueurs.

Between appetizer, amari, and bitters, I have maybe about 35. These are supposed to be low-alcohol pre-dinner cocktails, spritzers. I have a good selection of vermouths, also perfect for an aperitif. I didn’t want to create something trendy. I actually only have two vodkas that taste good, and they’re both from local distilleries. One is Door County Cherry Vodka from Central Standard and the other is Citrus from Rehorst.

Q: You are located in the historic Pritzlaff building. What do you want people to know about space?

A: It was at one time a central employer in the city of Milwaukee, they were sort of competitors or rivals with Sears and Roebuck catalog sales. … What it represents now is a concerted effort on the part of my partner Ken (Breunig), the Third Ward Association, Ron San Felippo, the people developing the area, an attempt to revitalize this particular part of the center -town. For the region where we are located on the west side of the river, this is the keystone of development to come over the next few years.

Table Chat features interviews with Wisconsinites, or native Wisconsinites, who work in restaurants or support the restaurant industry; or guest chefs. To suggest people to profile, email [email protected]