Out to Dinner: Tipsy Cow, Cafe Porta Alba, and Graze

Going out to dinner happened very rarely in my household as a child. Once a year, to celebrate my mom and grandpa’s birthday, we’d go to Victoria’s, an amazing Italian place in Appleton (and Green Bay now). Every so often, we’d pick up fast food, either at Burger King for Whoppers or a local burger place in Appleton.

I definitely don’t feel like I missed out on anything; plus, it made going out so much more special. My mom was amazing about making dinners every single night for the family – we’re talking a meat, a starch, a vegetable, and often a light dessert. We ate as a family at 5:00pm because that’s when my dad got home from work. Also, to amaze you even further, my mom worked full-time once my younger sister was out of elementary school. Pretty impressive. Back then I didn’t realize how much time planning and cooking takes.

But back to eating out. It is something I enjoy doing with my husband and friends, and during the summer, it tends to happen more often. For example, I went out to eat on Monday for dinner with teacher friends, last night for dinner with Brody, and breakfast this morning after a four mile run with friends. In a couple hours, Brody and I are meeting another couple for dinner.

In case you’re a local Wisconsinite or will be traveling to the Madison area, I thought I’d share my meals, drinks, and opinions with you about the restaurants I visited this week (not including dinner tonight because it hasn’t happened yet). And because I’m a teacher and used to giving out grades, I’ll assess (teacher lingo) various aspects of these dining establishments.

Tipsy Cow

Service: B+
Our server was younger, kind, and checked on us just the right about of times.

Atmosphere: A-
When we arrived, it was still pretty hot and humid, but we got a table outside that looked right on to the Capitol. I love eating outside even if it means the backs of my knees sweat a little.

Drinks: A-
I ordered the Gin-Ger Spritzer ($8), which came with gin, ginger-lime syrup, and club soda. I asked for light on the gin (I had to drive home); the drink was light, refreshing, and perfect for a summer night.

Food: B+
Fries and wings were half off the night we were there, so we started with a basket of truffle fries ($8 but $4 for us). I had tried these before and eaten so many I made myself sick to my stomach (i.e. They are good). On an episode of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain balks at truffle oil, as it is not really made from truffles. I guess I don’t understand why he is so annoyed with the use of truffle oil; it is delicious and not everyone can afford to eat real truffles.

For my entree, I ordered the Truffled Portabello Mushroom sandwich ($7) without the aioli. Instead of one mushroom cap, the sandwich had smaller pieces of portabello; this was fine but made eating a little messy as the pieces kept falling out of the sandwich. The mushrooms had been sauteed in oil or butter, and the sandwich was grilled on a flattop with more oil or butter. Needless to say, it was greasy…maybe a little too greasy. But as Brody said, when you go to Tipsy Cow, you should not expect a healthy meal. My teacher friends wanted to try Tipsy Cow’s cheese curds ($7), so we had an order of those in the middle of the table as well.

Cafe Porta Alba

Service: A-
Our waiter was an energetic man with a beard (Bridget – similar to JP’s). He had lots of energy and enthusiasm; you can tell he loves his job. Because the pizzas only cook in the wood-burning oven for ninety seconds, the food normally comes very quickly. We hadn’t been waiting for our food for too long when he stopped by to apologize for the wait.

Atmosphere: B
While their current location in Hilldale mall is definitely a step up from the building off of East Washington, the decor doesn’t wow me, and that’s okay. The food speaks for itself. We were seated at two-top with one person sitting on a long bench along the wall and the other at a chair. Brody finds the chairs to be uncomfortable, so I got the chair (it’s fine for me – he’s not being a jerk).

Drinks: A-

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The wine at the top of the list was a red that was served chilled, so we ordered a bottle ($28). It was actually a frizzante and was slightly carbonated – quite different from a normal red wine. At first I thought it was okay, but as I drank more of it and then paired it with the pizza, I liked it even more.

Food: A

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I have never had a bad meal here. Brody and I started out with a salad to share of mixed greens, parmesan shavings, and an olive oil dressing. Then we ate pizza. This time I chose one with cheese, prosciutto, and arugula ($12, I think). It had lots of flavor, and I loved the different textures (melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto and cheese vs. crisp arugula) and temperature (everything warm except the arugula). Brody had something with smoked mozzarella and meat; obviously I was too busy eating mine to care about his. He did say that kind was the best he’s ever had at Porta Alba.

Graze

Service: B

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The group of DailyMilers I ran with
It unfortunately took a while for us to be seated because we wanted to sit outside (after running four miles in 75 degrees, we didn’t want to subject diners to our sweatiness). By the time we were seated, we were dry and hungry. We had a waitress who was kind and prompt.

Atmosphere: A
As mentioned in the Tipsy Cow review, I love to sit outside, and Graze has an outdoor space right on the square. Saturday mornings are bumpin’ downtown because of the farmers market. Our four-top table sat the three of us comfortably and had a cute umbrella to shade us from the sun.

Drinks: N/A

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I had water because we stopped by Starbucks after the run once we realized there was a wait for a table.

Food: A

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The Loaded Breakfast Sandwich ($11) sounded perfect after a run, and it hit the spot. I ordered it without the swiss cheese (seemed excessive to me since it also had brick cheese) and ate the greens and half of the sandwich. The saltiness of the ham and bacon were just what I needed. Mel saw the word Nutella on the menu and decidedly immediately she had to have the Nutella-stuffed French Toast ($9) while our friend Jess had the Eggs Benedict ($12). We all loved our food and would highly recommend this restaurant for Saturday mornings.

Either I’m a really easy grader or the restaurants in Madison just rock. I think it’s the latter of the two. Many people do not give Wisconsin any credit; they think we’re a bunch of football-obsessed cheeseheads who drink beer and eat brats. Well, I guess that’s pretty true for many of us, but Wisconsin, especially Madison and Milwaukee, has so many fantastic, unique restaurants. I do not take for granted living so close to Madison and all the superb food it has to offer.

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