There appears to be a direct correlation between possessing a UW–Madison degree and having an affinity for Paisan’s Italian Restaurant.
But there’s more to that nostalgic connection than the iconic Madison restaurant’s trademark Porta salads, Garibaldi sandwiches, and pitchers of sangria — though all are delicious.
The restaurant first opened its doors in 1950, and since then, it has been a chosen destination for graduation celebrations, first dates, and even some marriage proposals. Nancy Maki Berndt ’65 recalls going to Paisan’s for dinner on Sunday nights when residence hall cafeterias were closed. “[It] was not only cool,” she recalls, “but a special treat, since pizza hadn’t been around all that long.”
Pizza is no longer a novelty, but Paisan’s popularity remains steadfast in a city that has witnessed a restaurant boom during the last decade. In an era in which chefs follow trends such as molecular gastronomy, the menu is comfortingly consistent — even if the location isn’t.
Paisan’s current home in downtown Madison, overlooking Lake Monona, is actually one of five locations the restaurant has had, including where it first opened in a small building on Park Street between West Johnson Street and University Avenue. After its longest stay — thirty-two years at its University Square location along University Avenue — in 2007, Paisan’s moved to West Wilson Street near the Capitol Square.
Despite the move from campus, professors still stop in for lunch now and then. And UW alumni still manage to track down the place when they return to Madison for football games or reunions — something that’s much easier to do in the age of smartphones and GPS.
Once diners step inside, they feel at home among the familiar decorative touches that have long contributed to the restaurant’s atmosphere. Rows of cozy, high-backed booths line wood-paneled walls. Stained-glass windows cast a warm glow, and a large chandelier hangs in the dining room overlooking the lake.
One tradition didn’t make the trip to the new place: countless pairs of shoes hurled onto the roof at University Square, a long-standing tradition carried out by employees who had completed their final Paisan’s shift.