Going out to eat is an experience riddled with much more than the food itself. For example, consider the environment you’re in, providing a tailored charm laced with expectation. Then there’re aspects of comfort, company, and hospitality. On the northwest corner of Highland and University, a square white building, with its name plastered larger than life on the side next to an over-enthusiastic chef wearing a white toque, houses the historic Lombardino’s Restaurant.
Inside, you’re greeted with the playful splashing of a miniature Trevi Fountain. Black roof tiles darken the room, and terracotta wallpaper acts as a backdrop for relief sculptures and small balconies amongst bright-colored paintings featuring Italian villas and the Grand Canal. A wrought-iron fence cuts the room in half, the bar on one side and the booths and tables on the other. Over the bar are murals of women and the foreign regions they live depicted in mosaic tile.
It’s loud. It’s gaudy. And in its cacophony, it hits a note that regulars and tourists either can’t get enough of or somehow manage to ignore for the sake of some of the best Wisconsin-inspired Italian dishes anywhere.
It’s been that way since co-owner and chef Patrick O’Halloran bought the place with Marcia Castro in 2000. Marcia moved to a partnership in another Madison staple, The Old Fashioned, and Michael Banas took the opportunity to embrace his new role as co-owner, which has further instilled the personage Lombardino’s holds to this day. True that Lombardino’s has been around since 1952, but the restaurant’s past exists only in kitschy décor. Patrick says, “For almost 18 years this has been our identity, but we have no knowledge of Matt Lombardino [the original owner].”
The identity of Lombardino’s seems to have never really settled, and, almost as though paying homage to the building’s unshapen past, the menu is small and seasonal, with only a few dishes holding on year-round, earning that privilege by truly being something special. “We started out with a small, tight menu of some pastas, and we really delved into Pellegrino Artusi cookbooks that were, like, real original old-school Italian staples from Italy. We wanted to break from the Italian-American. Instead of spaghetti and meatballs, we wanted a real bowl of bolognese ragu from Bologna that was as authentic and simple as possible. We wanted certain dishes—we wanted this orecchiette pasta that traditionally is with olive oil and chili and anchovies, sometimes sausage, bitter broccoli, rappini…that didn’t fly, so we added brandy and cream in Wisconsin, and it’s been on the menu since the second week we had it on there.”
As beloved as the orecchiette is, locals still suggest eating the seasonals. Seasonal dishes at Lombardino’s engage with nature as a reflection of what’s fresh and growing right now. The result is a lot of relationships with local growers, from farms with fields of tomatoes to a guy that grows some damn good garlic once every couple of years.
Lombardino’s lamb is exclusively provided by Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms. The resulting dishes become part of a story that involves what’s going on outside right now, and I believe these stories are something that Lombardino’s takes a lot of pride in when creating their dishes and keeping the décor of the restaurant the way it is.
Part of creating a story through food involves introducing new elements. Patrick and Michael visit Italy regularly, and the goal is to bring back something that inspired them. But there’s a trend in the old country. “No matter where you go,” Michael says, “they all are doing different simple things, and they would never think to ever serve one region’s cuisine in another region. They just don’t do it.” This is quite different than some restaurants that have come and gone in the area that almost insist things taste exactly like they do in another region. There’s a risk in ignoring sense of place, which is why the food at Lombardino’s has each layer examined from the angles of inspiration and relevancy.
And when it comes to being relevant in Madison, I’ve always felt there needs to be something about a restaurant that’s going to make me come back time and time again, even as other facets are changing with the times. Perhaps an ingredient or a method of food preparation. Michael says, “It’s not like we’re trying to make sure that we’re exactly reproducing an Italian thing or an Italian-American thing. I mean, our meatballs aren’t like every other meatball. We make them ourselves and the mixes are definitely different than other meatballs. They’re our meatballs. We want them to be ours. The whole point of it is that we want people, when we run meatballs on the menu, to be excited and come back because they want Lombardino’s meatballs.”
What really stands as testament to Lombardino’s in Madison is not only that it’s still here, but that it’s been under the umbrella of the current owners for almost two decades. Patrick tells me a story that speaks strongly to why that is.
“In the past we would do a lot of dinners where wine and food producers from Italy would come and partner with us for a multicourse dinner, and I remember Franco Lombardi. He’s an olive oil producer from Tuscany. He walked through the back, he came in here, and he’s like, ‘ugh.’ He expected it to be really bad. Then, after dinner, he’s like, ‘You blew me away.’ So we do have this element of, like, we have kind of a shitty building on the outside, and we have kind of a goofy interior, which is not for everyone. … We intentionally saved this décor, but Franco Lombardi was like, ‘The way you treated the food, the way you treated garlic.’ He’s on a tour around America eating in Italian restaurants. He’s like, ‘Everyone’s burning the garlic, and it’s bitter. You didn’t do that.’ He was just shocked that this goofy-looking spaghetti house turned out some decent food.’”
And calling the food “decent,” especially considering how aesthetically loud the restaurant is, is putting it mildly. Because of the passion Patrick and Michael have for this restaurant, the way they tailor a night out around the food over anything else, Lombardino’s will continue to thrive in the foodie culture Madison has been embracing for years.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.