Spaghetti on the Board at Bunky’s Cafe in Madison

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

What makes a feast?

You might say the quality of the food, or the lavishness of the setting, or the specialness of the occasion. None of the above. A feast is a meal that’s shared, exuberantly and, well, festively, and there’s nothing quite so conducive to that vibe as Spaghetti on the Board.

A brief pause to acknowledge the foodies (or whatever nom-de-snark you guys are using these days): Spaghetti on the Board is not just lowbrow, it’s passionately lowbrow. Embarrassing, wear-a-spaghetti-themed-bib and drink-mandatory-house-Chianti lowbrow. If you can’t handle it, stick to your hand-crafted fresh agnolotti stuffed with herbed goat cheese, and let the rest of us dig into this absurdly wonderful feast.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Here’s the concept: At least two people make reservations in advance for Spaghetti on the Board at Bunky’s Cafe, a charming little Mediterranean-Italian restaurant on the East Side of Madison, WI. (Four or more is ideal to really get the full effect.) For $15 a person (before tip), you get a glass of Chianti, a small, innocuous salad, a giant pile of noodles and sauce, two meatballs, and a cute, delicious, miniaturized cannoli.

Here’s the catch: Everybody’s spaghetti and meatballs are jumbled into a massive pile in the center of a massive white plastic cutting board that sprawls across the table. There’s one cutting board per four people.

After the spaghetti, sauce, and meatballs hit the table, the board will inevitably expand from the massive heat and bow upwards, sending a minor tidal wave of sauce streaming toward one or more diners; that’s when you deploy the anticipatory stack of defense napkins.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

So here’s what you’ve got: A massive heap of spaghetti and meatballs, no plates, and at least two (probably four) people stabbing forks and knives into the mess in order to eat dinner. It’s raucous, it’s ridiculous, it’s hilarious, and it’s the most fun you can have in a restaurant without the aid of liquid nitrogen.

How’s the spaghetti, you might reasonably ask? That’s a bit beside the point, but it’s a fair question. It’s not bad. The meatballs are heavy on the bread and could be spicier, and the sauce is of the “classic straight-down-the-middle” red tomato variety, so there’s nothing particularly gourmet going on. If you’re the kind of person, however, who is comforted by a completely simple, honest, classic interpretation of Italian-American food, you’re in luck — this is the simple and honest jackpot.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

As with many folk eating traditions, the origins of Spaghetti on the Board seem to be lost (or at least muddled) in history. The tradition pops up sporadically in Southern Wisconsin (Rossario’s in Monona and The Monk’s Retreat in Cross Plains both offer it) and the rite might date back to communal tables set up to feed olive grove and grape orchard workers in Italy.

Or it might not. Two things are clear:

1) Spaghetti on the Board is one of the weirder of numerous weird Wisconsin folk food traditions, but it’s one worth celebrating.

2) If you’re like me, you’ll quickly tire of calling it “Spaghetti on the Board” and just start referring to it as “Spaghetti Board,” as in: “Hey! Let’s do a spaghetti board this Friday!” Or: “Whoa, you know what time it is? Spaghetti board o’clock! WooHOO!” Or simply: “SPAGHETTI BOARD!”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

BEST BET: The spaghetti on the board, of course. Reservations are a must, and at least two people need to share the Board.

Bunky‘s Cafe
Mediterranean-Italian on Madison’s East Side

2425 Atwood Ave
Madison, WI 53704
608.204.7004
HOURS:
TUE-THU: 11am-2pm 5-9pm
FRI: 11am-2pm 5-10pm
SAT: 11am-10pm
SUN: 5-9pm
OWNERS: Teresa Pullara-Ouabel and Rachid Ouabel
BAR: Wine and Beer
ENTREE RANGE: $6-17
VEGETARIAN/VEGAN: Yes / Yes

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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26 Comments

  1. That is just plain nasty.

    When bibs are involved you know that it’s something better suited for a chucky cheese. I just showed this to my 9 year old, he said, “maybe more like for 2 year olds.” He’s a harsh critic, but probably right.

  2. Author

    Oh, wow. This gives me the food idea of the century: Spaghetti on the Board could be easily adapted for Heidi’s! Think of it! A little Stonehenge display made out of beets, fennel emulsion and cured bits of Duroc ham that a fun-loving group can pick off of a big central plate! Only $80 a person! I think we know what next week’s Shefzilla Surprise is going to be…

  3. nom-de-snark…LOVE IT!!!

  4. Frankly, it’s articles like this that are the reason I love this blog. You guys love food, but you don’t take yourselves too seriously. Good food can be found anywhere, and the location is as much a part of the experience as the food its self.

    James, do you remember Josie’s Restaurant on Regent St? A little hole-in-the-wall italian place. We had our wedding reception there. It was awesome.

  5. Author

    Mike, appreciate the kind words. Re: Josie’s, yep, I definitely remember that place — it’s a pretty short walk from my in-laws’ home. I’m sure your reception was festive and terrific… Josie’s had a lot of charm.

  6. I am all for sharing food, but this is over the top nasty.

  7. JN, as much as I like your price point idea for a zilla (I do have two kids to send to Madison eventually) I think I will keep things on plates, sans bibs.

  8. Get over yourselves. This is fantastic.

  9. zjimmi 03/18/2011 Reply

    Bunky’s should have a mobile version. They could call it Trough Truck.

  10. I’m fairly certain Tom would be in heaven at Bunky’s. All they need is to add oversized forks to the equation and this perfectly matches his idea of a spaghetti dinner.

  11. Martha, are you joking? I can’t imagine suave, refined Tom going anywhere near that(!). I like the big fork idea, though.

    Brett

  12. Disgusting – it never ceases to amaze me what people are willing to pay money for. Just goes to show that indeed “there is a sucker born every minute.”

  13. morchella 03/18/2011 Reply

    A close friend who grew up in Bronx (the exact Bronx of Palminteri’s “A Bronx Tale”) described how her mother Adele, a fantastic Italian cook, would make a pot of polenta and dump it upside down in the middle of the kitchen table to serve it. I wonder if Spaghetti on the Board is from a similar tradition? And I wonder what sort of mood Adele was in when she served dinner in a heap in the middle of the table….

  14. I LOVE that the comments here are pretty much neck and neck for and against this idea. I think it sounds like a lot of fun, and Americans have a fun deficit in my opinion. And we are way too brainwashed about germ-phobia and staying ‘neat and clean’. Compare with many other places where the people are healthier and happier, they don’t worry about germs or much of anything the way we do, and they enjoy each other and have fun including at meals.
    We on the other hand, are taught to make sure we have our latex gloves and hand sanitizer at all times. THAT’s what I call, YUCK!

  15. I’m a sucker for spaghetti & meatballs on a plate, in a bowl, on a board. Consider this added to my to-do list for my next trip to Madison. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Elle356 03/18/2011 Reply

    Thank you Bunky’s Cafe! Thank you for this concept and for setting your customers back a thousand years.

  17. Deanna 03/21/2011 Reply

    Communal eating, from common dishes, is pretty normal all over the world. Shabu-Shabu, Okonomyaki and at most daily meal consumed anywhere not colonized by Northern Europeans. But, interestingly enough, I’m almost certain that those labeling this lively dinner treat “disgusting” in the above comments probably think that fondue is fun and fabulous. Just makes me chuckle….

  18. This is wonderful. Reminds me of various Madison red sauce dinners out in the early 1980s. Too young then to remember the names, but I know the taste.

  19. OMG! The bibs! The tomato schmear on the table! The Midwestern love of informality at its best.

  20. Yah, NO! As much as I don’t mind sharing a little food, I really don’t think I want 8 different peeps’ forks eating my pile o’spaghetti, sorry.

  21. Tried this at the Monk’s Retreat in Cross Plains once, five or so years ago. The atmosphere was grand, the time had was fun, and the sharing was easy.

    Sadly, The Monk’s Retreat used jar tomato sauce – the taste was terrible.

    Bunky’s has some solid food, though. So I may give this another go. All hail fun, GOOD food.

  22. Carlene 09/25/2011 Reply

    It’s too bad, that Bunky’s had to copy Spaghetti on the Board from Rossario’s… Can’t you come up with your own???

  23. Travis 07/10/2017 Reply

    When I was young back in the 70’s and 80’s, it seemed like ever time we went to an Italian restaurant my brother and I always ended up with a waiter who insistied on tiying a large paper bib around our necks before our food came. If we tried to remove the bib, my parents would get angry and insist we wear the bib. I have noticed that there are not many restaurants that provide bibs anymore.. Probably was not a bad idea to provide customers with bibs. Our shirts did stay clean.

Trackbacks for this post

  1. […] morning I noticed on the Heavy Table a story on Bunky’s in Madison.  Diners, wearing bibs, sit across from each other and eat […]

  2. […] of friends and I went to one of the fabulous neighborhood Italian restaurants for our very first Spaghetti on the Board experience! Have you ever done this before? It was a completely new thing to me, and so much fun! Instead of […]

  3. […] Café in Madison, Wisconsin serves its spaghetti “family style”—everyone can just grab a fork and dig in to the giant pile of spaghetti and meatballs…which is […]

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