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Madonia is Italian Eating That's All Grown Up

As a parent, I am forced to divide my dining experiences into two categories: those that warrant hiring a sitter, and those that definitely do not. The elegant Madonia restaurant is unquestionably one of the former. Top to bottom, start to finish, Madonia delivers a dining experience that takes its sweet time, expertly wooing you until you find yourself intoxicated by the irresistibleness of it all. It should be considered "adults only" eating.

The North Stamford restaurant isn’t exactly new on scene. But with so many restaurants sprouting up downtown, Madonia offers a more subdued atmosphere, away from the bustle of the bar crowd. It’s Mediterranean dining for grown-ups.

Just step across the threshold into the warmly lit space and you’re embraced by a sophisticated gleam: the polished wood, the hospitable staff and the rich scents wafting from the kitchen that promise delicious things to come.

The space itself is a Stamford institution. It is the same that housed Giordano’s Steak House for decades, though in its new incarnation, chef and owner Enzo Bruno has turned the dining experience into an art form. Simply nothing is overlooked.

On my recent visit, my dinner date and I settled into our table, sipped prosecco and sampled the homemade white bean spread as we contemplated our next gastronomic move. Jackie, our server, helped guide us through the menu, her tenor pitch perfect as she intuitively arrived only when we needed her services.

We began with a kind of autumn antipasti: roasted pears, prosciutto di Parma, arugula, small blocks of parmesan cheese, roasted endive and figs. It was a seasonal study in the delight of combining the sweet and the savory.

Bruno selected the next dish for us, a tuna tartare which sat atop absurdly smooth blended avocado and was drizzled with wasabi mustard. It was like velvet, a mini masterpiece in itself.

We were only a third of the way through our dinner, and it was already worth the price of the babysitter. And then, things started to get really good.

We shared an order of the homemade gnocchi with mushrooms, topped in truffle oil. Again, the word that came to mind (other than Nirvana) was "velvet." I had to ask Bruno how he makes the gnocchi so smooth. “It took me a little while to come up with the right process,” he smiled. Bruno is a quiet, unassuming man, a departure from the stereotype of the bombastic Italian chef. The native Calabrian seems genuinely invested in giving each diner an experience to remember. “I let the gnocchi sit in the refrigerator for a little while under the fan to dry them just enough so that they’re not heavy or starchy.”

We could have wrapped things up at this point and been utterly satisfied. But the evening’s A-list items had yet to arrive. For our main course, I ordered a roasted half chicken in a tomato, garlic, rosemary and mushroom sauce, paired with an autumn risotto of pumpkin, sage, asparagus and mushroom. It was truly what risotto aspires to be, as my fellow foodie and dinner date so aptly put it. Bruno also chose the grilled pork tenderloin with deep fried hot cherry peppers, broccoli rabe and a side of fries.

“In Europe, we eat a lot of pork,” Bruno said as we dug in. “This dish is a little more rustic, especially with the fries on the side. It reminds me of what I ate as a child. We deep fry the hot cherry peppers to give them a little more kick.” They definitely had “kick” and lent a depth and maturity to the dish that was just divine.

Impossibly, we made room for the dessert Bruno sent over. A pumpkin cognac cheesecake that rounded out our meal with a final touch of the velvety texture we’d be reveling in all night.

We left impressed and grateful that Bruno is offering Fairfield County diners an authentic Italian dining option happily devoid of marinara. It’s not that I have anything against a good red sauce; I don’t. Even kids can appreciate a well seasoned tomato sauce. Madonia, however, is tailored to a more grown-up palate. So make your reservation and schedule your sitter. You’ll be very glad you did.

Madonia is located at 1297 Long Ridge Rd. in Stamford. For reservations, call (203) 322-8870.

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