The raquetball-sized meatballs are a must.
Salvatore’s Tomato Pies has been more or less an instant hit in every iteration. In its original Sun Prairie location, it was that charming brand of pizza shop that feels like a room in someone’s house. And there were reliably long waits for tables at the Madison location on East Johnson Street when it opened in late 2014, which continue today.
Now the Sun Prairie location has moved down the street to the former La Tolteca storefront and expanded significantly in both size and scope. If you ever visited La Tolteca, I can’t imagine you’d recognize this as the same restaurant. There are industrial touches, with repurposed wood elements sourced from the recently shuttered Orvis sporting goods store in Middleton. There’s a bar now, with plenty of room for pizza elbows. Once through the bar area, another dining area sits adjacent to the large, open kitchen. This is a restaurant, by golly, not just a pizzeria.
It’s a restaurant that had more than an hour-and-a-half wait for some parties on a recent Thursday evening. In Sun Prairie. That night, our estimated 40-minute wait (at 5:30 p.m.) was closer to an hour. To keep the crowds moving, reservations are not accepted at this time, so be prepared to order a drink and hover for a while.
The smaller starter dishes are proportioned well for enjoying at the bar, if that’s the closest you get to a table. Seared scallops rest in a Pleasant Ridge Reserve-doped polenta, dressed with shreds of cured ham. It’s a salty dish, but not overly so. Crispy pork belly wanders briefly into Asian territory, with an umami-rich glaze and a light rice noodle salad. It’s a balance between crunchy and slippery, salty and sweet, entirely enjoyable.
There’s a homey spaghetti and meatballs, with the pasta more of a bucatini, but a little heft is necessary to stand up to the two racquetball-sized meatballs. These have a nice crust to them, and the sauce is simple and zingy. A meatball pizza, which includes peppers, onions and a layer of the straciatella filling from Salvatore’s house-made burrata, is a hybrid of sorts between a meatball sub and lasagna.
That burrata is a holdover from the original Sal’s, and for good reason. Four tender dollops of that creamy straciatella, held loosely with a skin of mozzarella, are joined by roasted garlic cloves, sliced beets and pepitas. There is traditionally a season for burrata, but I don’t particularly care; it’s as delicious in January as it is in late summer.
Some of the pies have changed, others remain the same, and they remain exceptional. I enjoyed a new El Toro, which used Spanish chorizo instead of the loose Mexican variety.
Though there are some successes beyond meatballs among the main dishes, it’s this section of the new menu that needs a little refinement. On the plus side, a short rib ragu (don’t confuse it for the capital-R version, there’s no tomato in this) mingles with heavy ribbons of pappardelle. It leaves a pleasant slick on the lips but isn’t all fatty richness, and the chilis and preserved lemon make nice additions. A porchetta is a stunner. With a judicious application of pesto as its only sauce, the dish is a touch dry, but overall it’s a midwinter warmer — hearty pork and dense vegetables.
Less successful is the hamburger. The Conscious Carnivore beef patty was juicy and pink in the middle, but lacked seasoning. A New York strip was similarly lackluster. A ring of gristle surrounded a piece of beef that favored grill marks over a uniform crust from edge to edge. The polenta and other accompaniments were lovely, but grill marks are the wrong kind of throwback.
Still, for all its new trappings and door-busting crowds, there is a core of Salvatore’s that remains the same. The waitstaff is friendly as always, the crust is still some of the best in the area, and owner Patrick DePula is still likely to pop out and check on diners. And for whatever maturation the new dishes still need to undergo, my goodness, those meatballs are the truth.
Salvatore’s Tomato Pies, 121 E. Main St., Sun Prairie n 608-318-1761, salvatorestomatopies.com, 4-10 pm Tues.-Thurs., 4 pm-midnight Fri.-Sat., 4-10 pm Sun. n $8-$29