The Hunger Danes: District 1 - Osteria Papavero

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Kyle Nabilcy is, among other things, a food writer. Jenni Dye is, among other things, a Dane County Board member. We'll be visiting a restaurant, cafe, or bar in each of the county's 37 board districts in a feature we're calling... The Hunger Danes.

Compared to its somewhat grim visage even a decade ago, the Capitol Square dining scene at the heart of District 1 is an altered beast. The Old Fashioned, Brocach, Los Gemelos, Samba, Graze, Tipsy Cow, Coopers Tavern, Bradbury's...these are all relatively recent developments, to say nothing of really new arrivals like Tempest, Francesca's al Lago, and DLUX. L'Etoile is steadfast, with Harvest and Tornado Steak House (both opened in the 1990's) holding strong.

If you're one of the people who might have thought, while reading the preceding paragraph, "Don't forget Osteria Papavero!", then congratulations. You are an exception to what we (your Hunger Danes correspondents) see as the tendency in downtown food discussions to overlook this small, honest Italian restaurant on East Wilson Street. Lombardino's edges out Papavero in Isthmus' 2012 Favorites poll; Papavero doesn't even show in the Madison Magazine list.

But there was Osteria Papavero at the Isthmus Food and Wine Festival earlier in October, with a mountain of charcuterie that stood even with the big shots in southern Wisconsin, Bolzano and Underground Meats. Rightfully so, Papavero's simple yet spectacular butterscotch budino (a custardy, puddingy thing) won the 2012 Isthmus Favorite for Best Dessert (more on that later). And for the last couple years, Papavero and chef Francesco Mangano have offered Offal Week at the end of October, with nightly specials featuring some of the best ugly bits and scary cuts in town.

The food is good, the space is cozy, the menu is affordable, and the kitchen takes chances. So why aren't y'all talking this place up? Come on now!

Last year, Kyle was in San Francisco for Offal Week, which was a bummer but ultimately okay because he got to eat calf's brains and tuna heart at Incanto, a great Italian restaurant helmed by the most recent Top Chef Masters winner, Chris Cosentino. (Also, one repeatedly jobbed out of a star by Michelin. What's up with that?) And when local food writer Andre Darlington recently mentioned that it was Offal Week once again -- and Kyle was caught unawares -- it was about to be big cranky tantrum time.

Disaster was averted, though, by virtue of the pre-arranged Hunger Danes visit falling at the tail end (ahem) of Offal Week. Kyle, being the more fringe-forward of the team, dove right in. With an order of wild boar that came off the regular menu, Jenni was otherwise game (hey-oh) to sample a bit of the even more unusual fare.

The first plate to arrive was an Offal Week starter: cuore, or heart. In this preparation, the heart -- we're assuming beef heart here -- was marinated, seared, sliced like beef in a cheesesteak sandwich, and served with a salsa verde. It cooled fast, but the heart was cooked to a nice tender doneness, and the salsa verde brought its usual herbaceous zing to balance the mineral flavors of heart. This was a plate ample enough to share, and only six bucks. Jenni said a silent "Kali ma Shakti de!" and tried a few bites; she'd never have put it on her bucket list, but can cross it off now. The texture proved surprising

Main courses were the aforementioned Texan wild boar (cinghiale), braised in what was surely red wine or sherry and served with broad pappardelle pasta, and a hanger steak (lombatello when in Rome) for Kyle. For Jenni, the boar pappardelle was amazing. She had no idea boar -- which does sound rough and challenging -- could be so tender. When your strongest critique is that a game meat like boar falls apart too easily under your fork, you know someone has done something right. Jenni couldn't help but think of stroganoff, but like a million times better.

Hanger steak is often called the butcher's cut, owing to its deliciousness but also its minimal popularity; no one wanted it, so the butchers always took it home. The hanger comes from the belly, and rests in close company with the internal organs of the cow, particularly the liver and kidneys. This gives it a flavor similar to those internal organs, a sort of mineral tang -- not unlike the heart. It's best to eat hanger steak rare to medium rare, with a good exterior sear; at medium and beyond, hanger steak turns into a truck tire.

Unfortunately, while Kyle likes medium rare hanger steak, he doesn't like it blue rare. It pained him to do it, because he's a Midwesterner and doesn't want to seem like an asshole, but the hanger steak had to go back. It came out the second time looking and tasting much better, but it did throw off the meal a little. (The server never asked for a cooking preference, stating afterwards that they always cook hanger steak to medium rare. That's maybe something that should be disclosed.) Also, while the pickled grapes on the plate tasted great, the seeds were HUGE, damn near popcorn kernel size. An odd choice.

But all that fades away with dessert. Yes, my chocolate bread pudding with pumpkin sauce and toasted pecans was quite lovely -- it's also not the reason you get dessert at Osteria Papavero. The budino di caramello (it is no less delicious if you just call it butterscotch pudding) is served with minimal fanfare, just some whipped cream and cocoa powder. Sweet, rich and smooth, it's almost too much. Almost.

You could visit Osteria Papavero for just drinks and dessert. (Jenni and Kyle each ordered a cocktail -- Rhubarb Tom and Bugado Bianco respectively -- and ended up liking the other one's more and trading.) You could fill yourself on the just-crispy-enough fry bread in the complimentary basket. But just go. Make it a regular...haunt?

(Happy Halloween, everyone. And a special thank you to John Kovalic -- a passionate fan of all foods Dane County himself -- for the Hunger Danes logo. Go read his stuff, too!)

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