Paisan's

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Paisan’s Italian Restaurant opened in 1950, a time when pizza was new to Madison. Paisan’s has moved four times over the years while maintaining a loyal customer base because of their delicious traditional Italian recipes. A new ingredient was added in 2006 with their move to 131 W. Wilson Street—a view of Lake Monona. Madisonians love open-air eating, especially when it includes a view of the lake.

The 25-table patio with seating for approximately 100 people is open once the weather turns warm, and the dining room also overlooks the lake through a large bank of clear glass windows. The tiered patio was constructed so the view is unobstructed by those seated nearby. Any great meal tastes even better when looking at a stunning sunset or the moon rising at twilight.

The lake is always a hub of activity with people enjoying the water so diners can delight in watching fishermen, boaters, and the occasional Mad-City Ski Team performance. For a spectacular view of the Shake the Lake fireworks over Lake Monona in July, the patio is closed to the public at 7:00 p.m. so diners can enjoy the Independence Day fireworks display.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Paying homage to this renowned restaurant includes a trip down memory lane for those who have enjoyed it for decades while introducing the gem to a new generation. It all began December 31, 1950, when Paisan’s Italian Restaurant opened its doors on Park Street. Then, in 1951, it moved to its longtime 821 University Avenue home. The aroma of the original recipes for cracker-crust pizza; homemade pasta and sauces; Porta salad; and trademark sandwiches, such as the Garibaldi, still waft through the restaurant today on Wilson Street. The menu has always focused on pizza, sandwiches, pastas, and salads.

Ed Shinnick and Walter Borowski are Paisan’s present-day owners. Ed shares how Paisan’s gets its flavor. “Guests are served the same classic Italian dining and original Greenbush ‘Little Italy’ recipes of Rose Troia McCormick. Rose and her husband, Roy, were two of the original partners who started the restaurant, and it was Rose who established the timeless menu; did the cooking; and trained new staff, including myself, to make the recipes. She was a great teacher. The pizzas were simple one-ingredient pizzas, such as sausage or pepperoni. Our menu has grown with the pizza industry in the past decade or so, and now we offer 10 specialty pizzas.

“The pasta dish options have expanded as well. In the beginning, there was only a spaghetti sauce, meatball sauce, and one mushroom sauce. Now there is an Alfredo sauce and other sauces to meet customer’s needs. Pizza accounts for about 70 percent of our sales and has been voted Madison’s best pizza.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Ed started working at Paisan’s in 1966. “After Roy and Rose opened Porta Bella Restaurant at 425 N. Francis Street as an upscale version of Paisan’s in 1968, I was a part of the management team for the restaurants. In the early 70s, Roy encouraged me, Gerald Meier, and Don Reinfeldt to buy into the corporation as stockholders. We were hands-on in operating the business, learning to do everything.”

Building a sister restaurant was a strategic expansion move. Ed explains, “In 1969, the plan was for Paisan’s to move into the basement of Porta Bella for three years while the restaurant’s new location at University Square retail center was being built. Three years turned into six years due to construction delays. University Square was Paisan’s home from 1975 to May 2006. Customers loved the new location that made them feel like they were eating in Italy. The restaurant’s décor featured large architectural pieces, such as a massive carved wood mantel rescued from an old mansion on the East Coast and a big set of French doors from an embassy in New York. The stained-glass windows, beadboard-paneled walls, and private individual booths adorned with decorative wood medallions created a cozy and comfortable atmosphere.”

For 31 years, Paisan’s had a relationship with its EMI landlords, Gordy and Jean Rice, and their son, Greg. Ed says, “We were given a few years' notice that University Square, along with our leased restaurant space, would be razed and replaced with a two-story retail mall, apartment building, and office tower. We had time to look around, but couldn’t find anything that suited our needs on campus. One day, Greg showed us the building at 131 W. Wilson Street, which had 4,500 square feet with a small Mediterranean restaurant and offices. We wanted 9,000 square feet, so it seemed it wouldn’t work. A couple of weeks later, he made us an offer to build onto the building so that we would have the space we needed.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

“To take advantage of the lake view, a windowed dining room and bar was added, along with a new tiered patio that was built atop a trilevel parking garage. This also allows us to validate parking stubs for our customers on week nights and weekends. Best of all, customers feel at home among the familiar décor because we brought most of it with us. We even found a company in Missouri that made the same beadboard so we could replicate the wood on the walls.”

Located one block west of Monona Terrace and two blocks from the Capitol Square, Paisan’s is conveniently located for tourists and Madisonians participating in downtown activities. After the 2006 move, Paisan’s lunch-time and dinner crowds transitioned from primarily university professors to courthouse and government workers, visitors attending events at Monona Terrace, and nostalgic customers dining down memory lane.

Paisan's is a Madison classic, so if you only get to eat there once in your lifetime, it’s well worth it. But it will never be just once.

Lauri Lee is a culinary herb guru and food writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.