From the start, Roman Candle stood out through its decor. The original mothership on Williamson Street had the look of the hipster's pizzeria, with its bright oranges and starburst motifs. The list of available toppings for Roman Candle's pizzas announced it was no ordinary pizza place either, with pine nuts, chipotle peppers, prosciutto, roasted asparagus, caramelized onions, and Fountain Prairie local beef populating the long list. Yet there wasn't anything weird about the pizzas. It was all recognizably pizza, and the place was kid-friendly to boot, with smaller slices available, plus carrots and dip, fresh fruit cup and simple noodle dishes for the tots.
Roman Candle opened a second location in Middleton in 2007 and has now grown to a third location in Fitchburg. It's taken over half of the former Kelly's Grill space in a spiffy Tuscan/contempo-looking development at the corner of Lacy Road and Fish Hatchery. (Atomic Koi cocktail lounge is now open in the other half.)
This is all on the edge of the Fitchburg subdivisions, shortly before the scenery reverts to cornfields. The decor is again mod, the commercial version of a CB2 catalog, enhanced by a rustic hardwood floor.
The menu is almost identical with those in the other locations, but Fitchburg is the trial balloon for introducing sandwiches into the lineup. There are just three: chicken Parmesan, Italian roast beef and a meatball sub. All come with a choice of salad greens, fresh fruit or chips. And the salad and the fruit sides are more than just perfunctory; they're good and fresh, and this is the time to skip the bag of chips.
The sandwiches are all served on the same bread, French bread that's unfortunately inundated with melted butter both inside and out. It seems to be the same bread that's used for R.C.'s garlic bread. It's not a bad loaf, and all three sandwiches could be improved simply by omitting the butter bath.
I'd pick the Italian beef as the best; the meat was tender and the not-overly-salty giardinara combined with a sweet pepper relish provided nice flavor contrasts. The chicken Parmesan merged too much with the bread, and the meatball sub could have used more marinara (opposite of the usual problem with meatball subs). The meatballs come topped with banana peppers, another good flavor brightener.
The fresh fruit side is generous, with strawberries, melon (but not too much melon!), grapes and pineapple. The large house salad, which three of us split as a side, had good building blocks with fresh mixed greens, including a vibrant spinach and a sassy, mustardy house vinaigrette.
Six oven-baked pastas on the menu come with a side of garlic bread. All pasta is fresh and is from east-side purveyor RP's, but dishes tend to have too much cheese and not enough sauce, resulting in a lack of contrast. A cheesy meat lasagna doesn't carry enough of the tomato sauce, and a velvety chicken alfredo would benefit from more of its red pepper topping. Meanwhile, the mac 'n' cheese with the $1 broccoli addition is chewy - both the broccoli and the macaroni. While the cheese flavor is complex and Wisconsin cheeses are used, everyone at the table agreed this was the dish they wouldn't order again.
The chicken Alfredo is the best of the bunch and would match up well with any of R.C.'s fine salads; order the large bowl with the pasta and split both with a friend.
The pizzas feature a flavorful crust yet tend to be loaded down with toppings. Our Pestoral sagged under the weight of pesto, feta, mozzarella, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives and tomatoes. As a kind of a casserole, it was wonderful, and in fact it all would have worked extremely well as a filling for a sandwich.
I wish that Roman Candle brought more of the inventiveness of its pizza toppings to its sandwiches, and followed through with the inclination of balancing rich dairy with tart flavors. Still, things are not that far off the mark here. The options that Roman Candle does offer - local ingredients, better vegetables, good local tap beers - are all very welcome. And the mix-and-match "pick two" $8 lunch special (half sandwich and soup, a slice and a salad, a slice and soup, soup and salad, etc., plus beverage) is a good deal.