What a relief it has been to learn that Cento -- the newest venture from Food Fight, perhaps Madison's most polarizing dining entity -- has been scrubbed of almost all Food Fight-ness and allowed to succeed or fail on its own merits.
There's definitely still a level of shine to Cento that implies a firm financial backing, but no one's likely to walk in and bemoan a theme park aesthetic. The color palette is almost monochromatic, elegant and slightly less brawny than the similarly appointed Heritage Tavern on the other side of the Capitol. A candy apple-red meat slicer at the charcuterie station punctuates an otherwise sedate aesthetic.
Chef Michael Pruett was announced as the Cento chef over a year ago, after serving as the opening chef at Steenbock's on Orchard, in the Institutes for Discovery building. Cento opened on July 1 with one of the more complicated hours/meal service arrangements in town. There's weekday lunch, followed by a slim off-hours menu window, then dinner service, and then the off-hours menu as a late-night option until midnight, but only on Thursday through Saturday.
Cento plans to serve brunch weekends starting Sept. 6, and I'm eager to see what this kitchen will do with that kind of eggy, cured-meaty menu.
Moving from the edge of campus to a spot across from the Overture Center certainly suits Pruett's abilities and output as a chef. The off-hours menu should see significant use as the theater crowd disperses, since it expands on the most approachable section of Cento's dinner offerings.
Soft, fresh burrata dolloped over a large piece of grilled bread is sufficient for two, as most are of the spuntini ("shareable snacks") section's dishes. Beef tartare goes beyond the usual cylinder of raw beef, sitting as it does amid crisp crackers, cheese shavings and both pungent anchovies and creamy tuna sauce; it actually manages to get a bit lost in there.
Arancini -- fried cheesy risotto balls currently taking America's menus by storm -- are perfectly executed at Cento. The excruciatingly salty tomato sauce, less so, but with five golf ball-sized arancini per $7 serving, you can afford to ignore it and crunch away.
Pizza at Cento comes in somewhere between Neapolitan and the hand-tossed style you might find at Ian's or Salvatore's. The toppings are appealing -- I enjoyed the sweet Italian sausage and broccoli rapini on a distinctly spicy tomato sauce -- but the crust on which they arrive has a bitter aftertaste that mars the experience.
Desserts and alcohol can help wash that bitterness away. Cocktails like the Rye of the Beholder and Castle & Doyle are certainly sweet, but reasonably priced and boozy. The wine list is extensive, largely in the $35-$60 range. And desserts are all tempting; if they're all as massive as the chocolate cherry truffle cake, my advice is to find a friend.
Ordering from the dinner menu presents the greatest opportunity to find Pruett at his best, if also Cento's most expensive. The primi and secondi sections (starters and mains, if you will) are currently chock full of pasta and seafood, a target-rich environment.
Soft, delicate and, yes, pillowy gnocchi are paired with mushrooms and mustard greens. You can have your already-rich ricotta-filled agnolotti topped with shaved truffle for an additional $7, but when the dish comes with loads of the decadent fungus, who needs more? And two of Pruett's strengths are combined in one dish with the black tagliatelle, whorls of inky pasta surrounding tender mussels, hunks of lobster and perfectly cooked prawn, all bathed in a silky, delicately salty uni sauce.
The rabbit saddle secondi is tempting, but the green garlic with which it is rolled up is too sharp for the delicate meat, and the accompanying ragout is a single blaring note of tomato. The loins are also wrapped in bacon, a detail that appears nowhere on the menu. A massive, excellently seasoned pork chop is a better option, even if mine was just slightly overdone along one side -- a grilling imbalance, not a fatal flaw.
But no, you want the fish. You want the Arctic char, served with roasted vegetables that deservedly show up in a number of dishes; Cento's kitchen demonstrates some pretty fine flame control, my pork chop notwithstanding. The skin on this meaty fillet could stand to be crisper, but the perfectly cooked fish might suffer for it, so all is forgiven.
You want the prosciutto-wrapped branzino, even if head and tail put you off your game. Flaky white fish and salty, lightly crisped prosciutto are a match made in heaven. Maybe get some roasted fingerlings, with a few sweet garlic cloves hiding in their midst, from the contorni section of the menu.
The price point at Cento may be higher than average, but Michael Pruett is one of Madison's most talented chefs, and Overture and the glorious public library building provide one of the best urban dining views in town. Does Madison need another Food Fight restaurant or another Italian restaurant? Who knows. But once Madison gets a taste of Cento at its best, it's going to want it.