Neighbors, family gather at Janesville's Aglio for comfort food

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Joan Neeno, Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, September 18, 2013

JANESVILLE—Since its June opening, Aglio Ristorante has become the neighborhood restaurant for those of us who live near downtown.

On the night of its “soft opening,” half the dining room was filled with friends and neighbors. I enjoyed a giant plate of spaghetti and meatballs ($15) that was quite good, and although the place was still working out the kinks, it seemed promising.

I have been back several times since, and I've always run into a friend having dinner. The live jazz, black-clad servers and professionalism of Aglio are a welcome change of pace here. The owners, Amy Johnson and John Sheck, have taken great care in their new restaurant, and it shows. Chef Terry Carner is becoming increasingly polished with his daily specials.

So Aglio was the perfect choice on a recent evening when our neighborhood needed real comfort food. Doc, our good friend and enthusiastic restaurant reviewer, had died the week before. When someone so much bigger than life is suddenly gone, there's an emptiness that only dear friends can fill. And so 19 of Doc's friends, neighbors and family got together at Aglio to share some comfort and good food.

We started with glasses of wine, milling around the middle of the dining room giving hugs and telling stories. Aglio has a nice wine list with a good mix of reasonably priced choices, both by the glass and bottle.

We sat down at two long tables, starting with warm bread with olive oil and balsamic. The ingredients are quality. Be careful not to fill up before the entrees arrive.

Nancy and Jim placed a couple of orders of their favorite appetizer. The stuffed cremini mushrooms ($8) are filled with Italian sausage, Gorgonzola and spinach and then baked in a garlic butter sauce. The mushrooms were tender, not soggy, and the stuffing burst with strong and harmonious flavors.

Jen doesn't eat red meat, so the Bruschetta di Aglio ($8) was a perfect vegetarian choice. The crostini remained firm and crisp. The tomatoes were mixed with roasted peppers, fresh garlic and basil in olive oil. Combined with the topping of sweet balsamic vinegar and salty pecorino Romano cheese, the bruschetta was a vibrant bite of summer.

On previous visits, we have tried the fresh mozzarella caprese ($9) and enjoyed the softness of the cheese and fresh, ripe tomatoes. The Italian salad ($4)—a bed of romaine lettuce with a generous mixture of olives, red onions and pepperoncini tossed in roasted garlic vinaigrette—is also a great way to start your meal.

My husband, Richard, ordered the fettuccini Alfredo ($13), which was very good but not great. Aglio's version included diced Roma tomatoes—an unusual touch that didn't quite make up for an under-seasoned sauce.

My two go-to comfort foods are both on Aglio's menu. I already had tried the spaghetti and meatballs, so I opted for the Italian mac and cheese ($12) with a piece of grilled chicken ($6).

The four-cheese garlic crème sauce is simply delicious. The Italian breadcrumbs baked into the top are just perfection. I had the same dish the week before when dining with my dad, and it might become a habit. The big box of leftovers I took with me made a great lunch the next day.

Jen also ordered the mac and cheese and added shrimp ($7). Judging by the happy way she was pecking at her plate, I think she might be addicted, too.

Nancy's veal Marsala ($20) was pounded thin, cooked perfectly tender and served with mushrooms in a sauce with a nice balance of sweet and garlic. It was served over campanelle pasta. Nicely done. Farther down the table, Michael had the sun-dried tomato pesto-rubbed salmon ($19). The portion was smaller, so he left without a box but perfectly satisfied.

Our servers were friendly, efficient and attentive despite attending to such a large group. The timing of the food was excellent. With nine people at each table, that's no small feat. Each table got its food at about the same time. No one was left to watch others eat while waiting for an entrée to arrive.

Aglio offers the traditional Italian desserts, including tiramisu. I particularly like the delicately flavored panna cotta, a light and creamy gelatin reminiscent of flan. After eating a platter of carbs, light and mild is a nice way to end the evening.

On this particular evening, however, we ended with a cake that we brought to celebrate the birthday of Doc's son. Aglio's servers were wonderful about helping us get cake out to 19 people. I'm pretty sure at that point we were a party of 20 … and what a lovely evening for Doc's last review with us.

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