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Gazette restaurant reviewer Bill Livick enjoyed this order of meatballs during a recent visit to Bar Corallini, 2004 Atwood Ave., Madison. The dish, served with house-made bread, featured sweet Italian sausage and ground beef along with garlic, basil and Parmigiano Reggiano.

MADISON

An Italian bistro that opened in May on the city’s near east side is offering handcrafted pasta and pizza along with classic Italian cocktails, appetizers and gelato.

The hip-looking Bar Corallini launched in a revamped building with entrances on both Atwood Avenue and Winnebago Street, replacing Chocolaterian. Its new look includes white walls, exposed brick and light wood along with a full bar and seating for diners and drinkers in one room. A second room with an entrance on Winnebago Street overlooks the kitchen and offers a quieter space for dining.

A friend and I visited Corallini on a Wednesday night, and by 5 p.m. it was already beginning to draw a crowd for happy hour.

Along with fancy cocktails, the bar offers a nice list of Italian wines and local craft beers that includes a citrusy IPA from Madison-based Working Draft ($7).

Servers and bartenders were friendly, helpful and energetic, but the food we ordered yielded mixed results. We liked most of what we had, including a nightly appetizer special, a pasta dish and a drink special (gin fizz topped with egg-yolk cream). But a second entrée, chicken piccata, was something of a letdown.

With seating for almost 100, the spacious bar-restaurant combo is part of the Madison-area Food Fight group and is run by chef Giovanni Novella, who borrowed recipes from his native Torre del Greco, Italy, for the new kitchen. Novella previously worked at two other Italian restaurants in Madison run by Food Fight: Fresco and Cento.

Corallini’s menu is big on appetizers, pizza and pasta. Its signature cocktails are also a highlight, and desserts are well represented, as well.

A server noted the pizzas, which are cooked in a brick oven imported from Italy, are the kitchen’s most popular items. We were tempted to go with her recommendation, but pizza on a hot summer evening didn’t hold a lot of appeal.

Instead, our meal got off to a rousing start with the $9 cocktail, followed by five spicy meatballs in marinara served with house-made bread. The meatballs consisted of sweet Italian sausage and ground beef along with ample amounts of garlic and basil and a dusting of Parmigiano Reggiano. My companion and I agreed we would return for happy hour and those meatballs any time.

We also liked the chef’s gnocchi alla Romana ($17)—custard-like squares of gnocchi cooked with porcini mushroom cream, truffle oil and sprinkled with the same Parmigiano Reggiano.

A server warned us not to think of traditional gnocchi, lest we be disappointed. Instead, this gnocchi was made from semolina and had a sort of custard-like consistency. We loved the flavor, which was dominated by porcini mushrooms and the Italian cheese, and we didn’t mind the nontraditional approach.

The other main course item, chicken piccata ($22), was tasty but dry with a heavy breading that did little for the flattened chicken breast. It was prepared with lemon white wine sauce and served with capers and an arugula salad. The wine sauce was difficult to detect—as were the capers. In the end, the plate amounted to a dry, largely flavorless piece of breaded meat that was also hard to chew.

On future visits, we plan to check out the kitchen’s octopus salad (which comes with blanched potatoes, green olives, capers, celery, parsley and olive oil), some of the pasta plates (eight are offered) and pizza. Vegetarians will be drawn to the antipasto portion of the menu for several interesting salad options.

Or perhaps we’ll return for cocktails and dessert, which includes the classics: gelato ($5), sorbet ($5), tiramisu ($7) and cannoli ($4). It’s pretty hard to go wrong with those choices.

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

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