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.
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.
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.
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!”
BEST BET: The spaghetti on the board, of course. Reservations are a must, and at least two people need to share the Board.
Mediterranean-Italian on Madison’s East Side
2425 Atwood Ave
Madison, WI 53704
TUE-THU: 11am-2pm 5-9pm
FRI: 11am-2pm 5-10pm
OWNERS: Teresa Pullara-Ouabel and Rachid Ouabel
BAR: Wine and Beer
ENTREE RANGE: $6-17
VEGETARIAN/VEGAN: Yes / Yes