Cento stands out with great starters, fresh pasta

Cento
Cento

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.

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!