11 classic Italian eateries in Madison

Madison is home to a number of places
11 classic Italian eateries in Madison

For most Americans, memories of Italian restaurants conjure images of red-checkered tablecloths, melted candles stuck in old Chianti bottles and lots of pasta smothered in red sauce. Very little of it has much in common with the Old Country. What we’ve grown to know and love is actually a conglomerate of cooking traditions brought here by immigrants, mostly from southern Italy and Sicily. It has evolved into our nation’s preferred ethnic cuisine. The trend in recent years has been toward regional and modern Italian specialties. Regardless, whether it’s old school or cutting edge you crave, Madison has just the spot to satisfy you.

Decidedly untrendy and proud of it, Angelo’s is all about the three P’s: pasta, pizza and price. Angelo’s caters to Wisconsin palates–not only familiar Italian favorites but a Friday night fish fry to boot. There’s even a homey casserole: spaghetti pie–spaghetti mixed with what you’d expect to find on top of a pizza, including gobs of gooey mozzarella. Regulars come just for the house special–white pizza, topped with Alfredo sauce, artichokes, mushrooms, black olives and Parmesan. The homemade spinach artichoke dip is also outrageously esteemed (and undeniably addictive). 5801 Monona Drive, Monona, 222-1464 $$

Cafe La Bellitalia
This family-owned north-side rendezvous spot serves up home-style Italian-American cooking. Expect Pietro and Josephine Pipitone to treat you like family and feed you until you’re stuffed. Lots of pasta and noodles to be sure, but a standout is the lasagna. Pizza comes either thin crust, pan style or stuffed, with a pick of three sauces and 20 toppings. Don’t expect a lot of surprises here–other than your tab, which should be molto buono indeed. Cafe la Bellitalia operates a spinoff restaurant in Windsor called Papino’s, too. 1026 N. Sherman Ave., 243-1200 $$

One of the city’s newest and most contemporary Italian restaurants, Cento presents decor that’s as stylish as a Lamborghini and food as gorgeous as Sophia Loren. It strives to make dining Italian in Madison memorable. Coincidentally or not, it’s the perfect prelude to a night of grand opera, a Broadway production or a gallery show at its neighbor, Overture Center. The kitchen serves exquisitely executed classic dishes prepared with locally sourced produce and meats. The wine cellar is magnifico and more than 20 wines are available by the glass. Bravo to Food Fight for this sophisticated and smart downtown venture. 122 W. Mifflin St., 284-9378 $$$$ BOM

Fraboni’s Italian Specialties & Delicatessen
There was a time, if you needed San Marzano tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil or porketta, you headed to Fraboni’s. Today, it still stands out for both its quality and selection of all things Italiano. Opened in 1971 by Angelo Fraboni, the business is now owned by two of his sons, Garry and Steve Fraboni, in the heart of the Greenbush neighborhood. Among the many sandwiches, none are better than the Italian sub, filled to overflowing with a quarter-pound of Genoa salami, capicola ham and mild provolone and topped with shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and special house vinaigrette. There’s a Fraboni’s on Regent Street and another in Monona. 108 Owen Road, Monona, 222-6632 $ BOM

Greenbush Bar
Discovering this bar tucked away in the basement of the Italian Workmen’s Club at Spaghetti Corners is akin to finding buried treasure. Excluding the much-appreciated smoking ban in 2005, very little has changed here, least of all the quality of the pizza, antipasti, salads and other choices. Family recipes made with quality, local ingredients have clearly contributed to owner Anna Alberici’s success. Her crispy thin-crust pizza baked in her grandmother’s oven is as good as any in town. The spaghetti and meatballs offer a nostalgic and genuine taste of the old ‘Bush. 914 Regent St., 257-2874 $$

Chef and owner Patrick O’Halloran took Lombardino’s to another level when he purchased this relic in 2000. He was wise to keep the original interior, just sprucing it up without demolishing its charm. His biggest change, however, was in the kitchen. The seasonal offerings include traditional dishes like pasta and pizza, but everything is prepared with the freshest and finest ingredients and with great panache. The wood-burning grill is a well-used asset, turning out delectable beef, lamb and vegetarian options. Lombardino’s deserves its reputation as one of Madison’s best and most reliable restaurants–and one of the most romantic, too. 2500 University Ave., 238-1922 $$$$ BOM

Naples 15
Salvatore Di Scala celebrates the joy of eating in his hometown, Naples. Obviously, pizza is a specialty since this southern Italian city claims to have invented the tomato-topped flatbread that has become so adored worldwide. Naples 15, however, is more than a pizzeria. An unusual and scrumptious starter is the Gateaux alla Napoletana–mashed potatoes stuffed with cheese, prosciutto and salami and baked in a wood-fired oven. Equally successful and uncommon is the ravioli all’ aragosta–stuffed with lobster, in a delicate cream sauce, and finished with white truffle oil. Discovering this cozy little hideaway is well worth the effort. 15 N. Butler St., 250-6330 $$$$

Nonno’s Ristorante Italiano
Located in a westside strip mall, Nonno’s stands out as a full-service eatery with character. Despite its name–which means grandfather–it’s definitely not your grandfather’s ristorante Italiano. Modern without being pretentious, Nonno’s serves food that appeals to 21st-century tastes, with fresh components, judicious preparation and portions large enough to leave leftovers to take home. Selections range from snacks to hearty repasts, including pizza, pasta and several seafood and meat-based entrees. It’s hard to go wrong with tiramisu, and you won’t here with Nonno’s chocolate-drizzled creation. 704 S. Whitney Way, 661-9254 $$$

Osteria Papavero
Chef Francesco Mangano hails from Bologna, the culinary capital of Italy, and worked at several restaurants before opening this trattoria. The setting is pleasant yet unremarkable. It’s what’s on the plate here that is remarkable. Mangano uses the finest ingredients, impeccably prepared with great finesse to reproduce Tuscan specialties. Like so much of the cooking, the caramel budino is deceptively simple but sublimely delightful. Osteria Papavero is as authentic–and splendid–as Italian gets in Madison. 128 E. Wilson St., 255-8376 $$$ BOM

Tutto Pasta
A reliable State Street veteran, Tutto Pasta throws a few curveballs with traditional pasta of all sizes and shapes, variously sauced. With reasonable prices and many options, it’s no wonder this restaurant is a popular dining destination for students and downtown day-trippers. There’s a small array of pizza–including a build-your-own option–made with hand-thrown crusts, crispy and flavorful bruschetta and decadent desserts. For people watchers, the outside seating is reason enough to dine here. 305 State St., 294-1000 $$$

Vin Santo
This small-town storefront restaurant, opened in 1998 by Gregg and Clarissa Edwardsen, boasts many loyal patrons who return for dependable food and personable service. Too often chicken preparations are downright boring, but not so here. I especially like the lemon chicken with garlic and olives. Vin Santo’s unorthodox rendition of bread pudding, made from plain bread, buttery and creamy and animated with cinnamon and grappa, is the best ever! 7462 Hubbard Ave., Middleton, 836-1880 $$$