Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

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Porta Bella’s Cellar a hidden treasure

There is much more than meets the eye behind the yellow walls and gardened courtyard just off State Street at 425 N. Frances St. While many recognize the site as the location of Porta Bella, one of Madison’s most famous Italian restaurants, some fail to notice that inside, underground, happens to be one of the area’s most intimate bars.

Appropriately called the Cellar at Porta Bella, the basement is an escape from the rambunctious activity found nearby.

In some ways, however, to call the Cellar a basement is a disservice. The space is stylized with dim lights, brick archways, and candlelit tables for two or at most four. Eclectic music — ranging from jazz to classic rock — plays at an enjoyable volume. The setting is quaint, making it easy to avoid distraction, creating an environment that maximizes your ability to focus on your companion. This is not your typical basement.

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The Cellar is blessed not only with character but history. The building used to be a bakery in the 1930s and was designed with a lot of columns and wooden beams to support the weight of ovens and tubs of flour. These features create natural divides and small rooms that can only accommodate a handful of people.

In 1967, the lower level was home to Paisan’s, with Porta Bella functioning as the restaurant on the ground floor. Popular then as it is now, people used to wait in line along the staircase to satisfy their pizza cravings. To pass the time while in line, some decided to graffiti the brick walls adorned with travel posters next to the stairs. If you look closely, you might find a few dates ranging back to the 1970s.

Underneath the stairs is a single table, framed by a large stained-glass window. Through openings in the staircase, guests can quickly see who is coming in or out if they happen to be sitting at this specific location. It also happens to be the only place at the bar unencumbered by low ceilings.

Wine is a natural fit for this type of ambiance. With over 40 varieties, most of which are available by the glass, the selection will appeal to the novice and expert alike. Popular choices, such an Italian Ruffino Chianti, or an Australian Jacob’s Creek Merlot, available by the glass for $7.95 and $5.75 respectively.

Sparkling Italian wine, or Proseco as it is called, is an inexpensive alternative to champagne, and tastes just as good. Priced at $5.50 per glass, it is a great drink to mark a special occasion.

Some couples, however, might want to indulge in more than one glass. Many bottles are priced around $25 at the Cellar. Since the average bottle yields about four or five glasses, this might be an appealing option.

Although wine is prominent, the Cellar is hardly stuffy and features a number of beers from tap and mixed drinks.

Imports top out the price list and are $4.25 for a 16-ounce glass. Huge 60-ounce pitchers are offered at $13.95. Domestics and microbrews are priced slightly less.

Not wanting to be bored, the bartenders are more than willing to make an interesting drink. The Purple Haze is a popular martini choice, made with vodka, Chambord, and pineapple juice. A variation of this drink is called Mr. T’s Haircut, and is made with raspberry vodka, Chambord, and pineapple juice. Both are priced at $5.95.

The Cellar has its fair share of regulars. Many are current and former employees, who enjoy coming down for a drink or two after a long day, or the chance to catch up with old friends. One regular named Jack has a different story.

Jack has been a customer at Porta Bella’s since the very beginning. He also happens to have his own signature cocktail, called Jack’s Drink. For the most part, it is a mug-full of Bacardi, mixed with a little bit of Coke for color, splashed off with some 151 and a lime for garnish. This is one cocktail not for the faint of heart.

Just because the Cellar is hidden beneath Porta Bella’s does not mean it has to be out of sight and out of mind. Offering a great mix of wine, beer, and drinks, it is worth a trip off the beaten path.

Bartime will kick back a few this weekend at the Come Back In, located at 508 E. Wilson St. Cheers!

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