2784 S. Fish Hatchery Rd., Fitchburg, 661-4161
9 am-3 pm and 4 pm-9 pm Sun., 4 pm-9 pm Mon.-Thurs., 4 pm-10 pm Fri.-Sat. EntrÃes $10-35. Smoking permitted in bar. Parking lot. Credit and checks. Wheelchair accessible.
Madison needs its traditions, especially now that so much of our suburban sprawl has taken on the generic look of the most generic place in the world, San Diego. And the Schiavo family, longtime local restaurateurs who grew up with Madison, are firmly part of that tradition.
So the fact that they have opened their most recent restaurant, the Continental, on strip-mall-happy Fish Hatchery Road is a little victory in itself. And the fact that they took over the space vacated by La Paella, first owned by another local food legend, TomÃs Ballesta, suggests the passing of a foodie baton ' proof that the suburbs won't go strictly big box.
A sister restaurant to their Cafe Continental on King Street, the Continental does, at first glance, live up to its urbane name. The Schiavos have cleaned up and modernized La Paella's odd maze of rooms. There is a zinc bar and mustard yellow walls and ceiling fans for a vague brasserie feel. There are long, drapey blue curtains and big mirrors for a neo-baroque feel. But mostly there are photos of the Schiavo family, through the decades, for a distinctly down-home, Madison touch.
The something-for-everyone menu flaunts a continental-meets-homespun flourish, too, and it does some things very well. If you are going to order one thing, order, without hesitation, the polenta.
There are four polenta renditions, but the polenta con funghi is a little revelation. The saffron-yellow blocks of polenta are crisped on the outside and pillowy soft inside. Dressed with fresh tomato sauce that's more sweet than acidic, and heaped with mushrooms, eggplant, garlic, mozzarella and rich disks of grilled sausage ($2 extra for the meat), the polenta manages to both hold its own and play well with the pile-up of added flavors. It's like an entire Italian culinary ecosystem on a plate, and one of the best bargains in town at $15.
Also good is a big tangle of pappardelle pan-tossed with garlic butter, white wine, dill cream sauce, sweet shrimp and small, tasteless scallops. This is one rich dish that is all defiantly old-school butter and cream, and it goes gluey when it cools down. But it has a comforting density that's more reminiscent of a Midwestern casserole than an Italian pasta.
The signature crab cakes will satisfy any crab cake fan, and a recent Friday night walleye special was a perfect daily catch.
There's no point, though, in letting local patriotism fog reality. A menu this determinedly big and border-hopping is going to have its weaknesses, and the baked chevre bruschetta, as dry and crisp as melba toast, is one of them. So, surprisingly, is the pizza Continental topped with prosciutto, mozzarella, basil, eggplant, garlic and sweet onion. I've liked some of the Cafe Continental pizzas, but this pie was done in by a leathery crust and a pervasive charred flavor.
A Black Angus tenderloin steak also tasted charred and, at $33, couldn't come close to competing with a Smoky's or Tornado steak. And the busy version of bananas Foster, ladled over very thick, tough slices of french toast and swimming in a broth of hot caramel rum sauce, turned an elegant dessert into a soupy, clunky mess.
Order instead the supernal Cafe Continental ice cream created by Nick Schiavo and crafted for the restaurant by UW-Madison's Babcock Hall Dairy. The dish of understated, smooth espresso ice cream studded with chunks of chocolate truffle is ethereal, and the collaboration of two local food pioneers makes it a study in local pride.