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Tony Lumani

Occupation: Co-owner, with brother Jerry

Where: Villa Dolce, 1828 Parmenter St., Middleton

Why you should go: This temple of divine gelato at Middleton's cultural crossroads has a hip European vibe, thin-crust pizza, organic salads, a bright little wine list and a quiet mix of jazz, Latin and Italian tunes on the stereo.

Villa Dolce sounds Felliniesque ' is your cafe decadent and dreamlike, like his movies?

It's a vision that's been in our heads for years. We're Albanians from Macedonia, and the story starts when we came to Middleton 18 years ago because Jerry met his wife here. We opened the Bavaria Cafe, around the corner, in '91. As a family-style restaurant it was perfect for Middleton then ' still is ' but we were ready to bring some modern European romance to Middleton's emerging downtown. We opened two days before New Year's 2006,
and business is good.

We're close to the people of Middleton, and we've watched the town change. People here travel a lot, they know what they're eating. The time was right for light gourmet fare, handmade gelato and a relaxing atmosphere. We could never do this kind of place in a strip mall. We've had our eye on this building for a long time because it was old ' just right for the ambience we wanted. It's from the 1890s ' it's been a post office, funeral home, candy store, restaurant ' it has history.

What makes gelato so much better than ice cream?

There's less air in gelato ' that's why the flavor's so intense. And we use all fresh ingredients. When we make pistachio, we use real pistachios from Sicily. And there's always calories, but gelato has less butterfat ' 4% to 7% compared to 14% to 18% in ice cream.

Albanians are known for gelato ' after all, we're right across the Adriatic from Italy. So we've been spending summers in Macedonia, visiting cafes in Skopje and asking people for recipes. We got the gelato machine from Italy. We had quite a time getting it here. It's a very expensive machine. We imported the case, too. You can't just use an ice cream case. You have to have the right temperature to bring out the flavor and creaminess. That's why pre-packaged gelato doesn't taste right ' you can't really freeze it.

What else is great here?

I love everything we picked. We use fresh ingredients, and we buy organic as much as possible. On the prelude menu the goat cheese bruschetta and Mediterranean antipasto are favorites. We've got very nice salads. Everybody loves the arugula and spinach salad with walnuts, ricotta cheese, fresh mint, mandarin oranges and shaved Parmesan with balsamic vinaigrette.

We do sandwiches and panini, including a daily lunchtime chef's special. The Amore sandwich is to die for ' marinated artichoke hearts, goat cheese, spicy sweet red peppers, basil and tapenade on ciabatta. And the pizza! Like gelato, Albanians are known for pizza. Everything on ours is fresh, and the crust is so good I can't describe it ' you have to try it. We have 15 kinds, from classic Margheritas to shrimp with goat cheese or prosciutto and arugula.

Our plated desserts are fabulous, though we don't bake in-house yet. We're waiting on some equipment, but by early May we'll be making our own tiramisu, cannoli, panna cotta and other Italian delights.

It's modern food for modern times.

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