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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: -8.0° F  A Few Clouds
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A Pig in a Fur Coat raises the bar on Willy Street dining
Attention, hedonists
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The story goes that Bonnie Arent, who managed at the Brass Ring, and Dan Bonanno, who worked at Spiaggia in Chicago, became friends in Florence, Italy, at the Apicius International School of Hospitality. Together with Jonathan Huttsell, another Spiaggia alum, they've opened A Pig in a Fur Coat on Williamson Street in the old La Rocca's space.

The name is a hot mess. The explanation for it, which involves Arent's sister and a Kazakhstani fish dish called "fish in a fur coat," does not clarify matters any. And, in fact, because of Arent and Bonanno's self-professed desire to bring great food to Madison's near east side without pretense, the moniker should at least be A Pig NOT in a Fur Coat.

While the confusion evident in the name doesn't entirely stop at the door, APIAFC is smack on trend - even if at the curly piggy tail end of the trend - and is bringing to town rich, ribald, unctuous, protein-centric, Mediterranean-inspired communal dining.

Think of it almost as a neighborhood-y micro Publican.

Publican, the Chicago haute beer hall that opened in late '08, immediately became the poster child for a change in American dining sensibilities. To summarize very roughly, it's a shift from staid, stuffy, formal eating to more casual, communal tasting adventures - without compromising quality. Let's call it near fine dining for the short-attention-span, commitment-phobic generation.

Neither seasonal nor veggie-friendly, Pig's opening menu is solidly in the vein of gluttonous big-city masculinist cuisine, with dish after dish meant to hit the pleasure receptors hard. And, for the most part, they do.

Broken up among "snacks," "small plates" and "large plates," the menu gives diners free rein to explore a tightly edited selection of honest food. And by honest I don't mean simple or lazy; I mean there's an open wood-fired oven churning out good examples of rustic Euro fare that's not necessarily easy to execute. The style here isn't mannered or overwrought; it's straightforward largess.

For instance, there's a hunk of perfectly charred and slightly sour veal breast on the bone for $21 that upon arrival looks as though the kitchen may have mistakenly sent out a double order. And, as long as you don't mind eating sauerkraut and warm polenta in summer, it's now one of the better dishes for the money in the city.

To start things off, there are big, meaty, tri-color Cerignola olives in orange and a little fennel. Succulent. There are fun duck fat fries. There are dates with chorizo - which seems a bit of a clichéd offering these days, but they're nicely executed nevertheless.

Happily, there are squash blossoms; sadly, they are bland. They need acid or salt, and the accompanying garlic "aioli" doesn't save them. The charcuterie plate, although it has outstanding liver paté with cherries, headcheese and blood sausage, is a bit paltry for $16.

Among the small plates, beware that the sardines are fillets, not whole, and served cleverly (or just disappointingly, depending on your view) in a can with toast and shaved fennel. The ravioli is a decadent brown-butter-, duck-egg-doused thrill, but ultimately loses to the other egg yolk dish, the lamb carpaccio. Sliced thin and served with sea salt and heart of palm, this is a must-have, as is the pork belly, a plate of soft belly, pea purée and pea shoots that is well balanced, bright and sublime.

The orzo with mussels and clams is a refreshing relief and the only cooling carb item, and the beets with goat cheese, walnuts and balsamic are good, if not particularly novel. It's also what counts as the single vegetable dish on the menu.

Large plates include the aforementioned veal, as well as other standout items like trout with snap peas, tomato and potato that is nicely balanced. Then there's a tasty chicken thigh with chorizo and spaetzel that our server suggested was her favorite dish, and indeed delivered a rewarding plate of scrumptious familiarity. The large-plate pork was also a star, even though it was very nearly too dry from the oven. But the tart garlic scapes, nutty romesco and white truffle overwhelmed any shortcomings.

The tripe, which can be a fearsome dish to the American palate, performs admirably. It arrives in a little steaming cauldron fragrant with saffron. The broth, though delicious, is somehow still a little bland.

In general, it is a huge relief that the food at Pig is not oversalted. But it is also troubling when flavors don't quite pop as they should. Sometimes this is a salt problem, but also it is an acidity problem. Dishes often lack that bright lemony citrus note associated with Mediterranean food. A dash of vinegar here or a little pickled veg there would go far to enliven the experience.

Team Pig did a beautiful job with the build-out of what had been very poor space. An open kitchen and convivial gray room with a big chandelier and mirrored wall are a pleasing setting. It would be even better if the lights weren't so insanely bright.

Pig staff is helpful; the food earnest and soulful. The bar for good eating on Williamson has been authoritatively, if hedonistically, raised. Fur coat or not.

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