Maybe it's that Wisconsin-Illinois rivalry thing, but I was dubious about the prospect of a Chicago-based Italian "family of restaurants" plopping a cousin onto the Capitol Square. After all, most of Madison's culinary crown jewels are scattered around there - why toss a cubic zirconium into the mix?
After eating at Francesca's al Lago, though, I had to concede. Though its aim and reach are not the same as some of our more noteworthy kitchens, Francesca's is successful, and its service very good. This restaurant isn't about outstanding originality, advanced technique or stunning presentation - it's about doing basic things well, and I mean that with due respect for the basics. Food does not have to be fancy to taste good.
Francesca's dinner menu changes biweekly, so on a given night you might start with a standard appetizer like calamari fritti or bruschette, but you can also try one of the specials. I sampled the risotto alla pomodoro, a flavorful tomato risotto with long curls of Parmesan and handfuls of arugula on top. The piquant arugula balanced the risotto nicely, and the dish was ample enough to share with four people - at $9, it would serve one person well as an entree. Portions of Caesar salad were similarly large - we started to notice a trend. A cup of minestrone, while not seasoned enough, had large chunks of colorful fresh vegetables to set it apart from more dismal versions of this standard soup.
Those large portions I mentioned are one of the more notable things about Francesca's. They're far beyond generous. At $14 to $16 a plate for pasta, that's a good thing. And when I say plate, I mean "giant bowl." One could easily make two meals, if not three or four, from one entree, depending on one's appetite.
Like the appetizers, the entrees stayed mostly in the realm of safe and expected. Francesca's entrees are mostly pasta variations, including plenty of no-meat options, with some chicken, fish and seafood dishes thrown in; a 10-ounce ribeye was a special of the evening. A roasted salmon fillet (with grill marks, confusing!) with leeks, shiitake and cremini mushrooms and tomatoes was also tasty, but the mediocre quality of the fish ranked it more as "acceptable" than outstanding. The pastas were cooked perfectly. Another daily special, campanelle with pesto, grilled chicken, mushrooms and pignoli, kept with the theme of simple and satisfying. The penne alla Siciliana, with its spicy tomato sauce and big hunks of eggplant, was the standout. The fresh Parm doled out by a server provided good balance to the spicy sauce - this was the dish I wanted to eat more of even after I was full.
There are also pizzas, made for one but shareable. I ordered the quattro stagioni, which combines artichoke, mushrooms, olives, prosciutto and a poached egg. (A bonus was the way the waiter served the pizza, frenetically stirring up the egg tableside and ladling it over the rest of the pizza.) The crust was flavorless and stiff, but I was happily distracted by the satiny folds of prosciutto glazed with egg yolk.
Francesca's makes most of its desserts in house (save for the tiramisu, gelati and sorbetti), but I wasn't impressed by them. The banana cream pie was overwhelmed by too much whipped topping and not enough banana flavor, while the pistachio gelato in the profiteroles was so strongly flavored with rosewater that I lost the pistachio. The chocolate lava cake was the best of the bunch, but standard compared to other versions. However, when dining at Francesca's, to have room for dessert at all means you have paced yourself admirably. Most of us probably won't even get to it.
Maybe the Square needs a restaurant like this - large and reliable, someplace that always has something to enjoy and where you can take a variety of companions, whether they're squirmy kids or picky relatives. Judging by the crowded houses at both lunch and dinnertime, Francesca's appears to have found a workable niche on the Square with its homey Italian.