The sudden explosion of new upscale restaurants on the Square is making me feel like Scarlett O'Hara in the opening of Gone With the Wind, surrounded by all sorts of attractive possibilities. If Nostrano were a potential beau, I'd describe it as elegant, mature and not afraid of intimacy - definitely not a Tarleton twin. Gentle muted blue walls and amber glass everywhere give the place warmth and sophistication.
Nostrano's owners, Timothy and Elizabeth Dahl, were both pastry chefs at some of Chicago's most notable restaurants before making the move to Madison. The restaurant's name, depending on your source, means "ours" or "local" in Italian. The Dahls are clearly hewing to both definitions. Seasonal and regional ingredients are all over the menu, and the Dahls built two kitchens into the Nostrano floor plan so they could make, not just cook: bread, gelato, charcuterie and more.
The focus on doing things in-house paid off in the charcuterie plate, a highly recommended first course. It's rustically gorgeous, although to be fair, Nostrano excels at presentation; nearly all dishes were picturesque. A few slices of grilled ciabatta tower in the middle of the platter, surrounded by all sorts of delicious stuff: a country-style terrine, seared pork liver mousse, lamb sausage, balsamic shallots, whole mustard fingerling potato salad, caponata, piparra peppers and salame Nostrano (ironically named, as it's the only charcuterie item not made in-house). It's all as enjoyable to eat as it is beautiful.
Other starters include a plate with Dunbarton blue cheese and roasted beets, a yellowtail crudo and marinated olives. More subtle flavors are found in a pear risotto with pheasant confit and a bowl of golden cauliflower soup with chunks of spiky green romanesco (a cauliflower relative). Both dishes were filling but needed some brightening to be truly compelling.
Nostrano's entrees show refined creativity and a thorough understanding of flavors, though they were sometimes a tiny bit off in execution. I savored the golden, crisp red snapper filet that crowned a bowl of seafood brodetto, but the dish suffered from chewy octopus and mussels that tasted like they'd spent some time in an attic. In another dish, the lush, long pappardelle were slightly overcooked, but a spectacular lamb ragu more than compensated. I don't often order lamb, but this sauce converted me. The tender meat, spiced with harissa and freshened with mint, created such instant coziness that I was practically teleported in front of a crackling fire. A brothy bowl of braised short ribs with gnocchi and Swiss chard had a similar effect, largely due to the evocative warmth of Ceylon cinnamon in the braising liquid. Nostrano will make a lot of diners happy with these dishes this winter.
Also wonderful was the menu's only vegetarian entree, delicata squash cannelloni. The creamy squash filling was nice, but the mélange of caramelized squash, goat cheese and crispy brussels sprouts that topped the light, crepe-like pasta provided a textural and taste contrast that raised the dish from good to excellent.
Desserts, it will surprise no one, are spectacular, the best I can recall having in Madison in a very long time. Gelato is prominently featured in many, and it's uniformly great. The copetta (a sundae, from the Italian for "small cup") featured buttermilk gelato topped with soft, spiced Honeycrisp apples and crisped gingerbread (the accompaniments have since switched to black walnuts and persimmon pudding). The affogato is a cute take on coffee and doughnuts, with salted caramel gelato drowned ("affogato") in espresso served alongside cornmeal bombolini. The bombolini don't need their apple filling; the temperature and flavor contrasts already present are enough. My favorite dessert is the sorbetto, so stylishly presented that it is more like an artist's rendering of dessert. Two scoops of lemon verbena sorbet - tangy, herby, not too pungent - are served with tiny shortbreads, berries and bruléed squares of sweet and creamy goat cheese. Heaven.
One sticking point for some patrons will be Nostrano's noise level, which can be a real obstacle to conversation if the restaurant is full. I hope this can be remedied, especially given that it's an issue in so many restaurants, and those who can find a way to solve it will reap financial rewards. If you're sensitive to noise, go early. The meal is well worth it.