A Visit to Three Local Italian Restaurants for Dining in Madison, WI

Italian food is a mainstay and popular choice for dining out in cities around the country. Menu offerings range from classic bruschetta, old-style pizzas, fresh seafood entrees, and traditional pasta. In Madison, Wisconsin, the many locales to choose from can seem overwhelming. The following review of three Italian establishments provides a summary of the atmosphere, food quality, value, and overall experience. Enjoy!

Porta Bella
425 N. Frances Street, Madison, WI
(608) 256-3186

Background: Porta Bella is located in downtown Madison, minutes from the UW campus. A classic favorite, the restaurant is tastefully decorated with grapevines, antique-style fixtures, and beautiful wood floors for a traditional setting. A short walk behind the iron gate opens up to a beautiful Villa-style garden, and the two-storey space offers dining on the first floor, with a classic Wine Cellar and full-service bar below. The distinctive wine and microbrew menu also provide a great place to relax or enjoy an after-dinner wine or cocktail.

Dinner Experience:

Our meal began with the Hot Spicy Cheese Bread and Italian Stuffed Mushrooms as appetizers. The bread was comprised of a fresh French loaf topped with cheddar, mozzarella, and chili spices grilled to perfection and served with marinara sauce. The muschrooms were filled with a combination of meats and cheeses and served piping hot. Both were delicious, and the serving size was perfect for the oncoming meal.

Our two entrÃ?©e choices were the Old World Specialties of a Meat Filled Lasagna, and Chicken Marsala. Our server recommended the Meat Filled Lasagna as the restaurant’s classic dish, and we were eager to try it. The lasagna was incredible, with at least five layers of filling and a tasty sauce. The Chicken Marsala also proved to be a good choice, with an ample serving of spaghetti combined with the delicate cream sauce and sliced chicken breast. The Caeser salads accompanying our meals were a nice, fresh balance. Our server also recommended wine with dinner; we selected the Marco Fellgua Chardonnay for a medium-bodied white wine. The choice complemented both of our meals, and even paired well with our appetizers.

The dessert selection was beautiful, and we opted for the Cannoli and the restaurant’s signature chocolate dessert titled the Chocolate Nemesis. The cannoli tasted homemade, with just enough sweet ricotta cheese filling to satisfy. The Chocolate Nemesis was definitely the crowning jewel, as the dark chocolate flourless cake was perfectly balanced with fresh whipped cream and chocolate shavings. We settled for two cups of fresh decaffeinated coffee with dessert.

Overall: The entire experience contributed to a wonderful evening. The atmosphere is hospitable, accommodating,and the staff delivers a high level of customer service. The quality of food is excellent, and the chef-prepared meals arrived in a timely manner. The selections of both food and wine can seem daunting, but the staff is more than happy to make recommendations and offer suggestions. Prices range from $8-$28 for dinner entrees, and choices include steaks, seafood, and other specialty dishes. Overall, Porta Bella is an excellent dining destination for a special occasion, a more intimate dining experience, or just a place to relax after a long week.

Tutto Pasta
305 State Street, Madison, WI
(608) 294-1000

Background: Tutto Pasta Trattoria Bar & Caffe is located on State Street, minutes away from Madison’s acclaimed Overture Center. Classic Italian dishes range from pizza, veal, fish, and traditional homemade bread. Enjoy the multi-level seating options, as well as the servers outfitted in Italian soccer jerseys! Italian soccer plays on televisions daily in the bar area that overlooks State Street, and live music is a mainstay in the main dining area on weekends.

Dining Experience: For a casual and semi-upscale dinner, choose this location for a well-rounded meal. We started with the Frittura di Calamari (fried calamari) and a serving Mozzarella in Carrozza. The calamari was well cooked and plentiful, served with a spicy tomato sauce. The mozzarella appetizer was also deep fried and breaded, and served with a fresh tomato sauce instead. After appetizers, we opted to share a small Insalata Ellencia. This is Tutto Pasta’s version of a traditional Greek salad, complete with ripe Roma tomatoes, Kalamata olives, and feta cheese. I enjoyed the oregano vinaigrette dressing, and learned that it was made in house.

Entr�©e choices abound, as there is a large selection of pizza, pasta dishes with varying sauces, and complete meat dishes. The Pizza Bufalina was a nice choice composed of a thin crust pizza, fresh buffalo mozzarella, Kalamata olives, and sprinkled with oregano. It was large enough to share, and would have worked well as an appetizer. We also decided to split the signature Tutto Pasta. This trademark dish was composed of bowtie pasta, garlic, onions, mushrooms, grilled chicken breast, finished with Frascali wine and tossed in a tomato cream sauce. It was, and is, a classic dish and a definite winner. The Pollo ai Carciofi was another good find; this was chicken breast saut�©ed with mushrooms, bell peppers, artichoke hearts, all topped with a lemon caper sauce. We did not have room to finish the meal, and so requested our kind server to box up the remainder for lunch the next day!

Of course, we did save room for dessert. The dessert tray was bought out for us to visually admire the choices; the Tiramisu looked heavenly, as did the chocolate mousse cake. We chose one of each, and settled to share with an espresso.

Overall: The overall dining experience at Tutto Pasta was exceptional. The atmosphere is comfortable, enterataining, and in a classic setting. The extensive menu provides plenty of opportunity for flexibility and trying a new dish on each visit! The staff is knowledgeable and eager to please. You won’t be disappointed for lunch, dinner, or take out; reservations are recommended on weekends for this popular Madison hotspot.

Eno Vino
601 Junction Road, Middleton, WI
(608) 664-9565

Background: One of Madison’s newest additions, this wine bar and bistro serves a Mediterranean-Italian menu in an upscale setting. Choose to eat at the bar or at a dinner table beautifully decorated in dark wood. The atmosphere is chic, sophisticated, and comfortable. Lounge in the sofas with your favorite Martini and watch the chefs prepare fabulous plated appetizers behind the open kitchen. The wine menu boasts over 180 options, and the full bar features only the finest vodkas, gins, scotch, and liquor.

Dining Experience: To truly appreciate the bistro atmosphere, our party of four chose a bistro table and stools by the windows for the evening. Here we enjoyed prompt service from the cocktail server, and were able to browse the large “to share” dishes of the menu. Tapas-style encourages sharing, so we picked five different plates to sample from: Grilled Chicken Pizza; Crab and Cabbage Spring Rolls; the Assorted Cheese Plate; Grilled Petite Filet; and the Pancetta Wrapped Brick Roasted Quail. The Grilled Chicken Pizza was a homemade flatbread topped with goat cheese, grilled chicken, kalamata olives, and a spicy hummus dip on the side. It was an all-around favorite. The Crab and Cabbage Spring Rolls were also well received, served with an interesting garlic lime soy, and sweet chili sauce. The well-filled rolls tasted fresh and were seasoned with just the right amount of spices. The Cheese plate was slightly disappointing; served with a creamy fondue, the fruit and bread accompaniment was not enough to share between the four of us. The Grilled Petite Filet plate was a delicious assortment of meat, potato goat cheese, and grilled portabella. The Pancetta Wrapped Brick Roasted Quail was the highlight of the five; served with small potato fries, sun dried tomatoes, and a side of spinach, this dish bought forward the key flavors of the roasted quail and pancetta. After a round of signature martinis from the bar, we were ready to call it a night!

Overall: Although pricier than other Italian fare in the area, Eno Vino provides a completely new atmosphere and environment to the evening crowd. The eclectic, fusion menu is a unique experience that encourages tapas-style dining. The fine wine selection and attentive service are sure to please all parties, and the d�©cor and ambiance provide a city-chic flair. Overall, the food-quality was excellent and definitely worth a return visit.

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