The funny thing about dark horses is they never tend to stay that way for long: They either race to unexpected victory and become something else altogether, or they fall short and fade away, leaving us to wonder what all the hype was about in the first place.
The fate of DarkHorse, the restaurant venture by Patrick DePula and chef Jed Spink that opened earlier this year in the East Washington Avenue corridor space that used to house chef Tory Miller’s Sujeo, is still very much in flux.
DePula and Spink recently announced DarkHorse will change its name to become the fourth location in DePula’s uber-popular Salvatore’s Tomato Pies empire. But while it’s now possible to get your Salvatore’s sauce-spiraled favorites (we continue to be especially partial to the meat-centric Fat Uncle Tony pie) in two locations within three blocks of each other, you also can still get Spink’s DarkHorse menu items at the Livingston location, too.
That distinction sets this location well apart from the other members of the Salvatore’s family on Johnson Street in Madison, in Sun Prairie, and now in Monona on the strip-mall site of the late lamented Pizza Oven. Given the tiny Johnson street location has been reduced to takeout and delivery only, the Livingston location covers the gap for those craving the joy of eating on-site.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the former DarkHorse isn’t currently offering indoor seating, but the restaurant’s airy patio space—located largely on the Livingston Street side—is open for alfresco dining. The tables are appropriately spaced for social distancing, and all staffers are masked whether they’re waiting on your table or handing you a curbside takeout bag from the host station.
It’s easy to imagine the space bustling on a balmy summer night in a world where the most recent orders from the Dane County Public Health Department haven’t scaled back restaurant seating capacities to 25%. (Let’s wear our masks, people!) For the moment, it’s a quiet outdoor respite.
The food is a far more complex equation. Spink’s current, local-sourced summer seasonal menu mixes cuisines and largely defies expectations—and sometimes even menu descriptions—by couching serious ingredient curveballs that have a tendency to sneak up on you like a thoroughbred blazing up the outside track.
For instance, you will be lured in by the promise of the grilled peaches in the tantalizing 10-inch Ah-Peachiate pizza pie ($15), but you’ll find they are largely subsumed by the blue cheese and spiced honey camped atop the mozzarella base. That’s not a bad thing by any means: The tang of the blue cheese settles nicely with the sweetness of the caramelized onions and honey, making for a delicious tomato sauce-free experience.
The other location-specific pizza here mixes sage cream, lemon zest and prosciutto ($15), but you had better check ahead if you’re interested as there are nights this item is blacked off the menu.
Elsewhere, you would think the soft and tender bluegill that anchors the hefty po’ boy sandwich ($13) would lead the charge, but it is overshadowed by the bold and flavorful tomato remoulade with its fishy flavor ducking in only as a hinted afterthought.
A five-spice brisket dish features surprisingly large, flat chunks of meat that are somehow dwarfed by the ring-sized rigatoni that provide a pillowy platform for them. The entree dish is leavened by seaweed brown butter and a smooth, mushroom-based crème fraiche that ensures no part of the dish feels dry or overwhelming. All of the entrees, which we sampled through curbside takeout, traveled and presented perfectly.
The beet lovers among us will have found their (somewhat pricey) perfect soup-and-salad combo: a smoked beet gazpacho ($10) and a local beet salad ($12) sweetly spiced with ancho-chile-candied walnuts. Speaking of spice, Spink also rocks a set of Szechuan meatballs made from impossible beef ($15).
With the Salvatore’s menu of pizzas to keep fans happy and anchor the business end of things, Spink should be free to experiment to his heart’s content as the seasons roll by. And that’s a long shot we’ll be happy to take any time.