Hail Mary exterior

Hail Mary Sports Grill -- its name a play on both football and religion -- is in the former Bellini location. 

Nachos were not something I was in the mood for during a visit to Hail Mary Sports Grill, but my friend persisted. I think he wanted them because there was steak on top, which isn’t usually seen on nachos.

But the steak was tough and gristly, and there wasn’t much else to like about the nachos, either. Not the unappealing liquid cheese, not the smattering of lettuce and black olives.

My friend asked the server if we could send them back, something I’ve never done myself. Our waitress, whom my friend became pretty chummy with as the meal went on, tasted a piece of the steak and agreed. First time that’s happened to me in a restaurant, but she was friendly and endearing.

Before digging in, my companion requested jalapenos and sour cream on the side, and they only went so far in improving things. The fact that these nachos were $12.99 without basics like jalapenos, sour cream and guacamole was problematic.

The other appetizer we ordered, cheese curds ($7.99), meanwhile, was fabulous. “It’s kind of freaky how good these are,” my friend said.

They were small curds made with white cheddar and little breading. They were super soft and went down easily dipped in the accompanying ranch sauce.

Hail Mary curds

The cheese curds are small and made with white cheddar and little breading. They go down easily dipped in the accompanying ranch sauce. 

Hail Mary, which opened May 15, took the place of Bellini Italian restaurant. Caleb Percevecz and Danny Mijal opened the sports bar, at first just for lunch, without a liquor license after running into problems with the city’s Alcohol License Review Committee.

The ALRC eventually granted the license on the condition the partners surrender the license for their State Street business, Tiki Shack, which they closed July 8, ahead of the committee’s year-end deadline.

Hail Mary seemed more promising than Tiki Shack, because the partners hired local chef, Alex Theo, who designed the menu. Theo trained at Madison Area Technical College and worked at Banzo Shuk on Williamson Street. Joining him is Otis Harper, who goes by “Malik,” and has more kitchen experience than Theo, having cooked at Buraka and Kabul, among other notable places.

These days, every restaurant that serves a burger needs a gimmick, and Hail Mary’s house burger ($9.99) is a quarter-pound patty served — get this — between two grilled cheese sandwiches. If that weren’t enough, it was topped with a huge number of bacon strips.

The burger itself didn’t work because even though the meat was of good quality, the grilled cheese sandwiches were excessively greasy and hard to hold onto. Plus, the cheese inside wasn’t prominent. That was remedied by the fact that cheese was also melted over the meat. The burger came with lettuce, tomato and grilled or raw onions. The bacon was the best part, meaty and well cooked.

Hail Mary burger

The house burger is novel with good-quality, hand-formed beef between two buttery grilled cheese sandwiches.

A Reuben ($10.99), served on buttery marble rye, was also disappointing. It had a lot of meat going for it, but much of it was fatty, and the Russian dressing was left off. House fries that were crisp but salty came with both sandwiches.

We visited on the Monday night before the Fourth of July, so that may explain why there were few other customers. Everyone else was outside, where green umbrellas provide a nice contrast to the earthy brown building. We came inside quickly because of the mosquitoes.

Our server told us the burger and flatbread would take somewhat longer to prepare, but we were surprised when it took almost 45 minutes.

While the burger wasn’t worth the wait, the Greek flatbread ($9.99) was, a nice blend of spinach, tomatoes, Kalamata olives and cheese. Strangely, it had both feta and goat cheese, but it worked. The crust was thin, crisp and tasty.

I only ordered a cocktail because it was happy hour and rail drinks were half price. I went with a summer hummer, which should have had lime vodka, lemonade and a lemon-lime soda. This drink ($4.50) just tasted like a vodka lemonade with cheap booze. I certainly didn’t need a pint glass of it, and can’t imagine paying a full $9.

Hail Mary interior

Hail Mary Sports Grill Hail Mary is in a former church building with vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. It's 16 TVs don't detract too much.

Hail Mary — its name a play on both football and religion — seems a strange use for the former church building. Bellini, because it was more elegant, seemed a better fit for a room with vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. I was worried the TVs would be overwhelming because Percevecz told me there were 16 of them. However, they don’t detract as much as I expected, and the five above the bar are arranged tastefully. (Percevecz and Mijal are adding six more for football season.)

The menu riffs off the church theme, and is divided into invocation (starters), scripture (sandwiches), sermon (flatbreads and pizza), benediction (soup and salad) and closing hymn (dessert).

Dessert is worth sticking around for, but only the apple crisp ($5.99) is made in-house. The apple crisp had lots of whipped cream and was fine, but it was the superb pomegranate cheesecake ($6.99) that got my blessing.

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Wisconsin State Journal food writer Samara Kalk Derby brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene.