Madisonians and visitors wishing to enjoy dinner with a side of panoramic views have found it all at Fresco on the top floor of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). For 13 years, the wall-to-wall windows of the third-story, 3,000-square-foot rooftop restaurant and lounge have provided diners with a view of downtown Madison, the Capitol, and State Street. And, when weather allows, that view expands with the addition of the MMoCA sculpture garden and the restaurant’s outdoor terrace.
At Fresco, it’s not just the restaurant that is elevated, but also the menu. Taking inspiration from its surroundings, the artfully crafted menu is a contemporary twist on classic dishes. From fresh preparation to elegant presentation, delicious small bites, small-plate buffets, and plated meals, Fresco’s fine dining is second to none. Wines are selected by the Fresco sommelier to complement the menu. Here, local sourcing means the Dane County Farmers’ Market, which you can see from the restaurant or the rooftop garden. It’s where the chef purchases most of the restaurant’s fresh, seasonal fare.
Fresco’s most popular appetizer could be the crispy brussels sprouts, deep-fried and tossed in Russian dressing and bacon lardoons. The gnocchi is served with basil pesto and a dollop of fresh burrata, which has a mozzarella look and consistency but has a gooey inside that flows out when you cut it. The restaurant is known for seafood and fish options, flown in six days a week. Seared scallops are almost always featured, and in summer, diner favorites include halibut and mahi mahi. Popular desserts rotate—the milk chocolate beignet, a French New Orleans dessert, is essentially a fried donut ball that is fluffier than a donut with melted milk chocolate in the middle. Other crowd-pleasers include pistachio gelato, panna cotta, carrot cake with burnt caramel top, and there’s always a crumble dessert on the menu.
For the experiential diner, the only thing better than good food and great presentation is a dining experience to satiate the need for an out-of-the-ordinary, pleasurable experience. Fresco’s ambiance is a combination of the art of MMoCA, the setting in downtown Madison, and the magnificent view. At night, diners bask in the lighting from the Orpheum Theater signage situated just across the street. Patrons often take pairing to the next level by combining the dining experience with a visit to MMoCA, other downtown museums, and over 300 shopping destinations.
Like art that is always evolving and being refined, the restaurant space receives major revisions. One of the most visible changes will come this fall when the bar moves to the peak of the museum, where the glass walls come to a point. This area of the restaurant is a major draw and provides perhaps the most significant experience for patrons. Those seated at the bar will face out toward State Street instead of the interior of the restaurant. To further capture the view, circle booths will be added to increase visibility and customer experience. These modifications will open up more seating in the main dining room, virtually doubling the capacity to just over 80 people. The entire restaurant will have an updated look that also includes new tabletops and contemporary flooring. Since outdoor seating is in high demand during the four months of peak warm weather, the inside of Fresco will now be an extension of the sculpture garden with the addition of a sculpture partially inside the restaurant.
The 7,100-square-foot rooftop garden of MMoCA features four sculptures in winter and six in the summer surrounded by a 10 by 20-foot garden, featuring flowers and an herb garden. The chef uses those herbs in food preparation and for garnishes.
Trestles extend up the far wall, and are used to grow hops. This idea came from Meg Mitchell, a Madison installation artist and professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison art department, and the work is a collaboration with the Civic Exchange Society (CES), Art & Sons design group, and Waunakee-based Octopi Brewing. The goal of CES is to find ways for people to meet and interact. The first beer was made and sold out in spring 2018. In summer, they made passion-fruit cider. A party was held at the end of November at Fresco to launch the new black tea porter. Fresco helps with the launches since they are the exclusive on-site caterer for MMoCA, and it helps them promote the beer they have on their menu.
Fresco is 1 of 20 restaurants in the Food Fight Restaurant Group. MMoCA invited them to open the restaurant after the Overture Center for the Arts renovation was completed. They’re also the exclusive caterer for special occasions at Overture through their Catering a Fresco entity. Food Fight restaurants are 50 percent employee owned, and most of the executive team and operation managers are invested in multiple restaurants.
Renting Fresco restaurant and the MMoCA sculpture garden or lobby can accommodate large groups. Fresco is a spectacular setting for business meetings, cocktail parties, rehearsal dinners, weddings, and family celebrations. Open seven days a week, they serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, and cocktail-style receptions.
The combination of location and exquisite epicureal creations means guests always leave with a good taste in their mouths.
Lauri Lee is a culinary herb guru and food writer living in Madison.
227 State Street
Madison, WI 53703