Grampa’s Pizzeria on Willy Street is one of Madison’s best new restaurants. And now another grandfatherly spot, Nonno’s — that’s grandpa in Italian — could also be a contender for that title.
Nonno’s Ristorante Italiano, which opened Dec. 2 on Madison’s West Side, might have seemed an unlikely prospect because it was formerly the Mexican restaurant Cancun, and is run by the same owners, Juan Murillo and Joaquin Lopez.
The men, however, have a decade worth of history managing various locations of Tutto Pasta. And Nonno’s takes it up a level. Everything we ordered on a recent visit was superb. There was simply nothing to criticize.
Murillo and Chef Lopez chose the name to signify that Nonno’s is a family restaurant. It certainly has a casual feel and prices to match.
The oxymoron-sounding vegan carpaccio ($7) couldn’t have been better: Thin strips of seasoned and grilled zucchini had a smoky flavor and were crisscrossed on a plate and topped with nicely dressed arugula, red onions, capers, cherry tomatoes and artichoke hearts.
Equally good was the caprese classica ($8), healthy slices of tomato topped with what the menu says was imported buffalo mozzarella. Shreds of basil were sprinkled over the plate along with salt and black pepper. It, too, was perfectly dressed with extra virgin olive oil. All of the components tasted high caliber.
Two entrees were also faultless. The risi e bisi ($12) — Italian “rice and peas” — featured arborio rice, a short-grained rice used in risotto that becomes creamy when cooked. The creaminess was intensified by a hint of Alfredo cream sauce. Peas and small shards of prosciutto cotto, or Italian ham, played off each other nicely.
The farfalle rustico ($10) also had peas and was a good companion dish. The bow-tie pasta was enhanced by an olive oil and white wine sauce that was appropriately garlicky, and not too heavy. Small pieces of grilled chicken, paper-thin slices of mushroom, grilled onions and red and green peppers were also in the mix. The smell alone was alluring.
Our accommodating waiter recommended ordering the dish with a creamy tomato sauce, which is how he prefers it, but we stuck to the regular preparation. We did take him up on his offer to shave Parmesan over both dishes.
All four dishes worked well for sharing family-style and each was beautifully presented.
The same could be said for the excellent tiramisu ($6). “That is something else!” said a companion when the large square of fluffy tiramisu arrived, decked out with a sliced strawberry and drizzled with chocolate sauce.
“How many bad tiramisus are there in the world? They’re all good,” another table-mate offered.
The meal started with a basket of warm, doughy, homemade focaccia strips and a tasty mix of garlic and rosemary-infused EVOO and balsamic vinegar for dipping. Lesser restaurants use unappealing oil, balsamic or both.
I had never been inside the old Cancun, but a favorable State Journal review from 2005 described colorful, carved furniture painted with “cacti, fruits, flowers and sunsets.”
That cheerfulness is gone. The place has been dulled down considerably from its days as Cancun, and before that, as the attractive Sunprint Cafe. The rustic dining area has a few oggetti d’arte, and features some giant booths that can seat six comfortably, which was a plus for us, since our party of four briefly entertained two visitors.
We ate a leisurely Sunday meal in the middle of the afternoon and appreciated how the restaurant stayed open during the no man’s land between lunch and dinner.
“When you look at this place, you would think the food would be a little less good than this,” said my brother, who was visiting from San Antonio, and has had a long history of restaurant jobs. “They really came through.”