Like a fighter circling an opponent, Madison’s Food Fight Inc. knows when and where to strike. With the June opening of Cento Ristorante across the street from Overture Center for the Arts, the 24-year-old restaurant development company has scored another knockout.
Cento — pronounced “chento” — is Italian for 100. Diners might be inclined to give chef Michael Pruett’s stylish take on Italian cuisine a score of 100, if his performance is always as perfect as it was the night we visited.
Located in the newly built, rehabilitated block designed to provide Overture Center with a more elegant neighborhood ambience, Cento is all clean lines, wood floors and an open kitchen — from which Pruett seems to almost endlessly wander. But whatever is going on behind the scenes in his absence seems to work well.
We first ran into Pruett’s work at Steenbock’s on Orchard, another one of Food Fight’s 19 restaurants — this one located in the lobby of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus. The name is part wry homage to Harry Steenbock, a UW biochemistry professor who found a way to add vitamin D to milk in 1923, and part a cross-reference to the restaurant’s Orchard Street location.
Cento is nothing like Steenbock’s. It’s not much like its nearest Food Fight neighbor either: Fresco, Madison’s only rooftop eatery, atop Overture Center.
In fact, variety has always been a hallmark of Food Fight restaurants, ever since the first, Monty’s Blue Plate Diner opened its doors in 1990.
Food Fight first started in response to a neighborhood’s need for a comfortable, high-quality restaurant within walking distance. Local developers purchased an abandoned gas station in Schenk’s Corners on Madison’s east side, across the street from the Barrymore Theater, and converted it into a restaurant.
They also brought restaurateur Monty Schiro into their organization. Well-known for his collection of Fiestaware, as well as the time he rode a bicycle from Los Angeles to Savannah, Schiro had worked in restaurants in Chicago and his native Madison. Schiro was given rein to do whatever he wanted, as long as the restaurant was a success. With the backing of his partners, the 1950s-themed Monty’s was not only successful but also became the cornerstone for what grew into a restaurant empire.
Schiro knew that no matter how much diners liked a restaurant, they wouldn’t return to the same one night after night. So he and Food Fight set out to create unique dining experiences linked by high-quality preparation, a polished feel and individual styles.
Cento and Fresco have a sleek, contemporary ambience, while Monty’s diner motif is similar in look and feel to the company’s Market Street Diner in Sun Prairie and Hubbard Avenue Diner in Middleton. The latter is also replicated at the company’s relatively new Bassett Street Brunch Club, which offers brunch as well as a full menu all day. It even boasts drive-up doughnut service.
Different Food Fight venues offer more unique options. Johnny Delmonico’s Steakhouse embraces the dark-paneled, mid-century look of a place Frank Sinatra might have frequented, while Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace is a classic West Texas tacqueria. Madison’s best gourmet burgers can be found at D Lux, and Food Fight now owns the venerable Avenue Bar, a city dining tradition since 1970.
But back to our dinner at Cento.
We started with a duo of appetizers. A foot-long trough of warm olives marinated in rosemary, garlic, citrus and oil ($5) teased and tempered our taste buds for greater things yet to come, including an appetizer of bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with spicy sausage and doused with a piquillo pepper sauce ($9). The combination of sweet, savory, spicy and salty was a perfect balance that left us wanting more.
For the main course, our vegetarian went for gnocchi with foraged mushrooms, mustard greens, breadcrumbs and chive oil ($19 for an entrée.) We also ordered cedar-roasted arctic char with roasted vegetables, lemon and tarragon oil ($26). The servings were appropriately sized, trading unnecessary volume for flavor and finesse.
The gnocchi, easily the best we’ve ever had, were creamy and rich. The dish’s vegetable blend provided a nice counterpoint in color and texture. The char was sweet and succulent, its moisture and flavor enhance by the oil. The dish was augmented with fresh green beans, potato, carrot and small purple broccoli.
We splurged on our wine — a Tenuta Rapitala “Grand Cru” chardonnay from Sicily ($65). Lighter and less oaky than many chards, it had a silky mouthfeel and abundant fruit that paired perfectly with the entrées.
The wine also complemented our dessert, a vanilla panna cotta with strawberries ($7). We were celebrating a wedding anniversary, so our wine steward waved the cost of the dessert as a gift from the restaurant.
After our meal, we realized that it had been too long since we’d been to a Food Fight restaurant. We won’t make that mistake again.
122 W. Mifflin St., Madison
Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to midnight
Saturday, 9 a.m. to midnight
Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.