Neighborhood Dining at its Best

Osteria Papavero is our neighborhood restaurant. One small problem—if you can call it that—is it’s not in our neighborhood.

No matter. It feels like our neighborhood restaurant, and that’s just how we use it. Chef and owner Francesco Mangano has created an environment that evokes his home in northern Italy—comfortable, unpretentious and serving lovely food. The restaurant seems to know who it is, deliberate and not phony. The servers are well informed and helpful without calling attention to themselves. In addition, everything seems the right size: portions, the menu and the prices.

Mangano understands scale and restraint. We’ve had wonderful dinners with friends and great business lunches. The Bologna-born Mangano both studied and trained professionally in that city. His deft hand and broad range of skills at Osteria Papavero are the result of his education in everything from cutting and curing meats to brewing beer.

He also studied food and wine tourism at the University of Bologna, including the promotion of regional products. You can see the influences in his menu, with recipes reminiscent of his grandmother and locally sourced ingredients from Cates Family Farm in Spring Green, Crawford Farms and the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Vegetables have their rightful place on the menu—not as an afterthought like at so many restaurants.

Pastas are expertly prepared, never heavy-handed. Francesco does much of the salt curing of many of his meats himself, but when he found a lamb prosciutto he especially liked he bought it. It was outstanding.

One of us considers herself a dessert snob, so it’s high praise to say we’ve had desserts we really liked including Susan Cesnik’s almond cake and a wonderful panna cotta an Italian friend proclaimed as good as her mom’s.

In addition, we’ve celebrated special occasions there and had the pleasure of attending the tuna “competition” Mangano offered with Shinji Muramoto that had the two chefs cooking side by side in each other’s restaurant over two nights with both using the same high-grade tuna as their menu motivation. Their collaboration was an additional pleasure. We’ve been told there’s another one in the planning stages, this one featuring pork. Keep an eye out for it.

We would have missed the tuna had we not been dining there one night and were told about it. But back to the neighborhood restaurant. The last four dinners we enjoyed at Osteria Papavero, Natasha Nicholson and Tom Garver were in their usual spots having dinner at the bar. The sight of these two icons of the Madison art scene—Natasha artfully dressed with her adorable red shoes—in that environment was an artistic tableau in itself. And every time we all acknowledged what a gem the Osteria is.

From the simplest to the fanciest dishes we’ve tasted on the menu, all have been well executed and demonstrated respect for the ingredients.

Now for one minor complaint: The restaurant doesn’t take reservations. We thought we’d gotten used to it and made the necessary adjustments. But one recent Saturday evening we arrived with friends only to find the restaurant had been booked for a private party. Like we said, not a big deal. But one of the problems with creating a neighborhood restaurant that people come to count on is … people count on you. And we have come to count on Osteria Papavero.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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