Little Italy

Greenbush keeps the integrity of their traditions alive while offering subtle menu refinements

In today’s world, food (in all of its forms) is constantly straddling the fine line between tradition and innovation. Our modern culture places a high premium on new and different, blending creativity with the irresistible lure of new advances in science and technology. The respect for our culinary heritages, the tried-and-true ingredients and recipes of our past that are so much a part of the Slow Food movement, are relatively new to modern food culture. And while there is a marvelous synergy when the two influences complement each other, they are often at odds—especially when the digitally programmed mind’s drive for “what’s next” is in full throttle. That dynamism is never more evident than in a city’s restaurant scene, where longevity and stability can be both a blessing and a curse.

“I love places like this,” our friend Tim exclaimed one recent Saturday evening as we nestled into our table for seven at the Greenbush Bar. “It’s hidden and cozy, and we’d never have come here if you hadn’t brought us. We’d drive right by and never know it’s here.” While Tim and friends are from Milwaukee, we know the same could be said for a lot of longtime Madison residents as well. Downstairs beneath the Italian Workmen’s Club on Regent Street, it feels like a combination of speakeasy and rec room, steeped in the history of Madison’s “Little Italy,” the Greenbush neighborhood. The Greenbush is a restaurant comfortable in its own skin. In a world where restaurants open and close so fast it’s hard to keep up, it’s nice to be at a place that knows who it is.

Not that it hasn’t changed. The Greenbush isn’t one of those temples of nostalgia so tied to the ’50s that the owners reject even good ideas as new-fangled. The restaurant offers subtle refinements to the menu. There were several new additions the night we were there, including a wonderful antipasto with a lovely piece of smoked salmon and homemade crackers, mussels that were fresh and delicious, and an updated wine list.

Owner and chef Anna Alberici sources her food locally whenever possible, including buying all of the beef, pork, eggs and chicken from Pecatonica Farms in Hollandale. REAP, the Madison–based organization promoting local, sustainable food, says Alberici buys local foods because “they embody her values of humane, sustainable, community relationships toward food.”

Alberici’s talent is incorporating those local ingredients into her irreplaceable standards—house-made Italian sausage, meatballs, the fresh Sicilian salad and her iconic pizza with a thin crust, dusted with cornmeal and well-topped, baked in the same brick oven her mom used at Amato’s restaurant decades ago. There are those who swear by the Greenbush pie and we admit, we like it a lot. Even thinking back to Alberici’s first restaurant, the Wild Iris, we are still drawn to the Sicilian pasta, simple comfort on a plate. It’s what your Sicilian grandmother would make, if you had a Sicilian grandmother. Which we all felt like we did the night we were there, thanks to the presence of Alberici’s mom for a special party. The place was warm, friendly, cozy and loud as always, bustling with families and regulars, all feeling right at home.

Don’t be fooled. It’s not easy. Keeping the integrity of something traditional can be harder than pushing the envelope of the new and trendy. The Greenbush pulls it off. And our friend helped remind us of why we too love places like that.

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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