Among the major communities of the Madison metropolitan area, there is none with as low a population density as Fitchburg: one-fifth that of Madison, one-sixth of neighboring Verona. The Fitchburgers, they have space to roam.
Maybe this explains the city's predilection for sprawling restaurants with wide-reaching menus - from the Great Dane to Liliana's, from the string of restaurants that have been at 5957 McKee Rd. to the recently closed Continental. Veranda Restaurant and Wine Bar, opened by the famed Schiavo family in the Continental space, continues that Fitchburgian tradition. (The Schiavos were behind the Continental, as well as downtown's Cafe Continental.)
Lunch, dinner and weekend brunch all merit their own full page, listing between 40 and 60 dishes. There are significant differences between them: Sandwiches are served only for lunch, oysters only for dinner. A recent brunch menu replicates nothing served during the week except desserts.
Lunch appears to be the best time to just hang out and get a feel for the neighborhood. The grass-fed burger is large, juicy and well seasoned, with a sturdy, toasted bun. The soup du jour (pumpkin) was smooth and delicate, balanced between cinnamon and rosemary notes. The fries are matchstick, and if the steak sandwich is missing maybe one flavor (blue cheese, perhaps?), it is at least piled fairly high with steak, and verdant with arugula. A light crowd comes and goes, and everyone seems chill, in good spirits.
Compare that to dinner, with tables full of ebullient suburbanites, giddily pointing from shiraz to chardonnay on the massive wine list. The segmented dining floor is loud, and all the nooks and crannies are filled with chatter. While the menu is split primarily between pastas and small plates, our server indicated an invisible line of demarcation beneath which the small plates are less small.
One head-fake on portion sizing could be forgiven. "Small plates" is a fashionable phrase, after all. But when the night's special of tilapia involtini arrived, it was in fact quite small for its $15 tag. The plate was sparsely populated with four thumb-sized nuggets of fish and bread crumbs. The accompanying caprese skewer was bland, the tough, pale cherry tomatoes in stark contrast to the bright red romas on the lunchtime burger.
Penne with peas, arugula, and prosciutto was worse. The lemon butter sauce was merely oily, and the peas looked and tasted, at best, somewhere between frozen and canned. Our server called the overcooked caramel custard flan the best in town; unless it's the only one it town, she was overselling it.
The littleneck clams, at least, were clean-tasting and tender in a sauce of white wine, garlic and butter. The philosophy of this dish is one Veranda's kitchen would do well to pursue: simplicity and freshness, with an ingredient not commonly seen on local menus. This is the sort of approach that will help the kitchen distinguish itself in the dining landscape.
If left to choose one meal at Veranda, however, I'd make my choice quickly. The brunch menu is the tightest of the three, breakfast-centric and with fewer wacky international references.
Egg dishes are a Schiavo family specialty, and the variations on omelets and eggs Benedict are enticing and carried off well. The lump crab and asparagus omelet is chock full of both - and good crab at that, not merely leftover crab from dinner. The veggie Benedict was simple but fresh.
There are fine carbohydrates, too, perhaps none better than the pain perdu. One could see this New Orleans specialty as a shot across Liliana's bow, but Veranda's wingspan is just that wide by nature. Crisp around the edges, eggy, and with a hint of Grand Marnier, this is a satisfying late-morning meal.
Word to the wise bruncher, though: Do not order grapefruit juice. A double old-fashioned glass of juice on the rocks should not be five dollars, and yet here we are. That exception aside, brunch can be considered a good deal.
Some earlier reviews dinged the service at Veranda, but the staff performed admirably during my visits. Servers and hosts were prompt and responsive, attentive to the tone of each party they served. Calm, chummy, brimming with salesmanship - all these styles were on display.
Veranda's broad menu of pan-Mediterranean (plus Asian, plus Central American) influences would seem to fit Fitchburg perfectly. But cramming at least two restaurants' worth of food into one place leaves Veranda feeling fractured, lacking in a coherent story. No one's saying a Fitchburg restaurant can't be global, classy and fun - and even ambitious - but Veranda might be aiming for one too many targets.