Paisan’s: Madison’s mythic marinara
Paisan’s has relocated and renovated yet remains one of Madison’s favorite casual Italian-American restaurants, which it has been since the 1950s, winning a top spot in local polls year after year. It seems that the scrappy little Italian place can trace its lineage back to the times when Madison’s Greenbush neighborhood was the Wisconsin outpost of Italian immigrants. As time progressed, Paisan’s maintained its standing because of its “special event” status where many a Madison school child would be rewarded with red sauce for a report card of merit. Quite a number of first dates and subsequent anniversaries are celebrated here. So, seek not the schmancy or cutting-edge, instead go for the comforting, served on red-checked tablecloths.
The literally trademarked Porta(TM) salad is named after Paisan's mother restaurant, the swaybacked and dissolute Porta Bella. It’s basically a cheese and sausage plate on a bed of decorative iceberg lettuce. Shredded mozzarella and cheddar, salami, ham, and garbanzo beans are enough for a meal by themselves, and need no dressing whatsoever.
Chef Michael Brian has worked at Paisan’s since he was in college, and in 20 years hasn’t messed with the success of the deluxe pizza. It’s topped with fresh mushrooms, peppers (choose green or, better, hot banana), and sausage. It’s a simple pie. The crust is thin and stays crisp best on pies smaller than medium. There’s no cornicione to speak of - the thick, almost pasty, herb-rich and onion-studded sauce reaches the very edge of the pizza. The sausage is the second-best part, full of spicy, fennel-seeded goodness. The best part is, of course, the cheese. It’s a generous blanket of salty mozzarella with an impressive stretch that lasts until it cools (another reason to get a smaller pie).
Inside tip: Al fresco
A lot of Paisan’s charm is owed to the gorgeous view of Lake Monona from the patio. If the weather is agreeable, make sure you ask for a seat outside, especially if you can get there in the gloaming hours when you may see the moon rise as it reflects the setting sun behind you. Paisan’s does not take reservations, however, so it does take a bit of luck to land a good table.