First take Tilia, Butcher & The Boar, and Corner Table, and intersplice their DNA with liberal abandon. Then put the resulting creation on Madison, WI’s increasingly hip East Side. The result would look a lot like the newly opened “pasture-to-plate” bistro A Pig in a Fur Coat, named for a Kazakh dish of smoked fish that struck the owner as amusing. Crowded cheek-to-jowl on a recent Thursday night, this pig has buzz on its side: Google employees recently reserved it for a private beer-and-food dinner.
Much like Tilia, the restaurant doesn’t take reservations and the small space manages to feel chic, busy, and comfortable. Long communal tables in the center of the restaurant facilitate envious looks at newly arrived dishes, and thoughtful inquiries, too: A neighbor at our table during a recent visit asked if we’d ever traveled and eaten in Italy (one of us had) before then soliciting our comment on the porchetta.
Southern Wisconsin’s brewing scene is blowing up at a rate that keeps pace with the Twin Cities boom, and there’s therefore a rich array of Madison, Milwaukee, and greater Wisconsin beers to choose from on the Pig’s menu. We drank a Madtown Nutbrown ale (by Ale Asylum of Madison, $4.25) and found it light, gently malty, and refreshing without lacking conviction. The restaurant’s wine list is brief but well suited to its food, leaning heavily on Italian and South American varieties with bright, full flavors.
Arancini ($7) were a strong opening salvo, this trio of fried risotto balls providing an indulgent flavor / texture explosion. Each delicately crispy fried ball of creamy rice was accented internally by a spicy dab of Underground Food Collective ‘nduja and externally by a basil-Parmesan sauce that provided a felicitous kiss of salt, herb, and dairy. (According to the restaurant owner Bonnie Arent, the ‘nduja may be subbed out in future versions of the arancini, so enjoy them while you can.)
House-made burrata (fresh mozzarella with a cream and mozzarella core, $11) was rich and delicate, the intoxicating cloud of dairy brightly counterpointed by an accompaniment of good olive oil and heirloom and tiny currant tomatoes. The only (minor) misstep among the starters was lovely-looking lamb carpaccio with egg yolk ($14) marred by long strips of lamb that, while flavorful, were bubble-gum chewy.
Our table of four, already well-fed by the wave of rich appetizers, took our waiter’s advice and split a single porchetta as a main ($22). This was a move of unimaginable brilliance, and not just from a calorie-management perspective — the porchetta combined an ethereal tenderness with a gentle, almost ghostly kiss of fennel flavor that lingered long after the pork had been swallowed. That the dish floated on a cloud of truffled mashed potatoes was merely an afterthought, albeit a damned sweet one.
We went one for two on dessert. The Sicilian-inspired Svingi ($8, left) arrived in a pyramid of five doughy spheres, and despite a well-executed chocolate sauce and a pleasing orange undernote, these dense doughnut holes were more work than they were worth. By contrast, panna cotta ($8, right) was perfectly executed, coherent enough to hold together when cut by a fork, but refined in both texture and flavor. The pudding’s milky sweetness stood up on its own but also worked as a gracious partner with the fresh berries that rode shotgun on the plate. Chemex coffee for four (a steal at $5.50) was ably prepared and a worthy conclusion to the meal.
Everything about A Pig in a Fur Coat — including its awkwardly distinctive name — rings a note that should rally food lovers to its tables. The staff is passionate, the food, inventive and well-sourced, its pedigree distinctively Italian by way of the ingredients of the Upper Midwest. Madison’s fortunate to have this kind of dining mojo on its side; your move, Minneapolis / St. Paul.
A Pig in a Fur Coat
Farm-to-table Italian in Madison
940 Williamson St.
Madison, WI 53703
OWNER / CHEF: Bonnie Arent / Dan Bonanno
RESERVATIONS: No (also no takeout orders)
BAR: Beer /Wine
ENTREE RANGE: $15-25