2009 dining: Wilton, Botin, Novodabo

Excellent food, unusual settings and/or one-of-a-kind characters earn these five places a spot on my list of exceptional dining spots of 2009. Consider it a way to acknowledge interesting businesses that weren’t the topic of previous “Roads Traveled” columns.

Some people take the five-mile detour off of Interstate 80, between Iowa City and Davenport, for the ice cream. Others like the ham salad. Then there’s the Hadacol – not the medicine high in alcohol content, but a vanilla and root beer fountain drink that tastes like cream soda.

Thelma and George Nopoulos do it all here, at Wilton Candy Kitchen, in business since 1860. Iowans say it’s the oldest soda fountain in the world, and the little business was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

At the tables, when I visited: a mom and daughter, after her first day of kindergarten; a couple with a banana split ($6.25), to celebrate a birthday; and a foursome of retirees playing bridge for nickels. “We used to hang out here after school, and not much has changed,” said one of the card players.

The proprietors were married two blocks away, more than 60 years ago. George still makes ice cream three days a week; flavors include cherry-pecan, orange-pineapple “and anything else I like, so there’s never any waste.” He cracks the jokes (“Is that your suitcase?” he asks a purse-carrying customer) and Thelma calls the shots (“On your feet,” she chides George. “You’re a businessman.”)

For more about Wilton Candy Kitchen, 310 Cedar St., Wilton, Iowa: www.traveliowa.com, 563-732-2278.

If you’re a fan of Stefano Viglietti’s authentic Italian cooking, now you can head south and find it.

The chef who is the mastermind behind four excellent Sheboygan restaurants (Trattoria Stefano, Il Ritrovo, Field to Fork and Duke of Devon) is all over the new menu at Bella Bacinos in La Grange, Ill., just west of downtown Chicago.

Restaurateur Dan Bacin, a 25-year Wisconsin vacation homeowner, has long been a fan of Stefano’s work and persuaded him to partner as Bella Bacinos’ consultant chef.

“There’s no one I know who has the commitment that Stefano does to continued culinary education,” contends Dan, who has operated Chicago restaurants for more than 30 years.

Pizzas, a specialty, bake in a 700-degree, wood-burning oven.

If Stefano’s quartet of restaurants were in Chicago instead of Sheboygan, “he’d still be a hit,” Dan says. “This is our first active collaboration, and I expect more.”

For more about Bella Bacinos, 36 S. La Grange Rd., Chicago: www.bacinos.com, 708-352-8882. Look for a second restaurant of the same name at 75 E. Wacker Dr., but that menu does not have Stefano’s thumbprint.

Spaniards have perfected the art of tapas dining – nibbles of several foods, shared and eaten in small portions – and it is customary for diners to leisurely savor what they eat. What a contrast to our own fast food empire.

I knew this before heading to Zaragoza, Spain’s fifth largest city – between Madrid and Barcelona, but nevertheless was blown away by a three-hour lunch at Novodabo, a friendly and sleek restaurant in a low-profile university area.

Owner-chef David Boldova has studied under Michelin-rated chefs/restaurants. He aims to find a contemporary spin for traditional Spanish foods and recipes.

Included in our delicate but filling, 10-course tasting menu: cherry gazpacho, migas (a jazzed-up peasant dish), olive pastes with monkfish, foie-filled lamb.

For more about Novodabo (Spanish for “new,” plus the first letters of the chef’s name), Juan II de Aragon 5, Zaragoza: www.novodabo.com.

Luscious dining choices fill Madrid, but we made a meal at Restaurante Botin our priority because it is the world’s oldest restaurant. Meats are slow-roasted in a wood-fired oven from 1725, the same year Botin opened.

Look for this fine dining outlet near Plaza Mayor, which is one of Madrid’s most popular gathering spots, and expect a lengthy wait unless arriving when the doors open. (Botin closes from 4-8 p.m., between lunch and dinner.)

Expect a la carte pricing. At the highest end: baby eels, $185 per serving, but the tab for most couples ends up a little less than this. We had gigantic prawns, roasted lamb, shared an order of breaded eggplant and wine.

Some entrees are finished off at tableside. Paintings from long ago surround diners. Botin has made its way into numerous music and literary works, including the last chapter of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”

For more about Restaurante Botin, Calle des los Cuchilleros 17, Madrid: www.botin.es.

If celebrity name-dropping gets your attention, head to Le Saint-Amour in Old Quebec, which counts Paul McCartney and Sting among its recent customers.

What did Sir Paul’s party eat? Our waiter shared the menu: shooter of gazpacho with basil, butternut squash mousse, homemade linguini with tomato pesto and wild mushrooms.

Bright and fanciful artwork on sturdy walls of stone and brick add ambiance. One of three dining rooms doubles as an indoor garden with 35-foot-tall glass ceiling.

Quebec loves its goose and duck foie gras; here you can eat it seven ways in one entree. I opted for seared red deer steak and saved diversity for dessert: chocolate, presented decadent seven ways.

For more about Le Saint Amour, 48 Sainte-Ursule, Quebec: www.saint-amour.com.

Observations are the result of independent travel, conferences of travel writers and press trips. Recommendations include, but are not limited to, subsidized and complimentary meals.