Nonno’s Ristorante Italiano is definitely a NO NO

Nonno’s Ristorante Italiano opened last December in a spot on Whitney Way that used to be a Mexican restaurant. I’m not sure why the Mexican restaurant closed, but I never ate there and I never heard anything good about it. But I had heard some decent things about Nonno’s after it opened. I figured lunch would be good opportunity to try it, because hopefully it wouldn’t be too busy and the prices would be lower.

The decor at Nonno’s feels a little strange. S0me of the dining room is brightly colored, and basically seems like they didn’t paint after the Mexican restaurant closed. There are booths by the windows with big built-up archways that make the rest of the dinning room super dark.

Nonno's bread

Nonno’s bread

They brought out a basket of hot bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip it in. It was an odd type of bread, that basically had the consistency of thick, super soft breadsticks. The olive oil and vinegar was nothing special, but the bread with the mixture was a nice touch.

Nonno's farfelle rustico

Nonno’s farfelle rustico

I ordered the farfelle rustico ($10), which is bow tie pasta with olive oil, garlic, grilled chicken, mushrooms, peas, onions, bell peppers, parmesan cheese and white wine. The pasta came out super fast and was extremely hot, but it cooled down so fast that it made me think it was microwaved. The sauce was light, but had absolutely zero flavor (I didn’t taste the garlic mentioned on the menu). The noodles tasted like they were out of a box, so if they were homemade they were done super poorly. Some of the noodles on the menu say they are homemade, but the farfelle does not say that. The chicken was OK…not amazing, but not super processed. It was probably taken out of a package precooked and they just reheated it. There were a couple chunks of mushrooms and a couple peas, definitely not enough to make them a substantial part of the dish. The bell peppers and onions were just as sparse. The portion size was pretty decent (I took enough home for lunch the next day), but the quality of the product wasn’t great.

FOOD NOTES: The decor and location of Nonno’s is a bit off. The prices weren’t bad for the portion sizes, but they were a bit high for the quality of the product (microwaved pasta?). I was very unimpressed with the noodles and the processed chicken, but the flavorless sauce and lack of veggies listed on the menu put me over the edge. I will probably not be going back to Nonno’s.

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Villa Dolce: Fantastic food highlighted by truly amazing pizza

 

Villa Dolce

Villa Dolce

 

Villa Dolce

Villa Dolce

I’ve been driving past a house turned into a restaurant for three years and never stopped in because the menu never made an impression on me, and online reviews didn’t thrill me. Well that was probably one of the biggest food mistakes I’ve made in awhile. The chic pizza bar and Italian restaurant Villa Dolce is a hidden gem in downtown Middleton that serves up great Italian-inspired dishes and amazing pizza.

Villa Dolce seating

Villa Dolce seating

Villa Dolce seating

Villa Dolce seating

The building that houses Villa Dolce used to be a house before it was turned into a restaurant, and the owners really used that to their advantage. They use every inch of that building and have great nooks and crannies with different table setups. I loved the warm, inviting decor and the modern lighting elements. The inside of Villa Dolce was definitely surprising after looking at the outside for so long. For lunch, they do counter service and bring your order to your table. For dinner they do normal restaurant service. The menu is huge but my friend Michelle Li and I got to try some really amazing options.

sausage sliders

sausage sliders

First we tried their artisan sausages, which are their specially-made beef and lamb sausages, grilled and served on a small crostini with feta cheese, a piece of cucumber and cherry tomatoes on top. It also comes with a garlic aioli for dipping. The sausage was a great balance of the beef and lamb, but the fresh ingredients on top really made the dish. The feta added a great tanginess to the heavy sausage, and the cucumber and tomato balanced the whole dish out. I usually love garlic aioli, but these sausages were so good I never even tried their aioli; they didn’t need it!

antipasto platter

antipasto platter

The antipasto platter that was delivered to our table was almost too pretty to eat. ALMOST! There was a ton of different ingredients on the beautifully laid out tray. It came with roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella, olives, marinated artichoke hearts, prosciutto, soprosata, marinated onions, pesto and fontina cheese. Everything went very well together. My favorites were the soprosata with the fontina cheese, because the meat had a good spice that was perfectly complemented by the creamy cheese. 

Michelle Li at Villa Dolce

Michelle Li at Villa Dolce

antipasto platter, summer salad

antipasto platter, summer salad

Their summer salad is a super creative way to serve up a fresh, healthy, flavorful salad. It is salmon, beets, walnuts, farro, strawberries and quinoa served on a bed of shredded kale. It comes with a perfectly tangy balsamic dressing. I don’t think I could pass up some other super amazing options on the menu for this salad, but if you’re looking for a very flavorful, healthy option, this salad is it.

arugula and prosciutto pizza

arugula and prosciutto pizza

The best part of our meal was 100 percent the prosciutto and arugula pizza. I’m not the biggest fan of pizza and usually opt for something healthier and lighter when I go out to eat, but this pizza is something special. It comes with a three cheese blend and prosciutto topped with arugula, oven dried tomatoes and an aged balsamic glaze. First, it’s a beautiful pizza. It is super simple and the ingredients are super fresh. The light, crispy crust was the perfect base for the rich prosciutto, peppery arugula and tangy tomatoes. The cheese and balsamic glaze took the pizza over the top and makes it my favorite pizza to date. There’s no tomato sauce, there’s no heavy crust, and there’s no grease. This pizza is what I imagine pizza to be like in Italy, and is the type of pizza I actually enjoy!

gelatini

gelatini

Villa Dolce also has some pretty spectacular desserts on their menu including homemade tiramisu, creme brulee, Nutella crepes and gelato, but we got to sample a gelatini. Gelatinis are beautiful dessert martinis made with gelato. I took a sip and trust me, they taste stronger than they look!

gelato case

gelato case

dessert case

dessert case

FOOD NOTES: The worst part about going to Villa Dolce was that I realized that I had been missing out on some amazing food less than a block from my apartment for almost three years! The antipasto platter was amazing and would be a great starter for a small group to chat over while waiting for the rest of the amazing food to come. Their new summer salad was super creative and had great flavors for being so healthy, but nowhere near good enough to pass up the prosciutto and arugula pizza for. There’s a reason I usually don’t like pizza. It’s because most pizza isn’t good. Villa Dolce’s pizza was the first truly good pizza I’ve ever had. I can’t say enough good things about that amazing pizza. Word to the wise: be smarter than I was and save room for dessert!

Quality fried chicken hidden in sketchy strip mall

Harold's Chicken Shack

Harold’s Chicken Shack

I have a soft spot for fried chicken. I’m not sure why, because my family didn’t eat it a lot and it’s not something either of my grandmothers ever made for me, but there’s something special about a good crispy fried piece of chicken. And when you pair it with good french fries and coleslaw…comfort food just doesn’t get any better than that. I’ve had some decent fried chicken in Madison, but probably nothing compared to good down-home southern fried chicken. I’m not sure if Harold’s Chicken Shack is the best fried chicken, but it sure is good.

Harold's Chicken Shack

Harold’s Chicken Shack

First I have to start with the location and the rumors. Harold’s Chicken Shack is in the middle of a rundown strip mall by Woodman’s on the west side. I’ve driven past it probably thousands of times, but couldn’t get up the courage to go in because of what I’d heard about it. Many reviewers say the food is good, but there’s a rude guy who sits right by the door and tries to sell you DVDs, and they say people who work there aren’t very nice. When I finally decided to try it out, I was not surprised by the small, slightly dingy restaurant when I walked in. However, I was surprised by how nice the two people behind the counter were. Almost every review online said no one was nice and they felt more like they were bothering them than appreciated customers. I had the exact opposite experience. Both people were super nice and explained the 1/4 and 1/2 chicken dinners to me.

Harold's Chicken Shack to-go

Harold’s Chicken Shack to-go

I do recommend ordering ahead of time, because even after I ordered over the phone and came in 15 minutes later I still had to wait 5 minutes. But that wait is good, because it means my food was being cooked to order and was extremely fresh. Their menu is pretty basic. They have fried chicken, fries, fried catfish and chicken wings.

Harold's Chicken Shack 1/4 chicken meal

Harold’s Chicken Shack 1/4 chicken meal

I opted for the quarter breast meal, which comes with a fried breast and wing, french fries and coleslaw for $5.99. It also comes with two pieces of bread at the bottom of the cardboard container the food comes in, but I did not eat them. The coleslaw was good but the portion size was extremely tiny. The french fries weren’t the best I’ve ever had, but they were hot and fluffy on the inside, and were seasoned with a good amount of salt and pepper. Th chicken was the highlight of the meal, which is what I’d expect from a chicken shack. It was hot and juicy on the inside, and crispy on the outside. The best part of the fried chicken was that the batter was filled with black pepper. Harold’s Chicken Shack definitely uses black pepper a lot and knows how to do it well. I love black pepper so I really liked the fried chicken batter.

Harold's Chicken Shack

Harold’s Chicken Shack

FOOD NOTES: I needed to look past the sketchy strip mall and reviews of rude employees, and so do you. The chicken was stellar and the sides were definitely quality. Everything could definitely be improved, like a bigger serving of the coleslaw, but the prices 100 percent make up for that. There’s nothing quite like cheap food done well. Make sure you order ahead of time and give them about 20 minutes to complete your order. I’ll definitely be back for their perfectly peppery fried chicken and french fries!

Los Gemelos’ Mexican fare cannot compare to Taqueria Guadalajara

Tienda y Taqueria Los Gemelos

Tienda y Taqueria Los Gemelos

I have posted before about my quest to find good Mexican food that is as close to authentic as you can get in Madison. A couple months ago my quest ended in the dining room at Taqueria Guadalajara, but I had heard some really great things about Taqueria Los Gemelos on Odana, so I couldn’t pass it up. The combination Mexican grocery store and restaurant is hidden away in a junky strip mall on Odana Road. Based on the size of the strip mall and the grocery store I was expecting a super small restaurant, but it was actually massive. If I had to guess how many tables there are I would say more than 20.

We got there right around lunch time and there were plenty of tables open, but we had no idea what to do when we walked in. There is a small counter where everyone ignored us. There were also wait staff walking around who completely ignored us. Finally, after standing in the doorway for a couple minutes I asked one of the wait staff if we should sit or wait to be seated, and she told us we could sit wherever. Once we were at a table they brought us a basket of chips, guacamole and two salsas in squeeze bottles. The green one had a lot of cilantro in it and not much other flavor. WARNING! WARNING! The red bottle has super hot salsa. I tried a little on a chip and didn’t get any heat at all, so I squeezed a bunch more on the next chip and had quite an interesting next couple of minutes, which was made worse by the fact that we hadn’t gotten any water yet. Besides the ridiculous heat, the runny red salsa also didn’t have a lot of flavor. I know that sounds weird…it was super spicy but didn’t have any flavor? I’m a true believer that a sauce or salsa can be spicy and also have good flavor. What’s the point in having a salsa that is pure overpowering heat without some good pepper, vinegar or garlic flavor. Also, the “guacamole” they serve is the farthest thing from guacamole I’ve had in a while. It was flavorless and super runny. It’s like they mix it with something to stretch their avocado. I was really not impressed by it. I would rather have to pay a couple dollars for quality guacamole (like the kind at La Mestiza across the street) than be given this crap.

gemelos chips and salsa

Los Gemelos salsa, guacamole, chips

The menu was the first warning sign that the food wouldn’t be too great. There are pictures all over the menu and every time I see picture menus I think of IHOP, Denny’s and Perkin’s. In my experience, places with pictures of their food on their menu don’t tend to have great food. The second warning sign that this wasn’t going to be quality authentic Mexican food was that they didn’t have tongue or tripe on the menu (not that I would try tripe, but tongue has become one of my favorite Mexican meat options).

Los Gemelos menu

Los Gemelos menu

After scouring the decent-sized menu I opted for two smaller dishes. First I got a tostada, which comes with your choice of meat with Mexican cheese, lettuce, avocado, tomato and mayo. I also got a sope, which comes with your choice of meat, Mexican fresh cheese, lettuce, avocado and tomato. They are very similar dishes, but the sope comes on an oval corn tortilla that is thicker and soft, and the tostada comes on a very thin and crunchy corn tortilla.

Los Gemelos chicken sope, beef tostada

Los Gemelos chicken sope, beef tostada

I got a beef tostada, and it was super hard to eat. My first bite sent most of the toppings flying all over the place and the rest of the tostada shattered. The beef was tender, but was completely flavorless. The Mexican cheese and tomatoes were standard, but the avocado was fresh. I got a chicken sope, which was basically the same as the tostada as far as toppings go, but the soft corn base made it 100 percent easier to eat. The chicken was fine, but not great and the rest of the toppings were the same as the tostada. The best part of what I ordered (and this was also one of the reasons I ordered what I did) was the avocado on top of both dishes. Avocado makes everything better! Everything was good, and exponentially better than Tex-Mex restaurants in the area, but not nearly as good as Taqueria Guadalajara.

Los Gemelos dining room

Los Gemelos dining room

FOOD NOTES: Basically, I went in comparing Los Gemelos to Taqueria Guadalajara and it failed every comparison test. The food was not as good, the service was awful (did I mention once I did get my tiny water cup it was never filled again?) and the restaurant was kitschy and a little dirty. But, if I were to compare their food to Laredo’s or Tex Tubb’s or Abuelo’s on the merits of authentic Mexican food it would win hands down. There was nothing wrong with the food, it just gets beaten out by a better competitor. I wish the food was better because the prices are great and the location is better for me than Taqueria Guadalajara on Park Street. Simple review: As long as Taqueria Guadalajara is open, I won’t be going to Los Gemelos.

Alchemy makes up for Friday nights without sweet potato fries with mind-blowing sandwich

Alchemy

Alchemy

I have been trying to eat at the Alchemy at the north end of Atwood Avenue for a couple years now, but because they don’t take reservations the wait time was always 30 minutes or more, and during previous visits that didn’t work with our plans or our stomachs. This time, I decided I had waited long enough to try their lauded sweet potato fries so we waited the 30 minutes or so for a table. The restaurant itself is smaller than I think it should be, considering how long their wait times usually are, and it is extremely crowded with nowhere to wait for a table except directly in front of the door, in the main walkway for servers, basically on top of a full table or right next to the ATM. Oh yeah…they have an ATM in the restaurant because they only take cash. While I understand that credit card machines and fees are expensive, I think that in 2014 all businesses should take plastic, especially with so many options to take them via a smartphone or tablet. Usually a restaurant looses my business if they don’t take plastic, but we awkwardly waited by the ATM for our table anyways — luckily I had cash with me!

I already knew I wanted to order the house-made sweet potato fries so when our menu didn’t have them listed I was super confused. When I asked the waitress she explained (in an annoyed tone) that they don’t serve the sweet potato fries after 5 p.m. on Fridays. What!?? How does that make any sense!? I’m assuming it’s because they use their sweet potato fryer to make their fish fry, but that little tidbit of information is not posted online anywhere, and it really doesn’t make any sense at all. Why can’t the sweet potato fries be fried in the same frier as normal fries, which we were able to readily get at 6:30 on a Friday night. Needless to say, I was very disappointed.

Alchemy brisket sandwich, fries

Alchemy brisket sandwich, fries

The only thing that could make up for my extreme disappointment in Alchemy’s odd business decision regarding their sweet potato fries would be a great meal. Well, they delivered. I ordered the brisket sandwich and the picture I have doesn’t do it justice. The description of ingredients is what got me. It says the beer braised brisket from Black Earth Meets comes with mustard BBQ sauce, a house made pickled egg, swiss cheese, mixed greens and red onion. I love every single one of those ingredients and especially love pickled eggs. I know, they sound absolutely disgusting but they are actually really great. They are very popular at bars in Wisconsin, yet I have never seen one on a sandwich anywhere. The sandwich came with a couple of side options, but of course I went for the Alchemy fries in hopes that they might resemble the sweet potato fries. The Alchemy fries were large chunks of potato cooked to a perfectly fluffy consistency, and were seasoned perfectly. I’m not sure if they were baked or fried, but if they were fried they weren’t greasy at all. The sandwich itself was a huge success. The soft, toasted bun could barely contain the serving of perfectly smokey and flavorful brisket on the sandwich. The mustard BBQ sauce helped cut through the heaviness of the brisket, but the real show-stopper of the sandwich was the sliced up pickled egg. That tangy, rich flavor really added a great contrasting flavor. The fresh greens and red onions added a much-needed freshness to the massive sandwich. I loved it. My one suggestion would be to add a bit more of the mustard BBQ sauce.

Alchemy menu

Alchemy menu

FOOD NOTES: Despite being very crowded and not taking reservations or credit cards, I loved my food at Alchemy. Their odd cessation of making sweet potato fries after 5 p.m. on Fridays really angered me, but the brisket sandwich made up for it very quickly. I’m going to say something bold: I haven’t had every sandwich in Madison, but the Alchemy’s brisket sandwich is the best one I’ve had so far and it is going to take a masterpiece to dethrone this sandwich. I will 100 percent be back for that sandwich, and one of these days I will get to try their sweet potato fries! What do you think the best sandwich in Madison is?