Central + Main in Madison doesn’t have waitstaff, per se. They have food cheerleaders. The staffers issue unbridled enthusiasm for every element of each dish. (“The pork chops taste like Sunday dinner at Grandma’s!” effused our waitress on two different visits. “The polenta fries are my favorite!”)
One of my guests was a bit taken aback by the perky descriptions and the assurance “Great choice!” with each item selected. Having been to enough restaurants where I need to explain to the server what tilapia is, these folks were a pleasure.
Moreover, the waitstaff is right. This is food worth cheering about. Chef and owner Leia Gaccione knows how to layer flavors—honey, chipotle, lemon—and textures in a way that titrates them perfectly, yet is never precious.
Gaccione opened Central + Main (near the corner of those streets) in April, just three years after she launched her similarly named and themed South + Pine in Morristown. That restaurant turned a moribund space into a beehive of happiness; the same is happening in Madison.
Before S+P, she spent seven years working for Bobby Flay. Gaccione was his opening chef de cuisine at Bar Americain at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and Gato in Manhattan, and head chef of Bar Americain in Manhattan and Mesa Grill in both Manhattan and Las Vegas. Earlier, she had learned her trade at Jersey stalwarts, including Raymond’s in Montclair.
Gaccione, 35, is no mere acolyte, but a dynamo with a vision and drive all her own. “One of the best feelings in life,” she says, “is a busy Saturday night when the tickets don’t stop coming in, you’re on the verge of thinking this is going to be a disaster, but it just works. I love that.”
I last ate at C+M as the bill of fare transitioned to fall. On my earlier visits, the menu was packed with Jersey’s bounty of fried green tomatoes, corn and a sublime succotash assembled from every possible green vegetable, from asparagus to zucchini. Crunchy and herbaceous, with nary a lima bean in sight (thanks be), this was peak summer in a bowl.
On my last visit, a tzatziki that accompanied lamb meatballs (“We’re famous for them!” raved our server) offered an unexpected but welcome kiss of heat at the finish, thanks to a touch of poblano.
The flavors of cauliflower with cheese sauce were reimagined in a cauliflower-Manchego soup of which I was so enamored that the next day, I bought a cauliflower and chunk of Manchego in hopes of recreating it at home. (That didn’t happen.) In any event, I couldn’t have reproduced the terrific Marcona almond-sage pesto and crispy shallots gracing the top of the soup.
Tender P.E.I. mussels luxuriated in a pool of broth made with hard cider and strewn with double-smoked bacon, shallots and apple cider-thyme butter. The dish quickly became about how much broth you soak up with the hot, crusty, grilled bread.
Generous slabs of pork belly arrived deeply bronzed, crisp outside, tender and wonderfully fatty within. The meat rested on a harmonious purée of apple and fennel, but the smoked-apple relish—really a fresh salsa made of minced, lightly smoked apple—was not only clever, but rewarding.
Gaccione has a knack for deepening and intensifying classic flavors with judicious use of acid, heat and contrasting textures. “I’m not making comfort food, I’m making familiar food,” she says, too modest to add that she is raising it to unfamiliar levels.
Gaccione, who grew up in Paterson, makes the most of the Garden State’s bounty. I enjoyed the summer version of her scallops dredged in fresh-milled local corn meal, pan-seared and served on succotash. For fall, the scallops come with celery-root purée, root-vegetable hash and black garlic butter.
Her thick pork chop was fine (if a bit dry), but I could’ve made a dinner just from the accompaniments: creamy, local cheddar grits with speck and apple-sage sauce.
The spaghetti squash with mushroom bolognese and smoked ricotta is—how shall I say—a dish with a face made for radio. Close your eyes and revel in the soulful, umami-packed tomato ragù. The lightly smoked ricotta enhances the luxurious, noodle-like feel of the squash.
Then there is the burger—a beaut, juicy and meaty in a brioche bun, with caramelized French onion-dip aioli, crispy shallots, mushroom ragù, Gruyère and some arugula leaves in lemon vinaigrette for zing.
One Wednesday, the place was packed and boisterous. It took awhile for bread to arrive. A drink was forgotten and a roasted-carrot salad was too salty to eat. The staff dealt with the onslaught of customers and all our mishaps beautifully. They apologized multiple times for the delay and thanked us for our patience. They took the salad off our bill and put dessert on the house.
That said, these are desserts worth paying for. An apple galette with flaky sour cream dough is a joy and comes with a please-can-I-have-more oatmeal-cookie ice cream. It’s hard to choose between the chocolate tres leches cake with creamy peanut butter and the chocolate stout cake with malt whipped cream and crushed pretzels. Have both.
Gaccione credits much of her success to her mentor. “Flay showed me,” she says, “that you need to have a team of people to accomplish things, and you need to treat those people well to have them work hard for you.” She’s applying that formula winningly.
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Price Details:Appetizers and salads, $13-$14; entrées, $18-$34; desserts, $10
Ambience:Happy crowd in a light-filled space with a touch of shabby chic
Service:Upbeat and conscientious