I'd finished taking photographs. Now, as I waited for the light to change so I could cross the street, I noticed man and woman standing on opposite corner of University Avenue and Lake Street. They stared across the busy avenue a bit, then walked towards the Chazen Museum. They stopped mid-block and stared again. They looked astonished, then perturbed, and finally, disappointed. They’d made plans to eat dinner at Paisan’s -- and Paisan’s wasn’t where they'd expected to find it.
They were dressed up for the occasion: He wore a nice sports jacket and she wore tailored slacks and a silk blouse. They said they’d been UW students in the Sixties. If the only Paisan’s they remembered was the one that was now a few walls, a door, and a pile of rubble, they were probably students in the late Sixties.
Paisan’s, as Doug Moe recently reminded his readers, has had several locations since it opened for business in 1950. The first location was on the 300 block of N. Park Street, between W. Johnson Street and University Avenue. Then Paisan’s moved around the corner to the 800 block of University Avenue, by Choles Floral and Lorenzo’s.
The second location is probably the one where most members of the Madison Central High School Class of 1965 first tasted Paisan’s signature thin crust pizza or a Garibaldi sandwich -- after they left high school. I remember trying to convince someone at Paisan’s to advertise in The Madison Mirror, but, like the Farinos at nearby Lorenzo’s, they weren’t interested in having high school students frequent their restaurant -- probably because they served alcohol.
I celebrated my 18th birthday at that Paisan’s on the 800 block of University Avenue with a group of friends. Back in 1965, you could drink beer if you were 18: The hard stuff wasn’t legal until you were 21. I’d been scrupulous about avoiding alcohol until I was 18 (communion wine didn’t count), and I was eager to finally have my first grown-up drink. I couldn’t legally celebrate with champagne, so I opted for what I thought was the next best thing: Champale. It turned out to be a vile-tasting malt liquor that made me wonder why I’d ever thought it would be cool to drink.
In the last half of the Sixties, the University of Wisconsin went on a building spree: tearing down lots of old houses and buildings and erecting ugly, utilitarian ones in their stead: Sellery, Witte, and Ogg Halls; and the Brutalist Humanties Building and Vilas Hall. Some people still insist the former was designed to thwart student activists by limiting ingress and egress. In any case, everything on the odd-numbered side of the 700 and 800 blocks of University Avenue was demolished.
Paisan’s took up temporary residence in the basement of Porta Bella on N. Francis Street. Then it moved to the new (and ugly) University Square Mall. The pizzas and Garibaldis were still tasty in the new location, but the space was not as intimate as it had been in its previous incarnation.
Now the University of Wisconsin is expanding, demolishing, and building more high-rise buildings. University Square is almost history. Paisan’s is moving off campus to W. Wilson Street, where, perhaps, it will become a hangout for office workers, condo dwellers, politicans, and lobbyists whose expense accounts won’t permit them to dine at Johnny Delmonico’s and the Capitol Chophouse every night.
The next time my friend Cheryl (East 1965), who left Madison in the late 1960s, comes back for a visit, we'll probably dine at Paisan's in its new location for old time's sake, hoping the pizza and the Garibaldi sandwiches still taste as good as always. After all, there aren't many restaurants left in Madison with such a long history. The other place Cheryl always visited when she came to Madison was the Badger Candy Kitchen on the Square -- a family business opened in 1924 and run for as long as both of us can remember by Madison Central High School alumnus Nick Galanos -- and it's been closed for many years.
Note: I posted an update on the new Paisan's location at 131 W. Wilson Street on July 19, 2006. Click HERE to go to that post.
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