If you’d like to know if Madonna’s, the new Italian place on Allen Street, is for you, I have a question. Have you eaten at Cafe 59 in the last few years? That’s the casual place across the street, which has gathered quite a few fans for its fresh, hearty versions of soups, salads and sandwiches.
If you liked Cafe 59, you should enjoy Madonna’s. Both are run by Chris Connolly and offer generous portions of robust food in a low-key, comfortable atmosphere. The space, formerly Fiddleheads and Atmosphere @ 62, has tall ceilings, light-colored walls and a bar set up in its front room, with a television on the wall.
It’s a compact menu of small plates, pastas and entrees, mainly standard red-sauce Italian choices. There are a few signs of adventurousness in the small plates, like polenta cake with fennel, raisin and balsamic vinegar ($8) and fried smelt with lemon and caper mayonnaise ($9). Otherwise the choices run to chicken Parmesan ($15), sausage with peppers ($15) and basil pesto pasta ($12).
We asked for a bowl of tomato basil soup ($4), fried artichoke hearts ($7) and fried ravioli ($7).
For mains, Cat asked for Chicken Marsala ($15) and I chose what looked like the most interesting pasta, with pancetta, ricotta and wilted arugula ($15).
Our friendly server brought warm, chewy bread.
The soup was an eye-opener, and we learned later it won Best Tomato at the 2013 Soupfest. It was creamy but not pureed, enriched with cheese, full of welcome vegetable textures, like crunchy onion and hunks of tomato. (Cat, enjoying it, said it overcame a childhood aversion to stewed tomatoes.) Some of the texture came from bay leaves, but it was a minor demerit for a satisfying, warming bowl on a frigid night.
The fried ravioli was a generous serving, but the ravioli were naked, without the characteristic crumb coat I’d come to expect. The result was adequately cheesy but plain, except for the dipping marinara.
The polenta cake was tender, even fluffy inside, but underseasoned. Once mixed with its zippy accoutrements – balsamic onions and juicy macerated raisins, plus mushrooms – it seemed to make more sense, but couldn’t overcome its heart of blandness.
Artichoke hearts were a delight. They were little full hearts still sporting a bit of stem, and they were expertly fried, turning the exterior leaves into addictively crunchy artichoke chips. Like the ravioli, one appetizer could serve two well. We devoured more than was prudent, making liberal use of the caper mayonnaise, and decided it made an excellent vegetarian replacement to the fish fry. They would make a fine little meal with a salad.
The entrees arrived, both massive portions. Cat’s Chicken Marsala came over linguine that had been tossed with sauteed mushrooms and onions, a nice touch. The sweet-savory sauce was well-balanced, but the chicken breasts were overcooked and tough in spots.
The sauce was good enough that the leftovers were not only taken home but actually eaten.
My pancetta arugula pasta held a generous amount of delicious ingredients, from the rendered, thinly sliced cured pork to peppery greens and a garlicky cheese mixture. I dove in and found the flavor combinations pleasant, but after a few forkfuls the overall richness made me slow down and stop. I found myself in the unusual position of wishing it was less rich so I could eat more.
There was one dessert choice, and we said yes. What we got, for $5, was interesting. A big banana walnut muffin was sliced in half horizontally. In between were big dollops of an orange cognac cream. Then there was a banana sliced lengthwise, sugared and blowtorched to a glossy caramel surface, and subtly bitter caramel sauce on the plate.
Between the rich cake and boozy filling, we ate far, far too much of it, and of course we could not let a crunchy bruleed banana go to waste. If you only offer one dessert, they should all be that good.
Like its cousin across the street, Madonna’s offers excellent values on dishes that sometimes flirt with excellence.
Madonna’s: 7 plates (Out of 10)
Allen Street’s new Italian restaurant offers hearty dishes, many sized for two.
WHERE: 62 Allen St. (768-1401)
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Sandwiches, burgers and salads, $4-$10; small plates, $4-$9; pastas and entrees, $12-$20.
PARKING: On the street. WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.