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Friday, August 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Fair
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FOOD AND DRINK

Nice Noodles
Fork and Spoon Cafe serves the pasta fresh

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The fresh pasta was so good, and so popular, that Peter Robertson couldn't resist opening a little trattoria when he moved his RP's Pasta Company from Willy Street to larger quarters last July. And now, sitting by the bike path on a lightly traveled stretch of East Wilson Street, the Fork & Spoon Cafe slowly builds its customer base with good, honest, Northern Italian pasta dishes at moderate prices. Bologna is known as the culinary capital of Italy. If you want to eat pasta the way the Bolognese eat pasta, this is the place to go.

First, a word about fresh versus dried pasta. The dried product is typically made from semolina wheat, durum flour and some added B vitamins and iron. Pretty simple. And it will last for years in the box, whereas fresh pasta will last about as long in the refrigerator as fresh bread.

All the pasta at the Fork & Spoon is fresh. RP's pasta is made from organic semolina and eggs. Period. And that's what real Italian pasta is - wheat flour and eggs. The difference in the eating is that fresh pasta has a richer flavor and a firmer texture. The pasta actually has substance, a slightly chewy character that teams well with the sauce.

At the Fork & Spoon Cafe, as in Italy, the pasta is the star of the show. As a Bolognese restaurant owner told me recently, "The sauce is a condiment, like ketchup on your hamburger." And so, the sauces at the Fork & Spoon, no matter how excellent (and they are excellent) assume supporting roles in the meal.

Robertson's philosophy has always been to keep it local, keep it small and keep it good. And he certainly exercises that mantra at the Fork & Spoon. The restaurant is unpretentious, sharing space with RP's production facilities and a retail section. The decor is nothing special, almost in deference to the food. Among the few flourishes are the giant foam fork and spoon hanging from the ceiling.

The menu is simple, but you can trust every dish to be satisfying. There are antipasti, soups, sandwiches and 12 pasta dishes, eight of them vegetarian. Perhaps the most basic dish is fresh bucatini pasta tossed with warm butter, at $5. Next has to be a simple spaghetti with tomato and basil sauce, a steal at $6. Add a couple of large meatballs to this dish and the price jumps only a dollar.

The other carne dish is rigatoni served with the restaurant's own Ragu Bolognese, made with ground homemade Italian sausage and just enough tomato-cream sauce to coat the pasta and enhance its flavor. Magnificent.

One of the recent surprises of the Fork & Spoon was an evening special, butternut squash tortellini. Now, filling pasta with squash goes back to the Court of the Dukes of Este, in Ferrara, and has been a staple of Bolognese cuisine since the Renaissance. The mixture of squash, egg, Parmesan, nutmeg and breadcrumbs may be stuffed into any of several pastas, including ravioli, tortelli and tortellini.

These tortellini were delicious little morsels, and my companion only wished that the squash had been stuffed instead into ravioli, so there would be more of it. (You can buy packaged RP's fresh refrigerated pumpkin tortellini at the restaurant or at local markets.)

Other veggie pasta offerings include linguine with sweet basil, Parmigiano Reggiano (that's the classic Parmesan, straight from Parma) and pine nuts; pasta Modena (campanelli with kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, chopped spinach, mixed in a balsamic vinegar and white wine sauce and topped with feta cheese); and bucatini with artichoke hearts and fresh mozzarella in a tomato cream sauce.

There are also two offerings from the sea - linguini tossed with DiSalvo's white clam sauce, and linguini with sautéed shrimp in a tomato and garlic sauce.

All dishes come with a beautiful focaccia, warm and yeasty inside, crispy outside, perfect when lightly drizzled with olive oil.

Any linguini dish may be made with whole-wheat, egg-free, or gluten-free pasta, and a child's portion may be ordered of any pasta dish.

The wine list is short but adequate, including Chianti, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. There are also some interesting beers, including a Three Feet Deep stout from Black River Falls. Last, several desserts are offered nightly. On one of our visits we had a beautiful tiramisu and berry crepes with whipped cream.

The Fork & Spoon is a welcome addition to the Willy Street cluster of attractive dining spots. For pasta purists, it's well worth a trip across town. There's nothing else like it in Madison.

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