Switch to Italian food works for Nonno's in Madison

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By Bill Livick, Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, February 26, 2014

MADISON—After dining downtown and on the near- and far-east sides most of the time in 2013, we've shifted our attention lately to see what's cooking on the city's west side.

A few weeks ago we discovered Novanta, a nice little pizzeria on Old Sauk Road. Last week, we visited a new Italian-American restaurant on the corner of Whitney Way and Odana Road—and were glad we did.

Nonno's Ristorante Italiano is in the same building that used to house Cancun Mexican Restaurant. In fact, the same people who ran Cancun operate the new place. Apparently, they thought Italian-American cuisine would be a bigger draw.

Based on our experience, we're guessing they were right.

Nonno's dining room is a large space filled with booths, tables and chairs, and a bar. The only entrance to its parking lot is off Odana Road, so if you're coming from the beltline on Whitney Way, turn left at the intersection onto Odana and take another left at the entrance to the lot.

We visited on a Friday night, and the place was bustling. The waitstaff was friendly and helpful.

We were a tad skeptical at how well a Mexican restaurant could transition to Italian fare. But we were pleasantly surprised based on our limited sampling.

We sipped red wine and nibbled on complimentary focaccia, with olive oil and cracked pepper, while we waited for appetizers.

Our first one was an antipasto course of seared ahi (or yellowfin) tuna topped with a balsamic reduction sauce and served over mixed greens and roasted bell peppers ($12). The thick filet was seared rare, with a perfectly thin crust around deliciously tender, juicy meat.

We also shared the kitchen's risi e bisi ($12)—Arborio rice (the kind used to make risotto) and fresh peas with diced prosciutto cotto (Italian ham) and topped with shaved Parmesan and Alfredo sauce. This was a rich, creamy casserole that alternated between sweet and salty.

The house-made rigatoni salsiccia ($13) was a terrific entrée of complementing flavors. Served in a large portion, the tube-shaped pasta was stuffed with homemade Italian sausage, broccoli, porcini mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes in a tomato cream sauce. Its flavors seemed to intensify when reheated the next day.

This is the type of heavy entree that plays well in winter but would be out of the question during the heat of summer.

We also enjoyed the kitchen's spaghetti allo scoglio ($17), a seafood lovers delight that arrived in an equally generous serving. Sauteed in olive oil and garlic, the spaghetti was mixed with octopus, Manila clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp and swordfish in a white wine tomato-basil sauce. We marveled at the flavor, and our server mentioned that the seafood is shipped fresh to the restaurant three times per week.

He also tried to sell us on the kitchen's tiramisu for dessert, which he assured us was made in-house, along with cannoli and creme brulee. Other desserts—not homemade—include spumoni ice cream and profiterols, or cream puffs. But after such a filling meal, we had no room for more.

You don't see a lot of Italian-American restaurants popping up these days. Most of Madison's newest restaurants serve Korean, Indian or Peruvian cuisine. But Nonno's will be a welcome addition to the city's roster of good restaurants. We're guessing that its west-side location is going to be a very significant advantage in a highly competitive market.

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