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Wednesday, July 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  Mostly Cloudy


Nostrano restaurant prepares homegrown Italian flavors for downtown Madison

Timothy and Elizabeth Dahl
Timothy and Elizabeth Dahl
Credit:Linda Falkenstein
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Nostrano, the name of the new restaurant soon to open at 111 S. Hamilton St., means "ours" in Italian. It's appropriate because it's the first restaurant from husband and wife chef team Timothy and Elizabeth Dahl. But "nostrano" also means "ours" in the wider sense of "homegrown," notes Tim, sitting at one of the tables in the newly refurbished space. And that's also appropriate, as most of Nostrano's food will be housemade and locally sourced.

While those are clearly the buzzwords of the culinary moment, the Dahls have already taken this a step further than most restaurants by planting a 2000-square foot garden at Tim's parents' west side business, Kids Express Learning Center. There, they grow vegetable varieties that might be hard to come by. Right now it's populated with melons and eggplants and nasturtiums and "a ridiculous herb garden," says Tim. "It's seed-to-table, instead of just farm-to-table." The big garden also provides a place to compost what the restaurant will generate. Eureka!

The Dahls, most recently living in Chicago and working as pastry chefs (Tim at Blackbird and Elizabeth at BOKA and Landmark), first met here in Madison working at Restaurant Magnus. After a good decade in Chi-Town, coming back to Madison seemed like a good move as it came time to start a family. At Nostrano, Tim has somewhat adopted the savory side while the desserts remain Elizabeth's province, although the whole debut menu is collaborative.

The space, formerly Peppino's, required more rehabbing than the Dahls initially thought. "It needed new life, it needed some love," Tim says. The kitchen was gutted and a second kitchen was created in the basement: "We have kind of a tight kitchen up here, so now [with the extra space] we can have a bread and charcuterie program." Add pasta and ice cream to those made-in-house items. The ice cream, they stress, was not optional -- it was a must. What they can't yet do in-house, they are endeavoring to source locally, for instance, buying from Bolzano Artisan Meats.

The new look is contemporary even as it draws on the Jackman Building's 1913 origins. Salvaged architectural details are put to use as decoration -- window frames line the walls, pocket door pulleys hold up shelves, pressed tin ceiling tiles provide interest at the bar. The tabletops are from reclaimed lumber, the floors and chairs dark wood. Most of the decorative items were just pieces that caught their eye at DeConstruction on Madison's east side. The bar and cabinetry was crafted by Jamie Stanek and other decor work, including a striking wine bottle sculpture, was done by Sarah Montgomery, display coordinator at Anthropologie.

While it's not completely finalized, the dinner menu will feature seven or eight appetizers and an equivalent number of entrees. There's an old-world Italian feel to much of the menu, incorporating French and Spanish and even Moroccan and Portuguese flavors and techniques, Elizabeth explains. The initial menu is a reflection of the season with plenty of meats -- from lamb sausage to rabbit confit.

Some of the other items on the menu-in-progress include a fish brodetto, a Bartlett pear risotto, Delicata squash cannelloni, braised beef shortribs with gnocchi, and grilled sturgeon with artichokes and olives.

The dessert menu also draws on seasonal ingredients, with a brown butter cake with roasted pears and hickory nuts, and a melon sorbet, for instance.

The Dahls are excited about all the kitchens opening in the vicinity of the Square, from Underground Kitchen to Francesca's to Graze to 43 North. The staggered series of openings has given everyone a chance to make a splash.

The opening night of dinner service is slated for Thursday, October 7. Lunch service will be phased in later. And weekend brunch is a "maybe," probably not likely to occur before next spring.

Coincidentally, Oct. 7 is also the date that the long-anticipated Underground Kitchen is also shooting for as an opening. "If anything, maybe it will make it so we both won't get totally rocked that first night," says Elizabeth.

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