Madison's magical Ella's Deli serves up smiles
MADISON – One of the best parts about working at Ella's Deli and Ice Cream Parlor, according to co-manager Catie Tollefson, is telling people where she works.
"Just saying the name 'Ella's' makes people smile. It's really fun for me when people ask where I work," says Tollefson, who has worked in the kosher-style deli for more than 20 years. "Everyone's worked here for a really long time."
During a recent visit to Ella's, which opened on Madison's East Washington Street in 1976, we had smiles plastered to our faces from the moment we pulled up and saw the circus-esque sign and vintage carousel. Little did we know that the 1927 carousel, which we rode after lunch for $1 each (parents are free if they sit on one of the benches between the horses), was only the tip of the ice cream sundae.
Ella's has a 20-page menu featuring mostly kosher, made-from-scratch foods. The menu includes classic Jewish dishes like matzo ball soup, blintzes, gefilte fish and kugel (a sweet noodle and cheese dish), chopped liver and pastrami. They also have more than 25 sandwiches, from burgers, hot hoagies and hot dogs to a grilled pineapple barbecue beef sandwich, a meatloaf sandwich and multiple open-faced Swiss melts.
Vegetarian options include a garden burger, pita hummus platter, vegetarian reuben, guacamole sandwich, multiple soups including borscht, stuffed potatoes (with or without meat), an impressive three-page salad menu and more.
The kids' menu is equally as expansive and filled with little people favorites. But good luck trying to keep kids focused on the food menu, because once they notice the extensive dessert menu, all bets are off on filling up with non-frozen food.
The dessert menu has seven different banana splits, 20 flavors of ice cream and something called the Number One Sundae which combines homemade grilled pound cake, homemade vanilla custard, hot fudge and whipped cream.
"Not only is Ella's entertaining, but we take a lot of pride in our food," says Tollefson. "We cook everything from scratch, including out bakery items, our five or six daily soups, our roasts, our sauces – you name it."
We went for the matzo ball soup, which had filling-yet-fluffy matzo balls, the baked goat cheese salad that came loaded with beets, candied carrots and walnuts, a jumbo made-to-order omelet served with a side of deep fried potato cheese puffs and an assortment of kids items, including chicken strips and mashed potatoes and gravy.
The kids also ordered Humpty Dumpty sundaes or malts for dessert. Portions, on everything, were large and prices are average, with most items under $10.
Along with all the usual fountain drinks, Ella's also serves chocolate and vanilla sodas and cherry Pepsi. Beer and wine is available, too.
But the food, as delicious and abundant as it is, still plays second fiddle to the decor.
Ella's has a magical, amusing setting. It's a place that should require a golden ticket to enter. From floor to ceiling, there are vintage, mechanical displays including chugging trains, a yellow submarine replica cruising across the ceiling and around a miniature mechanical Beatles concert, flying superheroes, a smiling sun emerging from a trap door in the ceiling, an above-head maze with brightly-colored balls rolling around inside of it, moving wizards, plane-piloting clowns, a smiling adult-sized robot, dancing animals and more.
All of the animations were designed for and built on the premises by employees and local artists. Somehow, it's not creepy. Or dusty. Everything is in top working condition and feels very fresh. It's whimsy at its best.
Under the glass of every table is a magnetic game to play or a collection of some kind to observe. One table houses a few dozen impressive and fun origami animals.
Ella's opened in the early '60s as a small kosher grocery / deli / restaurant. Later, it became the restaurant and vintage toy museum it is today. There was a second location at one point that is no longer in existence.
"It's extremely entertaining for families here," says Tollefson. "Adults appreciate it just as much as the kids."
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