Greenbush Bar: An Italian Speakeasy in Madison

Greenbush Bar
914 Regent St
Madison, WI

ItalySicilySpeakeasy. Tiny. Crowded. Delicious. That’s Greenbush Bar in a nutshell. One of our go-to places in Madison, we have been there countless times since Matt started graduate school in 2006. Serving Italian-American fare (though the website says “Sicilian“) with Midwestern charm, we have been so often, until two days ago we were not even sure if we had taken photos there or not, or even gotten started on a review. Perhaps that’s fitting for a place that is difficult to find for the uninitiated. Greenbush boasts no oversize, catchy sign advertising its existence; no large windows to let jealous passers-by gaze inside. Instead, Greenbush thrives on being a bit of a hidden gem, yet seemingly everybody knows about it.

Madison's Italian Workmen's Club (via Madison Trust for Historic Preservation)

Madison’s Italian Workmen’s Club (via Madison Trust for Historic Preservation)

More than any place else we have ever been, Greenbush feels like a speakeasy. You enter the front door of the old Italian Workmen’s Club, and descend down a small flight of stares to a wooden door that says simply, “Please wait to be seated.” Every time we open that door, without fail, we are shocked to find people on the other side. Yet we always do, and it is always full. Greenbush does not take reservations, and going after 6:30pm or so, especially on Friday or Saturday, virtually guarantees a long wait. We’ve learned to go around 5pm for the best shot at a table underneath Greenbush’s signature kitschy, yet surprisingly charming, year-round Christmas light ceiling display.

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Every time we go to Greenbush, we order the same things. An order of the #1 crostini, topped with prosciutto, goat cheese, and tomatoes ($6.75). These are big pieces of bread, so do not expect small portions for an appetizer that could easily be an entree for some people. Savoring these, our entrees invariably arrive together, at the exact moment we finish our appetizer. Lindsay has ordered an 8-inch thick pizza, topped with nothing but mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. Cut into four pieces, the constant assumption (but only occasional reality) is that we will split it equally. One of the best pizzas in Madison, this simple yet perfect preparation never disappoints for those seeking a high-quality version of the pizza we all known and love.

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At the same time, Matt has ordered his go-to, the “Gorgonzola Cream Sauce,” a fettucine dish with smoked chicken, toasted walnuts, scallions, lemon, and mushrooms mixed its eponymous sauce. Again, like all good Italian cuisine, nothing sophisticated about this preparation: well-sourced ingredients (many from Wisconsin), balanced together. The heavy cream works wonderfully with the lemon and scallions, and the mushrooms add a distinct texture while absorbing the rest of the flavors from in the dish. Again, we are never disappointed – and we have never ordered anything else. We then spend the next hour or more eating back and forth off each others’ plates, switching when need be, until we slowly work our way through the pizza and pasta. Typically, if we still have room, we finish with one of Greenbush’s rotating dessert options. Frequently this is a cannoli – a real cannoli, filled with real ricotta, and real pistachios on the sides (not some other nut with green food coloring).
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Greenbush may not be fancy, it may not be trendy, but remains romantic and comforting, just like the food it serves. We will be going back forever, ordering the same dishes every time, and always getting the same Italian Midwestern speakeasy experience. And we would not have it any other way.

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