Restaurant review: Francesca's al Lago is solid choice in downtown Madison

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By Bill Livick/Special to The Gazette
Thursday, February 16, 2017

MADISON—Francesca's al Lago has been operating on Martin Luther King Boulevard since 2010, and it has established a dedicated following on the strength of solid Italian food and a welcoming space with fine service.

With seating for about 250, the spacious restaurant features a couple of dining areas and a comfortable barroom.
Francesca's is upscale and is part of a national chain based in Chicago. Its menu changes frequently, designed around generous servings of pasta ranging from $15 to about $30.

The kitchen also offers traditional Italian appetizers, pizzas, salads and side dishes such as sliced prosciutto, sausage and peppers, sautéed shrimp and sautéed asparagus.

The attractive space is notable for its high ceilings and use of natural woods. A row of floor-to-ceiling windows along Martin Luther King Boulevard allows natural light to flood the dining area and affords a view of the bustling downtown street life.

Francesca's is a popular lunch spot, and it is also busy most nights for dinner or drinks after the workday. Although the dining room was bustling on the night of our recent visit, the room was relaxed and the noise level reasonable.

As mentioned, food portions are large, and most items seem to be meant for sharing.

That was certainly true for a plate of sautéed jumbo shrimp that came with wild mushrooms, steamed spinach, tomatoes and basil ($14). Five plump, tender shrimp arrived swimming in a sauce of balsamico and lemon.
Another first course, risotto alla Pomodoro ($10), is a savory treat featuring tomato risotto with long curls of Parmesan and handfuls of arugula on top.

Our party shared the kitchen's Quattro stagioni pizza ($12): a combination of artichokes, mushrooms, olives, prosciutto and a poached egg. The crust lacked flavor. but the top was loaded with it. The prosciutto glazed with egg yolk provided a particularly interesting flavor.

Francesca's pasta dishes are mostly built around meat and seafood options, but there are plenty of vegetarian choices, as well. The pastas we sampled were perfectly cooked al dente.

Garganelli con funghi ($15) offers hand-rolled egg pasta sautéed with asparagus and wild mushrooms in a tomato basil sauce. Nothing fancy here, just simple flavors well executed.

An order of tilapia Vesuvio ($26) featured sautéed tilapia with lemon, fresh oregano, garlic, olive oil, peas and roasted potatoes. I thought the kitchen hit all the right notes here—the roasted potatoes adding heft to the plate—but others in our group weren't impressed with the “flavorless fish.”

A plate of tortellacci con pollo ($18) combines cheese-filled pasta sautéed with grilled chicken, spinach and pine nuts in a light basil cream sauce with tomatoes. This was a real winner and, from my perspective, the highlight of our meal with the right balance of flavors and textures. I found the cream sauce a delightful complement to the pasta, chicken and pine nuts, while a friend was turned off by what he described as the “cloying sweetness” of the sauce.

Francesca's offers a half-dozen tasty desserts, all $8. There's a chocolate sundae featuring scoops of vanilla gelato topped with chocolate and caramel sauce, roasted pecans, biscotti and whipped cream. There's also the kitchen's vanilla crème brulee with fresh berries, and profiteroles al pistachio—delicate cream puffs served warm with pistachio gelato and chocolate sauce.

Francesca's is a versatile restaurant that would appeal to a wide variety of tastes and preferences. Local foodies questioned its chances of surviving long term in the crowded downtown dining scene, but seven years later, the restaurant continues to be popular and perform well.

Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.

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