Porta Bella brings Mantova to Madison

Travels inspires cuisine at 50-year-old spot

The backstory: One of Madison’s longest-lasting restaurants, Porta Bella, has provided a little slice of Italy in the Midwest since 1968. The Italian restaurant opened as an upscale offshoot of Paisan’s, which was located in what is now Porta Bella’s wine cellar basement between 1969 and 1975. Ed Shinnick, chef and one of Porta Bella’s owning partners, started going to Paisan’s in the ’60s before he got a job there as a busboy, and he has worked at Porta Bella since it opened.

The vibe: Porta Bella is a dream location for a romantic date. Private booths, low lighting and Old World Italian decor set the mood before the food even comes out. A vine-covered entrance with wrought-iron windows leads to a courtyard that feels like a secret garden on North Frances Street. Stained-glass fixtures, murals, billowy drapes and golden statues grace the interior of the restaurant. Much of the decor, Shinnick says, is influenced by Madison sister city, Mantova, located in northern Italy. One of the pictures Shinnick took while sitting on a bridge facing Mantova’s skyline (which looks a lot like Madison from John Nolen Drive, he says) is on the wall in one of two sections of the banquet room, which hosts about 200 events a year.Porta Bella brings Mantova to Madison

The menu: Some menu items reflect Shinnick’s travels to Mantova and beyond in Italy, but some recipes are true to its Italian Greenbush neighborhood roots, passed down by the original partner: Roy McCormick’s wife, Rose Troia. “She spent a lot of time teaching us recipes and teaching us how to cook,” says Shinnick. Italian dinners, steak, seafood and pizza can be found on the menu alongside the Porta salad, an accidentally iconic Madison dish. “It started as an offshoot of a chef salad,” says Shinnick.

The must-try: Shinnick’s wine dinners, which started as special events to bring ideas back from wine trips to Italy, are now hosted monthly. At these intimate dinners, groups of about 40 people are treated to wine-paired special menus developed and cooked by Shinnick, and the dinners usually feature Italian winemakers, but sometimes feature wineries from places like Argentina or Australia. But Shinnick has a rule for the dinners: “They’re not meant for wine snobs,” he says.

The bottom line: Fifty years later, Porta Bella has all the classic charm you could want in one of Madison’s most iconic eateries. “We’re old-school,” Shinnick says.

425 N. Frances St., 256-3186

Andrea Behling is managing editor of Madison Magazine.Porta Bella brings Mantova to Madison