Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Apr 17, 2011
10:06 AMSmall Dishes
I love modern Italian cooking—Lombardino’s and Nostrano are two of my favorite restaurants. But just like sometimes I’d rather have a burger than a steak, sometimes I can’t face another pizza with arugula and truffle oil or pasta whose name I can’t pronounce. When that happens it’s time to return to the red sauce circuit.
Italian-American food is a cuisine in itself—not just in Madison, but around the country. All Italians that came here brought with them a rich tradition of food and eating—but not always the same tradition since they came from numerous regions with remarkably different tastes and cooking styles. Over time, traditional recipes changed, as an accommodation to both the availability of ingredients and local preferences. For whatever reason, tomato sauce became a common denominator for Twentieth Century Italian cooking in America. Today, spaghetti and pizza are mainstays of our diet. It’s not surprising though, that Italian food is the most popular ethnic food the world over.
Something doesn’t have to be authentic to be enjoyable. Let’s face it, if that weren’t true there would be no evolution in eating or taste.We’ve come a long way since the 1600s and a diet of pease porridge and wild game. But, my guess is the homestyle Italian dishes we grew up with and first enjoyed at local Italian restaurants will be popular for a long time to come.
Places in Madison to go for a real taste of Italian American:
Bunky’s.This restaurant’s roots are deep in the city’s old Italian neighborhood, the Bush.The menu pairs Mediterranean dishes with pasta and pizza—the result of the marriage of Vito “Bunky” Capadona’s granddaughter Teresa Pullara and Rachid Ouabel.What’s unique at Bunky’s is they carry on an old Madison Italian restaurant tradition of eating without a plate— “spaghetti on the board”. For two or more people (advance reservation required), they’ll pile spaghetti and meatballs on top of a plastic cutting board and let you dig in. (Yes, they’ll give you a plastic bib, too.)
Café La Bellitalia. As it should be, this is a family-run place with a wide choice of pasta served in copious portions and thin crust, pan and stuffed pizza. Specialties of the house include veal and eggplant parmigiana and homemade fettuccini alfredo. Regulars and newcomers alike can expect to be treated like la famiglia at La Bellitalia.
The Continental. Three generations of the Schiavo family have operated restaurants in Madison. Jim and Jenny Schiavo carry on the tradition in Fitchburg and feature many of the recipes that made their restaurants so popular over the years. The spiedini—a classic Sicilian dish of succulent little fried steak rolls—is a treasured secret family recipe. Hard to find around here is their fried ravioli served as an appetizer. Oddly, in St. Louis—where they’re called “toasted ravioli”—they’re as prevalent as cheese curds are in Madison.
Gino’s. The Gargano family must be doing something right—they’ve run a popular restaurant on State Street for almost fifty years. The menu includes the anticipated pasta, a muffuletta sandwich (a gift from New Orleans’ Italian Americans) and Sicilian-style pizza. The specialty of the house, however, is lasagna any many loyal customers would never think of ordering anything else.
The Greenbush. Located appropriately in the basement of the Italian Workingmen’s Club on Regent Street, it’s the last remaining Italian restaurant in what was once home to Madison’s original Italian neighborhood. The reason to come here is for the wafer-thin crust pizza cooked in a brick oven inherited from the owner’s grandmother. Be sure to start with one of their antipasti—plates of Italian meats, cheese and marinated olive and vegetables.
La Rocca’s. The sign in the window says it all, “Come join us for an Italian family dinner.” This Willy Street storefront was formerly home to an appliance repair shop, but quickly became a popular dining destination for those in the know. There are no surprises on the menu and that no doubt partly bespeaks La Rocca’s popularity. Pizza comes a zillion ways and is available by the slice at lunch.