While Madison has plenty of restaurants — enough to earn numerous coveted “foodie” awards — plenty of the hottest spots remain relatively unknown to students. Whether it’s because we are busy running to and from classes on campus or because we never make the trek over to Willy street, plenty of restaurant-lined avenues in the city filled with culinary gems remain majorly hidden from students. My first trip to one of these “underrated” spots, Grampa’s Pizza, was my first of many endeavors to bring awareness to these less-traveled restaurants to students on campus.
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Being a passionate foodie who loves to write about my culinary adventures (with a flare of personality always thrown in), I sat down and really mulled over what a meaningful goal for myself would look like in my last year of undergrad. As I thought more about what goal would bring me joy in the ups and downs of my senior year, I kept gravitating to thinking of all the things I have yet to do or see in Madison.
I keep a running list in my iPhone notes app of restaurants in Madison I HAVE to try before I graduate, so it was only natural that my goal had to encapsulate this culinary bucket list.
After a few brainstorming sessions, lots of Google searching “Underrated Madison Restaurants” (more to come on that later), and pouring over too many online menus than I would like to admit, I outlined my ambitious goal to try a new restaurant in Madison each week. My roommates, team players and supportive to a fault, wasted no time helping me get started on accomplishing this goal and we decided to start with the well-reviewed Grampa’s Pizzeria.
I think if I were to go out on a limb and say that pizza is one of the most universally loved food by all Americans, I don’t think that’d be far off from the truth. My roommates span from being extremely adventurous with food and cuisine to intensely reserved (and that’s putting it nicely), so after throwing out a few suggestions that we ultimately deemed “too foodie” for everyone, we decided on a fool-proof crowd favorite: pizza.
Grampa’s Pizzeria on Willy Street (Williamson Street, if you want to be official about it) is a whimsical, quaint little spot known for their homemade thin crust pizzas, inviting atmosphere, and an iconic, hard-to-beat Tuesday Date Night special.
Filled with antique, vintage-looking furniture, the homespun character fills up the atmosphere of the small space. The restaurant itself boasts nothing fancy or fussy — tables to fit small groups are comfortably arranged in close proximity to each other overlook the quaint backyard herb garden. The closeness of the tabletops makes it nearly impossible not to chit chat with your neighbor, and also to not steal glimpses and wafts of the beautiful plates being dished out family-style around you. Dark hardwood floors and accents comfortably fill the space in a worn-in, homegrown fashion.
Small plates on the menu showcase fresh ingredients like the dreamy mozzarella made daily, as well as a locally-sourced favorite Madison sourdough bread, which elevates their already-impressive cheese board small plate.
The menu highlights some seasonal features, but the overarching theme that makes this spot unique was how each dish had a traditional concept at heart but was peppered with elevated yet accessible twists. The risotto had subtle hint of vanilla bean to balance the tangy richness of the parmesan; the crispness of the watercress and calabrian chiles on the Barnerini pizza are an unexpected, perfect complement to the creamy ricotta and velvety drizzle of honey on top of the neutralizing arugula.
The warm and inviting staff radiate a subtle made-from-scratch prideful glow as they serve the generous plates family-style to you, and the tasteful decorative addition of edible flowers and artisanal presentation make for a cozy, heartwarming dining experience you’re not going to want to end.
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With a solid no-negatives review from this experience, I’m all ears for suggestions of other under-appreciated Madison places I must add to my list. So far, my list spans supper clubs, dive bars, carry-out only spots and all things in between; the featured cuisines vary from Peruvian to Taiwanese to Mediterranean to finger-licking-greasy American.
Here’s to a not one-size-fits-all goal, and for the memories these meals have to bring in the coming months.