Creamy, sweet pumpkin oozing from tender handmade agnolotti pasta pods, melting into a bed of buttery squash, sage and crisp, warm walnuts. The loamy, savory, time-sweetened collaboration of veal, pork, beef and chicken livers, slow-cooked eight hours and folded into thick strands of flat pappardelle noodles. Wood-fired pizza bianca, bubbling with Hook’s cheddar, swept from the oven’s archway right before your eyes. This is old-world Italy, yes, but it’s also foodie-haven Madison, and so it needs to be fresh, it needs to be modern and different; fun, approachable and, ultimately, beyond delicious. Just one year in, executive chef proprietor Michael Pruett is delivering that at Cento.
“You never want to mess too much with tradition, but it’s also sort of fun to plan it,” says Pruett, a French-trained Minnesota native who worked for years in Los Angeles before landing in Madison seven years ago, and was recently singled out by Best Chefs America. Cento is Pruett’s fifth Food Fight Restaurant Group venture, after celebrated stints at Steenbock’s on Orchard, Craftsman, DLUX and Johnny Delmonico’s. “But you have to know the foundation of the traditions to do a more modern twist on things, whether it’s the cocktails or the food. I think it’s a real craft.”
Concept-wise, Madison was ripe for an upscale, back-side Overture Center haunt to fill the vacuum left by the White Horse Inn; floor-to-ceiling windows take good advantage of people watching, and the open kitchen concept makes it interesting inside, too. The bar’s a stunner and an in-house sommelier helps navigate the 150-bottle wine list. But ultimately, it’s the hand-crafted pasta that sets Cento apart.
“It just tastes better,” from the chemistry of various grain selection to the rich and flavorful locally sourced eggs, says Pruett. Whether old world or modern Italian, “Less is still more. It’s just a few key ingredients, and you want those ingredients to show.”
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