Cento stands out with great starters, fresh pasta


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!)

Cento melon and prosciutto
Cento melon and prosciutto

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.

Cento bacon wrapped dates
Cento bacon wrapped dates

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!

Cento arancini
Cento arancini

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!

Cento pappardelle
Cento pappardelle

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!

Cento cheesecake
Cento cheesecake

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.

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.

Look past bad service to find amazing food at Pasta Nuovo

pasta nuovo menuPasta Nuovo took over the old Tutto Pasta spot in Middleton a couple months ago. I was kind of disappointed that my neighborhood was getting another Italian restaurant instead of a good Mexican restaurant or casual deli, but figured I should give it a chance. The inside was cozy and open, but it was a beautiful night so we sat outside on the patio. A restaurant definitely gets extra points with me when they have outdoor seating.

pasta nuovo bruschetta
Pasta Nuovo bruschetta

I want to start with the one reason I won’t be going back to Pasta Nuovo for a bit. The service here was awful. Our waiter was inattentive, arrogant and a little inappropriate. The other waiter serving on the patio filled our water glasses more than our waiter. Our appetizer and entrees were brought out by two different people other than our waiter. Our waiter spilled an entire bottle of beer on the woman behind us. He disappeared the entire time we were eating our entrees. He also told us about the two times he lost his credit card and had his identity stolen and how dumb he felt when that happened the second time. The cherry on the top of being a terrible waiter was when he condescendingly told me he would take care of my coupon after he didn’t take care of it the first two times I asked. The woman who brought out our appetizer and the other guy serving on the patio seemed like very nice and competent servers…maybe we just got the cream of the crop!

pasta nuovo bolognese
Pasta Nuovo pappardelle bolognese

I found a coupon for $10 off the purchase of an appetizer and two entrees so we started with the bruschetta. It came out on a large chunk of pizza dough, which was different than I have ever seen. The menu said it was topped with an heirloom tomato basil salad. The description was a little misleading because the stuff on top of our pizza crust was halved cherry tomatoes, a couple slices of basil and a ton of arugula. Everything was really fresh but the dish was definitely lacking in flavor. The flavorless pizza dough with cooked tomatoes and peppery arugula would really benefit from some balsamic vinegar and either mozzarella or Parmesan cheese. Also, the tomatoes were in such big pieces only one out of every two or three bites actually had tomato in it. Chopping the tomatoes up into smaller pieces would make it better.

pasta nuovo summer pasta
Pasta Nuovo tomato basil angel hair

They have a couple of non-pasta options for entrees but since they make the pasta in house I don’t think there was any questions that we wouldn’t get pasta. I got the pappardelle bolognese and was extremely happy that I did. The pasta was so fresh and was cooked to a perfect al dente. The bolognese sauce was, in one word, amazing. It was creamy and hearty but not too heavy. I think what made the sauce special was that it had a little bit of cream in it. Most bolognese sauces are strictly meat based and this one stood out from the crowd with the creaminess combined with the traditional hearty flavors of a bolognese. My mom got the tomato basil angel hair pasta. The pasta was also just as amazing as the pappardelle and the accompaniments were very fresh. The tomatoes were perfectly cooked and plentiful, and the sauce a perfectly sparse buttery drizzle with basil on top. It was very different from the pappardelle bolognese but an extremely flavorful version of buttered noodles. Both were a great choice.

FOODNOTES: The location is a plus for me and I loved the outdoor seating. The portion sizes were plentiful for the prices. Our server was terrible so I will be giving them some time to weed out the bad servers and assemble a good serving staff. Unless there are changes made to the bruschetta I probably won’t be getting it again. As amazing as the bolognese was there’s another dish on the menu I want to try. Next time I go I will be getting the roasted beet pasta. It is fresh beet and spinach fettuccine with roasted beets, goat cheese and pine nuts drizzled with olive oil. I don’t like the flavor of goat cheese but they said they would substitute Parmesan and I think that would be a great substitute. I would suggest getting the bolognese during your first trip and I will definitely update you on the roasted beet fettuccine dish. I also plan to check our their dessert options next time.