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Banzo Brings Middle Eastern Comfort Food to Madison's Masses

By Pamela Sosnowski

Despite what most Americans think, comfort food doesn't have to be laden with carbohydrates, sugar, and calories. It can come in the form of a satisfying but healthy falafel sandwich or a salad featuring chickpeas and homemade lemon-agave dressing. This is the kind of comfort food you'll find at Banzo of Madison, which specializes in traditional Middle Eastern cuisine. And as co-owner Aaron Collins explains, the comfort that customers experience in his establishment is not limited to just the menu.

"Warmth and comfort (is what we deliver) both in terms of the satisfaction you get from eating the food and in the welcoming, family-like atmosphere of the restaurants/carts," he said. "Whether we know you by name or it's your first time, you can expect to be greeted warmly and given the best possible service, as if you were entering someone's home."

From the very first day Banzo's signature bright green food carts rolled through the streets of Madison, they were a big hit. That was in 2011, and the business has since expanded to include two food carts, its Sherman Avenue restaurant, full service catering, and a retail division that sells the company's hummus in local grocery stores.

Everything is made from scratch using traditional Mediterranean recipes and high quality ingredients that are locally sourced. In fact, Collins says the restaurant's use of local ingredients increased by 10 percent during the past year so that they can further support local farmers and food producers.

"For us the most important reason to purchase local is freshness," he said. "You can taste the difference in something that hasn't traveled thousands of miles to get to your plate. Another obvious reason is to support our community and the farmers that work so hard day in and day out to produce such high quality products."

Collins launched Banzo with his wife, Netalee Sheinman, an Israeli native that wanted to introduce the flavors of Middle Eastern cooking with a modern twist to the Madison area. Together the couple trained with some of New York City's top Israeli restauranteurs and chefs.

All items on the restaurant's menu are available for take-out, or for enjoying in-house or on the deck along with a craft beer or house made sangria. Banzo's catering menu offers a selection of sandwiches, platters, and salads for any size group. Specialty items including beef brisket and roasted leg of lamb are also available, as well as baklava and basbousa for dessert offerings. Because everything is made fresh, the restaurant requires at least 24 hours' notice for orders up to 40 people, and more for larger groups.

Banzo's food carts can still be found at Library Mall and Capital Square during the week, and at Dane Company farmer's market on Saturdays. They also tend to show up for Madison's festivals, concerts, and other events. Banzo's menu has vegan and gluten-free offerings. As for Collins' favorite item on the menu, that's easy.

"The F-Bomb is my personal favorite," he said. "It gives you the best of both worlds: a combination of falafel and chicken (marinated or shawarma) in the same dish. To me, the way the flavors and textures combine along with the smooth hummus and crisp chopped salad are something I never get tired of."

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