If it seems like the Memorial Union’s been getting remodeled for years, it has. The first phase of the reconstruction started in the summer of 2012.
While the final phases, involving the building’s core, are still underway, the modern updates to the cafeteria, Der Rathskeller and the Daily Scoop ice cream shop, were unveiled in mid-January.
I’ll let other people argue about whether the new areas look better, but the changes certainly freshen the place up.
What was called Lakefront Cafeteria when I was at UW-Madison in the late 1980s, had more recently been Lakefront on Langdon, and offered four stations selling reasonably priced Mexican, Asian, pizza and wraps.
Those offerings were narrowed to just “Italian street food” when the space was recently turned into Strada.
Strada uses the same formula as most other new restaurants catering to college students: meals that can be easily customized. Here those meals are limited to two items: quick-cooking, 10-inch, Neapolitan-style pizzas ($7.25) and piadinas ($6.25), which are flatbread wraps, with the flatbread like a thick tortilla.
The thing about these piadinas is that thin spaghetti is stuffed inside all five of the signature models. There is, of course, the option to build your own and leave out the pasta.
Lance Baldus, assistant director of restaurants at the Union, said putting angel hair pasta — cappellini, really — in the piadinas is how it’s done in Italy. Strada uses thin spaghetti instead because it is easier to get, he said.
In any case, vegetarians will appreciate the bella alla griglia version, the only signature piadina made without meat. It has an inspired combination of grilled portobello mushrooms and peppers, tomatoes, spinach, arugula, and mozzarella with lots of red pepper pesto. I was skeptical, but the noodles actually worked well with the other ingredients.
The pizza, while fine, didn’t stand out. It has a crisp, flavorful crust and a small amount of cheese. The pesto pie had two types of pesto: A base of red pepper pesto, and areas of basil pesto on top. It also held small pieces of Italian sausage and mushrooms. Grilled red and yellow peppers made it pretty.
A side salad ($3.50) seemed disappointing when we got it. But the balsamic turned out to be thick and creamy, and it, along with a pile of romaine and butterhead lettuce that come from a greenhouse in Belleville, was a pleasure.
There’s seating at Strada, but most students take their food into what is now called Lakeview Lounge. The enormous seating area has upgraded to more contemporary furniture, but still offers its same exquisite views of Lake Mendota.
Meanwhile, in Der Rathskeller, the food-service area has a different layout. It no longer has an open kitchen, but a window where cooks can pass food out. It still serves burgers and fries, along with wraps, salads, soups and grilled cheese sandwiches. There are also more appetizer choices than before.
Baldus said the idea is to appeal not just to students, but to the families that come through on weekends.
Carte, next door, doesn’t have seating like Strada does, but offers quick, reasonably priced sandwiches ($5.75), salads ($6/$8) and soups ($3/$3.50). The sandwiches — there are four kinds — are already made and sit in a chilled case. After you select one, it goes into a high-speed convection oven and then into a panini press. It is baked first to save time, Baldus said.
The Mona Lisa with fresh mozzarella, pesto, basil and tomatoes comes on sourdough bread. Balsamic vinegar gives it moisture, as well as a nice, sweet quality.
The chicken bacon ranch with Babcock Dairy baby Swiss and avocado on multigrain bread fared less well, even though the chicken was thick and juicy. The avocado was the closest thing it had to a condiment, since the ranch dressing was missing.
A bowl of housemade beef mushroom barley soup was the only real disappointment. Although it featured tender chunks of meat and lots of mushrooms and barley, it had a plain broth that lacked depth.
The best news is that with all of the changes at the Union — more than $105 million worth so far — the fudge bottom pie from the old cafeteria remains. It’s available at the Daily Scoop, which mainly serves up Babcock ice cream.
Its price seems left over from the cafeteria days, too. At $2.05 a slice, it’s a great deal. Even though it’s half whipped cream, the pie still has that great crumbly crust, that fantastic custard filling, and that all-important layer of chocolate fudge.