My experience with Italian food growing up included pasta from a box and sauce from a can, the famous blue-box mac and cheese, and something called “Italian ice” that probably isn’t actually Italian. I’ve tried to expand my exposure to real Italian food, but my options have been limited. That is…until Cento opened in downtown Madison. I had heard mixed reviews before my first trip at the end of April, but my pre-concert dinner with a friend was fantastic!
The smaller-than-I-expected dining room was simple and classic with a bar toward the front, a small party room in the back and a mix of wooden booths and tables. The kitchen and prep areas are mostly open to the dining room, and our server was attentive but not annoying. (Side note: the bathrooms are super cute!)
The menu is broken into appetizers, small plates, soups/salads, pizza and pasta. The pasta comes in two sizes, which means you can get three appetizers or small plates and a small pasta — which is what my friend and I did! We started with melon and prosciutto which is something I’ve never had. It was thinly-sliced prosciutto and honeydew melon with sliced cucumber, balsamic glaze and parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. This is not a dish that sounds good when you read the description, but the combination of the sweet, light melon and the salty prosciutto really works well together. The balsamic adds a much-needed kick of acidity, and if I’m being honest — I don’t even remember tasting any parmesan cheese over the other strong flavors on the plate.
The second appetizer/small plate we got was bacon wrapped dates. I usually avoid these at restaurants because they’re usually stuffed with goat cheese and I don’t like goat cheese. But these were stuffed with spicy sausage…and let me tell you, spicy sausage in a sweet date wrapped in bacon…it really couldn’t get better than that! The combination of spicy, salty and sweet was super good. More restaurants should stuff their bacon wrapped dates with spicy sausage instead of goat cheese!
The third appetizer/small plate we got was my favorite — and it’s not just because I first heard about them on the “Sopranos.” Arancinis are rice balls stuffed with cheese that are coated with breadcrumbs and then fried. They sound super boring, but they are great! Cheesey fried rice balls in marinara sauce — yum!
When deciding on an entree I went for pasta because I’m not a huge fan of pizza and the pasta are made fresh. I went with the pappardelle that comes with a “northern ragu.” I’m not sure what “northern” means but it was very rich and flavorful and the noodles were excellent. There’s something special about fresh pasta…it’s hard to describe, but once you’ve had it you know the difference. As much as I loved our starters…I liked my pasta better!
We weren’t going to get dessert, but the cheesecake sounded so good we couldn’t resist. Everything about the cheesecake was perfect, except the marmalade and the lemon sorbet. The cheesecake was rich and creamy. The crust was sweet and crumbly. The cream on top was light. The slices of orange added a great freshness and the crispy sugar was fun. The other two components of the dessert were unnecessary and slightly unpleasant. We completely ignored the thick orange marmalade and we probably should have done the same with the sorbet. It was extremely bitter…to the point that it was unpleasant to try and eat. But once those were pushed off to the side or scraped off…the cheesecake dessert was great!
FOOD NOTES: Cento is a great addition to the Food Fight network and to the downtown restaurant scene! Not only did we have a great time figuring out what all the authentic Italian stuff on the menu was, but we also had a great meal. The arancini are a must when ordering a starter and the bacon wrapped dates should also be considered. After finishing off our three starters I was so full…but my pasta was so good I couldn’t stop eating it! Fresh pasta is really one of the best things an Italian restaurant can do to set itself apart. Next time I want to try their burrata, cheese board and their potato gnocchi.