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Wednesday, April 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Overcast and Windy


Bunky's has flavors from all around the big sea
Mediterranean medley

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Bunky's Café refuses to take itself too seriously, and that's a philosophy we could all take to heart. Wedding cake for dessert! Belly dancers three times a month! And dining room walls littered with decorative mirrors, random collages and vintage clothing. (The bathrooms are not to be missed.) By giving the impression of simply not trying, Bunky's effortlessly makes kitsch cool.

And the food's good, too.

A family business, Bunky's Italian restaurant first made a name for itself in the 1930s, when it opened in the Greenbush neighborhood of Madison (it was one of the three restaurants that made up Spaghetti Corner). It was there nearly 50 years. In 2004, Bunky's great-granddaughter, Teresa, reopened the restaurant on Atwood Avenue with her husband, Rachid, and the two expanded the authentic Italian menu to include an array of Mediterranean offerings. And while you might worry that a fusion like that would be unfocused and overwhelming, it actually proves enticing ' there's always something on the menu to catch your eye, no matter what you're in the mood for.

Bunky's appetizer list is hard to resist: Baked cheese, stuffed grape leaves and baba ghanouj remarkable not only for its pronounced eggplant flavor, but also its deliciously creamy texture, thankfully void of the pasty tahini aftertaste that all too often characterizes the dip. Can't decide? Opt for the Mediterranean veggie combo, a sampler of five.

Seasonal specials are also available. One recent night, for example, featured a locally grown heirloom caprese salad. A medley of green, red, yellow, and orange tomatoes, the minimalist dish was absolutely gorgeous, but unfortunately cheapened by the tasteless, rubbery mozzarella it was paired with.

Entrees include a wide range of seafood and grilled meats, and vegetarian options. There is lamb kabob, for example, and chicken shawarma ' as well as stews of okra or eggplant. In addition, a variety of sandwiches are available for lunch (falafel, Italian sausage), and pizza is offered daily after 5 p.m. Both lunch and dinner entrees come with choice of lentil soup or 'Italian' salad, so called because of its wonderfully cheesy and garlicky homemade Italian dressing.

Pasta dishes include lasagna, fettuccine and ravioli, with meat and vegetable sauces. A highlight is the puttanesca pasta, which is served in a large portion with a sauce that is a fantastic combination of contrasting flavors: Acidic tomatoes, spicy crushed red peppers, salty anchovies and kalamata olives. The grilled salmon was definitely on the well done side, yet remained surprisingly moist with a fresh, bright flavor. The side of hummus with it was the smoothest I've ever seen.

One caution: Complimentary bread is provided with the meal, but I implore you to pass. Its glaringly inferior quality makes one wonder where the baker's taste buds were.

Notably, vegan and gluten-free alternatives are available, (including gluten-free pasta and pizza crust). Hats off to our server, who was more than accommodating in making sure my vegan dining companion was satisfied.

For dessert, there are many coma-inducing options. Some come from Bunky's kitchen ' Rachid's baklawa, for example, and an insanely high four-layer chocolate cake (which is a bit dry). Other desserts come from local businesses: the wedding cake is from Carl's, and there also are treats from Chocolate Shoppe and Wisconsin Cheesecakery. There are no vegan desserts, but there is gluten-free pie.

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