MADISON — November marks the 25th anniversary of Cafe Allegre, where owner and chef Ilario Suppa continues the family tradition of Italian dining to downtown Madison.
“I’ve always loved the restaurant business,” said Suppa, whose parents Vittoria and Silvio opened Cafe Allegre on Nov. 8, 1998.
Suppa started working at the 150-seat restaurant with his parents at age 14.
“I worked with my dad the entire time,” he said. “He taught me how to cook.”
When Silvio died about six years ago, Suppa took over as chef and owner, carrying on with his family’s recipes.
“Everything is homemade here,” he said. “I carry on those traditional recipes that were passed down from his mom and his grandmother.”
What stands out, Suppa said, is the restaurant’s “Sunday sauce,” a tomato sauce that simmers for hours until ready and is named after the day it’s traditionally made in Italian homes.
“It’s been passed down for generations,” he said of the family recipe. “Everyone has their own little secrets. The secret here is we use only the highest quality ingredients. We use Vesuvian tomatoes, which I think makes all the difference in the world.”
Mixed with local fresh ingredients, Suppa said his Sunday sauce is made daily.
“It takes all day,” he said. “I come in the morning at 8 a.m. and it sits all day long. It’s got to simmer for at least four to six hours. The longer you let it simmer, it extracts more flavor. It takes time.”
Suppa said he never alters the recipes.
“There are dishes that have been on the menu since day one,” he said, including the restaurant’s best seller, capellini al telefono. “What it is, is hand-picked lobster meat served in a very light cream sauce similar to a vodka sauce, and served over capellini pasta. If you come in here today, it’s going to taste exactly like it did when you came here 25 years ago. I’m not going to change a staple like that.”
Other popular dishes over the years include the rigatoni bolognese and the gnocchi piemontese.
In addition to the long-standing dishes, Suppa has introduced new seasonal specials to the menu.
“Seasonally we have veal saltimbocca, which is our Thursday special,” he said. “People come here just for that. It’s slow braised and made here. We serve it over … saffron risotto. It’s one of our house specialties.”
He has also introduced a scallop appetizer and a variety of salads.
“They’re extra large, pan-seared scallops served with fresh mixed greens and a balsamic glaze,” he said. “It’s kind of like my own flare. I’ve introduced a couple of new salads. Arugula with fresh pears or peaches depending on the season; pomegranates. I like to put on some goat cheese or blue cheese depending on the season, slivered walnuts or almonds. It adds a little protein and ties everything together.”
With winter fast approaching, Suppa said he plans to add menu items like beef lasagna and pappardelle pasta. Current specials include stuffed artichokes and butternut squash risotto.
Though he likes bringing his own dishes to the table, Suppa said he enjoys making the traditional items.
“I enjoy baking the Sunday sauce and I enjoy making the fagioli,” he said. “I enjoy making the bolognese sauce. Those are traditional things I enjoy making because I’ve been making it since I was a little kid. Our escarole and bean soup, which is very simple, is so good. I’ve been eating that since I was a little kid.”
Above Cafe Allegre is the Inn at Lafayette.
“It’s very small,” Suppa said. “It’s only five rooms. Spring, summer and fall, it’s very busy.”
Suppa, who lives in Branford, said the town of Madison has been a great supporter of his family’s business.
“The people of the shoreline are so warm and welcoming,” he said. “It’s such a pleasure to work here. I feel very fortunate to have that. Seeing the business thrive and the support we’ve seen from the Chamber of Commerce. We do a lot of sports banquets for the local schools. We try to give back as much as we can.”
Suppa said he has often wondered how his father would feel about Cafe Allegre being open for 25 years.
“I picture him with a huge smile on his face,” he said. “The restaurant is thriving and I’m carrying on his vision. I’m also bringing in my own flare. I think he’d be extremely happy. This is his legacy and I’m carrying on his legacy.”
One day, he said, he hopes the restaurant will be passed down to his children.
“I have three children,” he said. “My daughter, she’s 18. She just started college. She started working here about a year ago. Now she’s in Boston. She comes down whenever she can and she helps me out. My 14-year-old son, he cooks at home. He wants to cook his own food. I wish my dad was here to see that. It makes me proud as a father. I think he’d have a huge smile on his face and how I’ve kept it going.”