Kyle Nabilcy is, among other things, a food writer. Jenni Dye is, among other things, a Dane County Board member. We'll be visiting a restaurant, cafe, or bar in each of the county's 37 board districts in a feature we're calling...
The Hunger Danes.
Jenni and I started this project back in 2012, and we harbored notions of completing it before the end of her first term. Well, here we are in Season Two, and she's already been re-elected to a second term. We're happy to return to the Hunger Danes with a time-honored restaurant that neither of us, truth be told, had ever visited: Lombardino's.
It had been one of my semi-secret shames, to have lived in Madison since 2003 -- to say nothing of writing about food since 2007 -- and having a Lombardino's-shaped hole in my dining resumé. When we drew District 10 out of the Very Official Brown Paper Bag of Numbers, this was a pretty obvious choice. So, to kick off Season Two, we bundled up our spouses and dropped in on a Thursday night, sans reservations.
So, yeah, that was something of a mistake. Staring down a 45-minute wait on a colder-than-average night, we took the best opportunity presented to us, which was to sit at the bar. A couple of friendly young women, who will feature in this story later, offered to move down one spot so we could all sit in a comfortable row. Comfortable in that we didn't have to squeeze -- but I chose the end spot, which was wedged into a slightly awkward corner behind the espresso machine and a lamp. It was...cozy.
There's beer at Lombardino's, and of course wine, but the siren song of the negroni calls me like few others. It's a fine negroni that Lombardino's turns out, top notch if not as rich and dark as the barrel-aged version at Sardine. We ordered little nibbles to start, a big, warm, incredibly aromatic plate of roasted olives and a dish of spiced almonds that we all agreed were fine but skippable.
With space at a premium, no one ordered a pizza. Instead, we settled on three pasta dishes -- orecchiette with sausage and rapini, bay scallop garganelli (which our bartender jokingly referred to as "the Gargamel"), and tagliatelle with mushrooms -- and a pork chop. There are actually two pork chops on the menu, and while only one is referred to as a brined pork chop, they are apparently both brined and ordering the "brined pork chop" leaves your server to assume you want the froofier one that's $2 more expensive.
This was a minor problem, though, as the chop with San Marzano tomato sauce, sausage, mushrooms, fennel, and a small handful of gnocchi was quite delicious. The chop itself was well-charred, thick and juicy, and if the gnocchi got lost amid all the loud flavors, they were at least still soft and tender.
As for the pastas themselves, they were prepared expertly. The dishes built on them, however, were more of a mixed bag. The tagliatelle (ordered by my wife) was milky-sweet but otherwise too bland; the espresso-rubbed BellaVitano cheese was a lost note. Jenni and her husband, Ben (welcome to the Hunger Danes, Ben!), split their two pastas, and found the scallop garganelli acceptable, but the orecchiette? Exceptional. While the former needed another scallop or two to really drive the flavor home, Jenni and Ben both said that the latter would bring them back.
I'd go back because the rest of the menu looks pretty good: the pizzas, the pork chop I meant to have, the desserts (oh, the desserts). I'd go back because the service was very friendly. (Our bartender gifted Jenni a delicious biscotti, though I forget why; I think it was for recognizing him from his gig at Tipsy Cow.) I'd go back because the experience at the bar was just so surreally congenial -- we all ended up chatting with the two ladies who scooched down for us, with the conversation turning unexpectedly to a prior Hunger Danes outing (Oasis Cafe) and eventually leading to a couple Twitter follows and promises of Facebook friendship to come.
Ultimately, I'd go back because that ass-end of the bar was no way to experience the warmth of Lombardino's, especially with friends.
Speaking of friends, join us in wishing our pal (and esteemed illustrator of the Hunger Danes logo) John Kovalic a happy birthday! Stay tuned for the next Hunger Danes, when we pay a visit to District 25: Waunakee.