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Madison's Nostrano

Destination dining from husband-and-wife vets of Blackbird and Boka

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Nearly two years ago Chicago lost two of its best pastry chefs when Tim and Elizabeth Dahl quit their positions—at Blackbird and Boka, respectively—had a kid, and headed north for Madison to open their own place. Capitol Square in Tim's hometown—site of a recent restaurant boomlet—is also the scene of their return to the restaurant world, a "Mediterranean" but largely Italian-leaning casual spot that couldn't be more different from the relatively rarefied environments they left behind.

It's wedged into a stuffy angled space in the pie slice landmark Jackman Building on the corner of the square, the majority of the dining area running down a corridor to the side of the kitchen that imparts the illusion of extra space thanks to the tall, wide windows that look out on the dramatically lit Capitol Building.

Returning to his savory roots, Tim is executing a menu that wouldn't look at all out of place back here in Chicago in the context of our own recent superabundance of affordable regional Italian. In Madison it's more sui generis, and well placed to adapt itself to the incredible diversity of meat, cheese, and vegetable producers in southern Wisconsin. It's too early in the growing season to get a clear picture of how that will look in full flower, but on my visit he was serving chicken agnolotti with the season's first ramps and Viola-grown oyster mushrooms, a risotto with house-made salumi, and a butter lettuce salad with candied olives, radishes, and a crumbled blue cheese from nearby Seymour.

There's some not unwelcome evidence of other prevailing restaurant trends, such as a small list of well-made craft cocktails (which seem to be everywhere in Madison lately) and a generous house-made charcuterie plate featuring a grilled salsiccia not unlike some fine Polish sausages I've known.

What's a bit startling is the amount of seafood on the menu, and a dull yellowtail crudo with grilled octopus raises questions about the advisability of ordering raw fish in smaller midwestern cities. But I had to forget them after tasting a tomatoey brodetto with crispy pieces of snapper and plump, sweet mussels fired with chile oil. And a grilled sturgeon fillet was just an excellent piece of fish set in a relatively complicated plating with chickpea aioli, artichokes, and olives with a tangy salsa verde.

Brightening accents like that one show up in plenty of dishes—particularly heavier ones, where they're needed most. A whole-wheat pappardelle lamb ragu redolent of cinnamon, harissa, and preserved lemon might as well be North African as Sicilian. And the sweet-and-sour braising liquid with a piece of pork shoulder is like a light barbecue sauce to the smoky meat, braised kale, and plump white beans, the whole bowl evidence that soul food isn't restricted by ethnic boundaries.

Finally, there's no sense in traveling all this way without getting reacquainted with Elizabeth Dahl's desserts—particularly a toasted gingerbread with candied kumquats, and especially her copetta, a sundae of buttermilk gelato, toffee pudding, bananas, and bitter pistachios. It's a sweet reminder of Chicago's loss, Madison's gain.

E-mail Mike Sula at msula@chicagoreader.com.

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