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Gazette restaurant reviewer Bill Livick enjoyed this sweet pepper pizza he and a friend ordered during a recent visit to Naples 15 in downtown Madison.

MADISON

It seemed at first as if we’d chosen the wrong night to visit Naples 15, a fine-dining Italian restaurant that has been operating a few blocks east of the Capitol building since 2011.

Apparently, the Friday of our visit was some sort of family night at UW-Madison, and the attractive, upscale dining room was filled to capacity. It was so full that, despite having a reservation, our group of four had only two menus from which to order. And when a server brought complementary flatbread to the table while we studied the menus, there was just a sliver for each of us.

But just about everything else at Naples 15 was a success. The food was terrific and so was the service—despite the fact diners were squeezed into the room like Sardinians.

A highlight was when owner/chef Salvatore Di Scala made his usual appearance in the dining room. (He typically greets diners after meals to make sure everything was to their satisfaction, a server said.)

The room was too crowded for Di Scala to visit each table, but he made a big scene by using a large kitchen knife to dramatically slash the corks from a couple of champagne bottles (definitely do not try this at home) to help celebrate two birthdays. Glasses of bubbly were then passed out to everyone in the room.

The cordial chef hails from the city of Naples in southern Italy. As a young man, Di Scala studied at UW-Madison and was a member of the university boxing team. He returned a few decades later to open his restaurant, using recipes gleaned from his mother and aunt, who also taught him classic culinary skills. And he boasts about learning the art of making traditional Neapolitan pizza from “one of the greatest pizza masters in Italy.”

Naples 15 takes its name from Di Scala’s hometown, its address on North Butler Street and also from the 15 types of Neapolitan pizza on the menu. Most feature San Marzano tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil and a crust that is soft and puffy near the center and slightly blistered and crispy along the edges.

But pizza is only a jumping-off point on the menu. The kitchen also turns out wonderful appetizers, salads, vegetarian entrees and other entrees built around meat, chicken and seafood.

Of course, fine Italian pastas and cheeses are the common denominator in most entrees, which range from about $20 to $60.

There are also nightly specials such as burrata ($15.95), a solid ball of mozzarella that envelops cream and stracciatella, a soft buffalo cheese. The dish includes prosciutto, arugula and cherry tomato, but it’s the mix of cheeses and cream that make this plate stand out.

The restaurant features a small bar with lots of Italian wines and a comfortable, dimly-lit dining room with white linen tablecloths, floor tiles sketched with images of dancing peasants, wall murals and a brick fireplace. A wood-burning brick oven in the kitchen turns out the restaurant’s fantastic pizzas.

A friend and I shared a sweet pepper pie ($16.95) that was deliciously simple—San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, sweet red peppers, carrots and salty black olives with a dusting of pecorino cheese, all resting on that irresistible crust.

The restaurant’s signature salad, Naples 15 ($10.95), is a refreshing mix of spinach, orange and strawberries with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, topped with authentic Parmesan cheese from Italy’s Reggio region (or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese). The Caprese salad ($15.95) is an Italian classic: fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, basil and olive oil. It’s a great and healthy salad, but we felt its price was rather inflated.

A friend was impressed with the kitchen’s rigatoni all Salvatore ($34.95), a plate that combines rigatoni pasta with gamey Neapolitan sausage that is made in-house, porcini mushrooms, garlic, shallots, red peppers, oregano, rosemary, extra virgin olive oil, mozzarella and white truffle oil. Imported from Naples, the pasta was perfectly al dente, and the subtle interplay of flavors was remarkable.

A plate of linguini with seafood ($24.95) also got high marks for flavor: seared scallops, clams, shrimp and mussels are deliciously mixed with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, pasta and lemon.

The food is mostly outstanding, and the staff and servers at Naples 15 exude friendliness and professionalism. Our server got a bit behind in minor ways (such as promptly refilling water glasses) but maintained a helpful, welcoming attitude while toiling in a loud and crowded environment. A bartender told me she had been on the job only 13 days but loves working there because the staff and owners “are like family.”

Naples 15 is pricey, but it’s also a fine place for a special meal and a good time whether it’s a family event, a first date or an anniversary.

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

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