In the last year or so, the slow and steady gentrification of Willy Street has turned the Near East Side thoroughfare into a dining destination.
Old houses have become bars and bistros (Umami Ramen and Dumpling Bar, El Rincon Tico). A dark, funky coffee shop transformed into a pottery studio and an airy bakery/café (Madison Sourdough).
Now there is A Pig in a Fur Coat, serving swanky small plates on the block between Eldorado Grill and The Roman Candle Pizzeria.
Owned by Bonnie Arent, A Pig in a Fur Coat takes its name from “herring under a fur coat,” a layered fish dish popular in Kazakhstan, Russia and the Ukraine — salted fish covered with onions, boiled and grated vegetables, beet root, mayonnaise and hard-boiled egg.
It sounds heavy, so perhaps the translation works. Much of the menu at A Pig in a Fur Coat revels in decadence.
A dark yellow duck egg yolk dribbles from the center of a plate-sized brown butter- and bacon-topped raviolo ($11). Duck fat makes paper cones full of fries perfectly crispy ($6) and lends a golden shade to leaden, orange-scented doughnut balls (“sfingi” or “zeppole”) drizzled with dark chocolate ($7).
With an antique chandelier, quirky art and a long Italy-centric wine list, Pig cultivates a more refined ambience than its predecessor, the family-style La Rocca’s. But communal seating (some of it outdoors) and staff who gush over the pork belly make it just as friendly.
Take your waiter up on his offer to taste a few wines before you choose one — with veal breast, try a dusty red Aglianico ($7.50/glass) or a full-bodied Leonie Di Castris primitivo (like zinfandel, $8.50). The bright Loimer LOIS gruner veltliner ($7.50) goes beautifully with a tin of herby, pleasantly oily sardines ($10) or octopus salad ($12).
The entire menu, divided into a variable list of snacks, small and large plates, is meant to be shared. (The small plates trend came late to Madison, but it’s certainly sticking around.)
Anywhere that offers a dish of fat olives with orange and fennel ($4) has a future as a wine bar. For a heartier start, sweet, candy-like dates stuffed with chorizo ($7) were meaty but well-balanced with piquillo pepper. Underground Food Collective’s spreadable ’nduja sausage lent a spicy surprise at the center of golden-fried risotto balls ($7).
Executive chef Dan Bonanno, formerly of the Italian restaurant Spiaggia in Chicago, likes rich, fatty meats, but he has a keen sense of balance and doesn’t overcomplicate quality ingredients. On Tuesdays, he sources from the Eastside Farmers Market one block away.
Porchetta ($22) — pork belly wrapped around pork loin — fell apart under our forks, melting into a base of mashed potatoes and perfectly nutty, sweet romesco sauce. Contrasting a vast veal breast ($21) the size of a prime rib were lovely apple-kraut and creamy bacon-studded polenta.
If you don’t like the tender, sweet roast beets in a salad of goat cheese, candied walnuts and balsamic ($9), it is safe to say you’ll never like them at all.
Carpaccio ($14), paper-thin Pinn Oak Farms lamb shoulder or loin, is as mild and delectable as lamb gets, especially when swirled with raw duck egg yolk and piled on crostini with pea shoots.
Herb-flecked orzo ($11) felt like a summer salad version of risotto, bright with lemon, stocked with tender mussels and (chewy) clams.
And now, in late summer, find the platonic ideal of caprese salad ($11) made with cream-filled burrata, heirloom and cherry tomatoes, and sweet ground cherries, their papery skins flying behind them like tiny parachutes.
A Pig in a Fur Coat doesn’t have the funky, laidback look of the Weary or Lazy Jane’s, or the tropical heat of Jolly Bob’s and Jamerica. But to sit together in a welcoming room, drink a couple beers and share a menu built around simplicity, skill and bacon may be just what Willy Street needs.