Traditional Italian deli does not disappoint

Gino's Italian Deli
Gino’s Italian Deli in Middleton

When I think of an Italian deli I think of hot beef, meatball subs and cannolis. And that’s exactly what I got at Gino’s when my parents and I grabbed lunch there a couple weeks ago. I had stopped in before and gotten Italian sausage and some pasta salad, but this time I wanted to go all out. Gino’s isn’t a fancy place to eat (the Middleton store only has a couple small tables behind some room dividers), but it is the perfect place to grab a good sub and take it to go.

Gino's meatball sub
Gino’s meatball sub

I got the large meatball sandwich, and probably should have gotten the small size. The large size seemed about the same size as a footlong sub at Subway. The bread was super fresh, with a crusty outside and a fluffy inside. The sauce was chunky and had a good level of salty flavor without overwhelming the tomatoes. The meatballs were also perfectly flavored and the perfect size for the bread. I’ve seen people each meatball subs from other places and everything falls out all over the wrapper, but Gino’s crusty bread was the perfect vehicle for the Italian-spiced meatballs and the zesty tomato sauce. It wasn’t a napkin-less sandwich experience, but I didn’t lose any of my filling to the table.

Gino's hot beef sub
Gino’s hot beef sub

My dad got the hot Italian beef sandwich. It came on the same super crusty bread, and was filled with a substantial amount of Italian beef. The super tender and perfectly seasoned hot beef came piled high with just the right amount of hot beef juices to soften up the crusty bread. The provolone cheese was a great addition, but it could have also used some spicy peppers.

Gino's roast beef sub
Gino’s roast beef sub

My mom got the concerts beef sub with sliced roast beef, lettuce and horseradish mayo. This sandwich was much lighter than the other two, but it was still extremely good. The roast beef was tender and lean, and the horseradish mayo added a great kick. The cold sandwiches don’t come on the super good crusty bread that the hot sandwiches come on, but the wheat bread was still pretty good in it’s own way.

Gino's cannolis
Gino’s cannolis

The day we went there was a little sign on the top of the counter saying they had homemade cannolis. So of course we got three. They were traditional cannolis, but they were not exceptional. The filling was the perfect balance of sweet and savory, but instead of putting pistachios on the end they put chunks of maraschino cherries. I didn’t love the cherries in place of the nuts, but they weren’t terrible. I liked the cannolis, but they weren’t the best I’ve ever had.

Gino's subs
Gino’s subs

FOOD NOTES: Gino’s Deli definitely serves up quality Italian subs. The meatball sub was the perfect combination of crusty bread, zesty tomato sauce and amazing meatballs. The hot beef and roast beef subs were also extremely good, but not good enough to deter me from getting the meatball sub whenever I go back.  The prices are reasonable for the quality of the ingredients and the size of the portions you get at Gino’s. If you don’t mind not getting a ton of ingredients I would definitely suggest going to Gino’s instead of any other sub shops in town.

Go with baked goods over lunch at Hazelnut Cafe

Hazelnut Cafe
Hazelnut Cafe

There are dozens of cafes with great food littered around Madison, and I’ve been to and love many of them. But sometimes these little cafes think they are one-of-a-kind and better than all of the other neighborhood, organic, local, or artisan (or any other one-word description that particular cafe wants to use) cafes. Some of these little cafes are unique, but most of them are exactly the same. That doesn’t mean their food isn’t quality, but it does mean I probably won’t be back. One of these not-so-one-of-a-kind cafes I recently tried is way out in Blue Mounds. It’s the Hazelnut Cafe where the croissant is supposedly as good as ones from France, and they claim they can’t make enough molasses cookies and are pioneers in using sourdough crusts on their pizzas (hmmm…those are some lofty statements).

Hazelnut Cafe counter
Hazelnut Cafe counter

I don’t know much about Blue Mounds, but from what I saw on my visit there’s not much out there. The Hazelnut Cafe seems to be right in their “downtown,” and is just a tiny little building with a half dozen tables. They use a wood-burning oven to bake all of their bread and pastries, and to make pizzas, which smells great when you walk in.

Hazelnut Cafe sesame loaf
Hazelnut Cafe sesame loaf
sesame loaf, tomato marmalade
sesame loaf, tomato marmalade
Hazelnut Cafe bread, tomato marmalade
Hazelnut Cafe bread, tomato marmalade

We got to try a loaf of the sesame bread with some housemade tomato marmalade. The bread was super fresh with a good, not too hard, not too soft crust and a fluffy center. The tomato marmalade was not my cup of tea. It was chunks of tomato in a sweet jelly that had some sort of warm spice, like cinnamon or nutmeg, in it. I was not a fan of the odd combination of the savory tomatoes and the sweet jelly with a little bit of that spice.

Hazelnut Cafe Bianca pizza
Hazelnut Cafe Bianca pizza

They serve sandwiches and salads, but they said their specialty is their pizzas made with sourdough crusts. We opted for the Bianca pizza that comes with mozzarella, parmesan, garlic and grape see oil on one of their sourdough crusts and cooked in their wood-burning oven. It was super simple, and had the potential to be extremely good, but had some problems. I thought it was, I can’t believe I’m saying this, too garlicky. I love garlic, but the huge slices weren’t spread out enough so I’d get one big bit of garlic and then three bites without any garlic. It would benefit the pizza a great deal if they minced the garlic and spread it around the pizza. I also thought it was a bit dry. With that type of pizza not being served with any sauce, it could have used a little more of the grape seed oil to cut through the cheese and crust. And I really couldn’t tell that the crust was sourdough, so that’s not a selling point for me.

Hazelnut Cafe molasses cookie
Hazelnut Cafe molasses cookie

We also got to try one of their molasses cookies, which they said sell almost as fast as they can make them. Molasses cookies are my favorite, so I might be biased but that cookie was the best part of our meal at Hazelnut. It was the perfect combination of crusty and soft, and had the right amount of sweetness combined with a strong molasses flavor. And it was big enough to share or to munch on for a couple hours. I absolutely loved it.

Hazelnut Cafe pastries
Hazelnut Cafe pastries

Throughout our lunchtime visit, their pastries had been in view the entire time so as we were leaving I had to buy one of their almond croissants. I love almond croissants. They are usually crusty, sweet and nutty with powdered sugar on top, and this one did not disappoint. It was not too sweet and was baked to a perfect crusty crunch. My most common complaint about croissants is that they are too dry, but this one was extra buttery and seemed to have more of the sweet almond filling than others I’ve had.

Hazelnut Cafe almond croissant
Hazelnut Cafe almond croissant

FOOD NOTES: We got a tour of the kitchen to see the wood-burning oven and look at the fresh baked bread and cookies. So I have a different perspective than other diners, but my biggest concern about the Hazelnut Cafe is the cleanliness of the prep and cooking area. When we were there, flies were landing on loaves of bread left and right, and there didn’t seem to be proper methods for food storage, hand washing or prep surface cleaning. Now despite knowing all of this, I would go back for a cookie or croissant. I wouldn’t bother with the bread, because it wasn’t anything unique and the pizza needs some adjustments. Also, after looking at their sandwich and salad options I would say they probably aren’t worth the trek out to Blue Mounds or the price.

There really isn’t anything better than an old-school steakhouse

Main Street entrance
Main Street entrance
Bar entrance on Main Street
Bar entrance on Main Street

Madison has a lot of food events to promote restaurants, like Taste of Madison and Restaurant Week, but one restaurant sticks out in my mind as never participating in any of it: Tornado Steakhouse. Tornado is this elusive restaurant on the south side of the outer-capitol square (which is kind of the opposite side of where all of the other foodie restaurants are). Not a lot of people talk about Tornado, but a lot of people do go there so I could never figure out why it was never part of the foodie buzz in Madison. Well, I think I figured it out. Madison foodies are very into new, experimental, modern things, and the Tornado is none of those things. It is 100 percent a traditional steakhouse done exceptionally well.

Hamilton Street entrance
Hamilton Street entrance
Hamilton Street sign
Hamilton Street sign

It is technically located on South Hamilton Street, but there’s also an entrance on West Main Street. The Main Street entrance brings you through a cramped bar featuring a couple round leather booths straight out of the 50s. The Hamilton Entrance takes you up a couple steps, past the secret entrance to their late-night bar the Corral Room (I hear it is straight out of Mad Men) and into the main dining room area. I’m not sure exactly how many dining rooms there are throughout the steakhouse, but I saw at least three on the way to the one we were seated in. All of them were bordered in dark wood paneling, and were sparsely lit by old-school sconces.

bread plate
bread plate
tornado relish
relish “tray”

As if the portions we were soon to order wouldn’t be enough, we were given a bread basket and a relish tray. The bread basket had a biscuit, a crunchy long breadstick and a small loaf of bread. The biscuit was buttery, fluffy, moist and very good. The breadstick had a good flavor, but was kind of hard. We saved the loaf for last because we had high hopes for a small warm loaf of yummy bread, but it was super hard, not very good and kind of disappointing. The relish tray was not actually served on a tray. It came in an iced beer mug and had a pickle, some celery and carrots and a skewer with a radish, cucumber slice, cherry tomato and olives. It was a traditional relish tray, but I love the simplicity of a relish tray!

Caesar salad
Caesar salad
spinach salad
spinach salad

Every entree comes with a salad to start with. It sounds like you’re going to get a side salad, but it is a massive serving. Both the Caesar and spinach salads we ordered were double the size we were expecting. My Caesar salad had fresh romaine and a nice portion of parmesan cheese on top. The dressing wasn’t too overwhelming, but I did not eat the whole anchovy filet that was on top of my greens. The spinach salad my mom ordered came with a vinaigrette that was very tangy and yummy.

New York strip steak with hashbrowns
New York strip steak with hashbrowns

Now on to the entrees. They offer seafood, chicken and other random protein options (venison, rabbit, lamb), but both of us were obviously going to order steak in a steakhouse like this. I got the 16 oz. New York Strip Steak, and for a person watching portion sizes a 16 0z. steak is just a little more than four servings of steak. I ordered it medium rare. This steak was the most perfectly cooked, perfectly charred and perfectly flavored steak I have ever had. They really know what they’re doing at Tornado! The 16 oz. sirloin my mom ordered was exactly the same.

sirloin steak with steak fries
sirloin steak with steak fries

All of the steaks come with a single onion ring on top. The batter was very heavy, and lacked some necessary salt to balance it out. I got hash browns with my steak. They were crispy, hot and well seasoned, but compared to the steak they were nothing special. I thought for the caliber of steakhouse Tornado is, they would serve them with sauteed mushrooms and onions or something like that. My mom got the steak fries with her steak. They were not greasy and tasted baked rather than fried, but again they were overshadowed by her steak.

FOOD NOTES: Despite the disappointing loaf of mini bread and the not-so-special potatoes served alongside our steaks, Tornado served up the best steak I have ever had. A lot of restaurants my parents and grandparents took me to as a kid had relish trays, and I really like when restaurants offer them…it is just so simple! The service was good throughout our meal, but there were multiple people doing multiple things throughout the dining room, not sure one dedicated server. The menu definitely gave us sticker shock when we first decided to go, but based on the fact that we each brought home another two servings of steak and one extra serving of potatoes as leftovers…the price doesn’t seem as astronomical. The prices are high, but not nearly as outrageous once you see the portions (especially if you exercise portion control and save some for another meal). Basically, my meal was $35, which sounds really high but I had another full meal of steak and hash browns, plus another meal of steak…so in my mind that breaks down to $2o for the initial Tornado meal (with the relish tray, bread and salad), $10 for the second at-home leftover meal and $5 for the third portion of steak. Doesn’t sound as bad does it!

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.