Opening a restaurant isn’t easy, and it’s not cheap. It can’t be rushed, there’s a risk of failure and deciding what to put on the menu is only a small fraction of the overall process. Still, ask Tim and Elizabeth Dahl, the husband and wife team behind Nostrano, a new restaurant on Capitol Square, and they’ll tell you it was absolutely worth it.
Working as chefs in a few well-known Chicago restaurants, Tim and Elizabeth visited Madison and noticed a newly vacant building at the southern corner of the Square. This prime location would become the impetus, along with a big life event, for their decision to make the jump to opening their own eatery.
“We saw this spot and worked from there,” said Elizabeth. “I got pregnant in Chicago and we needed to figure out what to do next. And [Tim’s] family is here, so it was kind of an ideal situation.”
It’s often said that Madison has the most restaurants per capita of any city in the nation. And though that may be hard to prove, it’s definitely not hard to believe, especially downtown. With ethnic selections, upscale bars, hole-in-in-the-walls and white tablecloths aplenty, the food scene is robust if not saturated. For the Dahls, this meant commissioning a third party feasibility study to ensure, in Tim’s words, that there was still “a piece of that pie” to be had.
As it turned out, there was, thanks mostly to the Dahls’ innovative concept and business plan that picked out a less-explored niche that just happened to match their own interests and expertise. Nostrano, which means “ours” in Italian, was created to be “upper mid-scale,” Elizabeth said.
“[Nostrano’s has] very approachable food, very affordable,” she said. “We didn’t want to have another fine dining place where people felt like they could only go on special occasions.”
And, Tim said, everything from the entrees to the drink menu to the service is centered on the idea that “you’re coming into our house, we’re just going to cook for you.”
Simply picking out price points and atmospheric touches was not enough, of course. Next, the couple and their culinary staff had to design a menu to match the music they wanted to have playing in the restaurant. Though they were both trained in formal French cooking, Elizabeth said that they decided to go with their hearts to focus on a bordering European country.
“We went to Italy on our honeymoon and that kind of inspired us… We loved what we saw in Italy, going back to revitalizations of simple cooking,” she said.
The end product was progressive Italian cuisine, but with nods to some of the Mediterranean countries that influence Italian food. Tim described one dish, whole wheat papardelle with lamb ragu, as an attempt to recreate the smell of Elizabeth’s Lebanese grandmother’s house at dinnertime.
“Sicily and Lebanon use some of the same types of spices, so we worked cinnamon in and we worked cumin in and we used different types of spices, all these flavors into that [lamb] ragu,” he said.
The papardelle (which is a type of pasta) is just as inspired – the recipe includes unconventional flavors such as lemon and mint, both locally grown like most of Nostrano’s ingredients. In the end, said Tim, “It has a pretty complex flavor profile. But it totally reminds me of her family’s holidays.”
Even a restaurant with an intelligent business plan and a quality menu needs customers to survive. But Tim and Elizabeth say that so far, this has been the easy part. Surprisingly, they’ve done almost no formal advertising – aside from a Facebook page and registering with the reservation software service OpenTable, all their marketing has been through word of mouth.
“We’ve been packed since the beginning,” said Tim, though he acknowledged that “when we get into January, February and the restaurant sort of slows down we’ll have to reevaluate.”
As for now, Nostrano is doing well; surviving – thriving even – in the tight Madison market. Opening night in October was “crazy smooth,” and since then the crowds have kept coming. Going forward, Tim explained his belief that the keys to success lie in always thinking one step ahead, while staying true to the reasons for originally starting the restaurant.
“[Success comes from] keeping everything right [financially], and then staying on top of the food and never resting on our laurels,” he said. “On some level it’s got to be built around what will sell. But first and foremost, it’s about what we’re hungry for.”
Nostrano opened in October and is located at 111 S. Hamilton Street.