Come April, most Madisonians are stir-crazy and fun-hungry and looking for novelty. Luckily, road trips are back on the menu. The car feels toasty, the sky out your window is a crisp, hopeful blue, and if you're headed in the direction of Paoli, a satisfying lunch awaits you at the Schoolhouse Cafe.
Paoli, about five miles south of Verona and just a 30-minute drive from most places in Madison, has become a destination for bicyclists and art lovers, as it is home to several galleries.
Located in Paoli's Schoolhouse Shops, which house a melange of clothing, jewelry and other art, the Schoolhouse Café is modest in scale. The pairing of shopping with lunch makes it a perfect place to take a visiting aunt or mother, but even if you aren't much for shopping, the cafe is still worth the trip.
Its surprisingly posh two-room dining area seats only an intimate handful; its sensibly priced menu claims just a few each of salads, soups, sandwiches and pastas. Yet the experience of eating there doesn't feel small. I appreciated the Schoolhouse's attention to detail, which, though not always consistent, was evident from the personable, well-timed service to the joyously pink tulips that adorned each table.
An emphasis on fresh foods is clear, beginning with a basket of warm, crusty bread served with house-made chive-honey butter. The tomato basil soup was a promising way to kick off the meal. It was rich without being heavy, and utterly delicious.
The Schoolhouse's portions are generous, most notably in its sandwiches and salads, both of which are available in smaller servings as part of a soup/half-salad/half-sandwich mix-and-match. Even the half-size version of the wedge salad, topped with cheese, crumbly bacon and pea shoots (substituted with peapods in the deep freeze of February), was plentiful. The wedge was enjoyable, but it didn't sing like the Harvest salad, an attractive arrangement of red grapes, apple chunks, walnut halves and red onions piled atop greens.
The sandwiches, mostly standards taken up a notch, fared better as a group. A turkey sandwich got a boost from sun-dried tomato pesto, while a Madeira grilled chicken sandwich was livened by garlic aioli.
The Schoolhouse's pastas hit another high note. The Paoli ravioli was an extremely festive and pretty dish. Green-and-white-striped ravioli were topped with a brilliant ly red tomato and roasted red pepper sauce, pungent with herbs. Although the ravioli were slightly overcooked, this dish was worth eating just for the rustic-looking fresh sausage chunks that punctuated the sauce. Portobello ravioli in a lush thyme cream sauce were perfectly cooked, but the sauce needed a shake or two of salt and pepper. Still, it was an enjoyable entree, and good for sharing.
With such a reasonably priced menu and agreeable setting, it was a no-brainer to indulge in some dessert. But though the dessert tray presented four admirable-looking options, the ones I tasted were disappointing. A statuesque four-layer red velvet cake was weighed down by heavy, overly citrusy cream cheese frosting and an unnecessary chocolate filling, while the Dutch apple pie went down like a formerly frozen flop: oversweet, underspiced, with an unpleasantly gooey streusel topping.
Happily, it should be easy for the Schoolhouse to remedy this situation by just paying the same attention to detail that is evident in so many other aspects of the cafe. Buying fresh desserts from an excellent local baker or, failing that, simply offering a knockout ice cream sundae would help them avoid the perilous territory of premade desserts.
There may be a couple of kinks to work out, but it's hard to complain about an inviting space where friendly people serve good, simple food at reasonable prices.
6857 Paoli Rd., Paoli
608-848-6261; paolischoolhouseshops.com/cafe. Lunch only, Tues.-Sun. 11 am-2:30 pm. $5-$12. Credit cards, handicap accessible.