Later this month, an intimate Italian restaurant just off of the Capitol Square will become the arena for a one night only "Ramen Smackdown."
Osteria Papavero, Francesco Mangano's restaurant, generally dedicates itself to homemade pasta and inventive cured meats. On Aug. 24, three chefs will transform the space, which seats about 50, into a pop-up ramen shop.
According to the Facebook invite, those chefs include Justin Carlisle, chef/owner of Ardent in Milwaukee (formerly of Madison's Harvest, Restaurant Muramoto and 43 North), Restaurant Muramoto sous chef Matt Morris and Ian Stowell of soon-to-open Sujeo (formerly of Harvest).
The event is a kind of reunion — all three worked at Muramoto when it first opened in its current 225 King St. location.
"It's an opportunity to cook ramen, which they're all passionate about," said Francesca Hong, one of the organizers of the Smackdown. "We really want the energy to be of a traditional ramen shop, with family-style tables. We're hoping to have lots of people sitting at the bar."
For the Ramen Smackdown, a $15 ticket ($16.52 at Brown Paper Tickets with a service fee) includes a bowl of miso, shoyu or shio ramen, a 12-ounce PBR and tip. The event runs 6-10 p.m. and organizers expect quick turnover. If you're willing to slurp your noodles standing up, they'll serve you — complying with city capacity ordinances, of course.
Love of ramen, the traditional Japanese noodles that most Midwesterners encounter first in packet form as college students, has been spreading across the Midwest. Madison has one spot, Umami Ramen and Dumpling Bar, which is fashioned more like a traditional restaurant and uses noodles from RP's Pasta.
In April, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel restaurant critic Carol Deptolla wrote that ramen is becoming easier to find there, too. At Ardent, Carlisle hosts late-night Red Light Ramen nights, which start after his restaurant closes.
"Diners descend precisely at 11:30 p.m.," Deptolla wrote, "sometimes lining up earlier, for the sole dish on the menu: tonkotsu ramen, a memorable pork broth rich with fat and stocked with thin slices of pork, noodles with bite, green onions and mushrooms."
For the Madison event Carlisle will make shoyu ramen, traditionally from Tokyo. Morris will make miso ramen, from Sapporo, and Stowell will make shio (salt) ramen.
"It should be a really fun event," Hong said. "I don't think people in Madison have had this type of ramen before."
Without taking anything away from Umami — "they make a great bowl of noodles," Hong said — the reason Madison doesn't yet have a traditional Japanese-style ramen shop comes down to two factors.
First, until recently it was hard to find the right kind of noodles. But in late July, Eater ran a story about a company in New Jersey called Sun Noodles that's been working with Japanese mills to source super-fine flour.
The second reason is that making ramen broth is a time-consuming, tedious process, involving roasting bones, simmering for hours and close monitoring.
"You have to pay a lot of attention to it, watching the broth," Hong said.
Restaurant Muramoto has done ramen specials, but it's a space consideration, too. In June, Brett Olstadt at Muramoto said "people are always asking for it," but given the format of the restaurant, he can't stock it all the time.
According to Hong, the chefs would probably prefer the Ramen Smackdown to be more collaborative than competitive, but in the spirit of making it a fun event, Papavero owner Mangano will be tasting and judging all the ramens, and customers will receive secret ballots.
"We're encouraging people to come in groups of two or three, so they can try them all," Hong said. If someone had three bowls, "your sodium intake would be enough for the whole month," she added.
Could an event like the Ramen Smackdown lead to a new restaurant in Madison? Hong hopes so.
"I hope we can have more of these pop-up ramen events," she said. "With us having winter as long as it is, it's suitable to have a ramen shop.
"I think Madison might be ready for a traditional Japanese-style ramen shop. Milwaukee seems excited, so Madison should be too."