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.

Near east side’s Harmony not my idea of great neighborhood bar

There is definitely something to be said about good bar food, but it is rare and hard to find. And once again a Madison bar’s bar food has disappointed me. I put a decent amount of stock into public polls like the Isthmus’ Madison Favorites and Madison Magazine’s Best of Madison list, but those voters led to astray this time. The Harmony Bar on Atwood Avenue has been recognized for best neighborhood bar and a couple other things over the years, but I definitely don’t agree. As far as dive bars go, this one is pretty high on the totem pole of dives I’ve been to lately. The building itself needs some updating and TLC to be anywhere near what I would consider a charming dive bar. The paint was peeling, the floors were dirty and I don’t even want to go into detail the disaster that was the bathroom.

As for the food, they list “specialty pizzas” as a feature on their website. The picture on the website depicts a thin crust pizza with generous toppings and cheese. The pizzas we were served had super doughy and chewy crust, almost non-existent toppings, a sauce with zero flavor, and more grease than pizzas that are served out of cardboard box and cost $5. I barely ate the two small pieces I grabbed.

Harmony cheese curds
Harmony cheese curds

Because the pizzas were so disappointing we decided to order some food off the regular menu. I am a Wisconsinite through and through so for me to leave cheese curds on the table when I leave, they have to be pretty bad. Not only did I not like the Harmony’s cheese curds, more than half of our order was left behind when we got up. The batter was super heavy, the curds were solid when they should be soft and stringy, and I can pretty much guarantee you they came out of a box from the freezer. The curds were extremely disappointing.

Harmony pub chips
Harmony pub chips

Their pub chips and blue cheese were probably the best thing we had that night. The chips were the perfect thickness with a good crunch, and tasted house made. The blue cheese dressing was so mild it could have passed as ranch, but it was still a good pairing with the salty, crispy potato chips.

Harmony cheeseburger
Harmony cheeseburger

The burger was certainly nothing special. It was nowhere near as awful as the cheese curds, but I wished it was better. The cheese looked like it had been melted in a microwave, but the lettuce, tomato and onions on top were fresh. The one note I have about the burger is that it was huge. The actual patty was much larger than I was expecting. It didn’t have a ton of flavor or good char, but it wasn’t a terrible burger.

FOOD NOTES: The Harmony has so much potential, but the building needs some TLC, and the kitchen and menu need to be revamped. The pub chips are the exception. They are perfectly thick and crisp, and aren’t too greasy. The cheese curds were laughable for a Wisconsin bar, but the burger was edible. I wouldn’t even bother with the horrible “specialty pizzas.” They do have live music some nights, so that might be a draw but I would suggest eating somewhere else before heading to the show.

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!

Dessert pizza shines at Novanta

My favorite go-to place for lunch is Chipotle and the one I go to is in a small strip mall. The strip mall has a couple other places to eat but nothing great (a random Chinese place, Cousin subs and a coffee shop). There used to be a creepy seafood store/restaurant but it recently closed down and a pizza place opened up in it’s place. I’ve been waiting for another option in this strip mall and have been really excited to try Novanta, which dubs itself a Neapolitan pizza and mozzarella bar. The menu looked super promising and I read they bake the pizzas in big wood-burning oven!

novanta caserta pizza
Caserta pizza

I finally got to go this week for lunch with a friend! I’ve heard the salads are really good but after looking at the menu I didn’t think they were worth it or could be better than any of the pizzas on the menu. I got the Caserta pizza with tomato sauce (they offer pizzas with an olive oil sauce as well), roasted peppers, roasted onions and salame. The pizzas come in one size, which is a little bigger than a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut but the crust is thinner and a ton better. I loved the combo of toppings and the salame had a great flavor. I wish the roasted peppers and onions would have been chopped up into smaller pieces to make it easier to eat. I may be messier than the average diner but the huge pieces of peppers and onions kept falling off my pizza. The crust on the side of my pizza was perfectly charred and crunchy. The bottom crust was a little soggy. If it had been crunchier the large pieces of pepper and onions might not have fallen off the whole time!

They do have a mozzarella bar with a house-made mozzarella and two options imported from Italy. They also offer add-ons like prosciutto, vinegar, olive oil, tomatoes, salame and ham. We didn’t try the mozzarella bar but definitely wanted to!

novanta dessert
Nutella pizza

We decided to split the one thing on the dessert menu I’ve never seen before; a Nutella pizza. The menu says it is a pizza stuffed with Nutella, which is a completely accurate description. It is two thin pieces of pizza dough with gobs of Nutella in the middle. I had zero complaints about the pizza and will definitely be going back specifically for that. The pizza dough was great and balanced out the extremely sweet Nutella perfectly! We did have two small suggestions: offer whipped cream and raspberries or strawberries as toppings!

The atmosphere feels like a college pizzeria with soda in cans, self-serve water in Coca-Cola cups and an industrial feel. It is super laid back and the staff was really nice! It did take a little while to get our pizzas but they are so fresh it was totally worth it. Just take note of that if you’re on a time limit at lunch.

FOODNOTES: The pizza was fantastic but the crust could have been a little crunchier. I really want to go back for the mozzarella bar and include as many add-on options as possible! I will definitely be going back for the Nutella pizza and can see that becoming my go-to place for a great dessert! The prices were pretty decent for what we got but diners should take note the fresh pizzas take a little bit to be made (but it is totally worth it!).