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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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Madtown Pizza is a taste of the old Greenbush
Just like mama used to make

Credit:Sid Richards

Madtown Pizza is a throwback to Madison's Greenbush neighborhood, even though it's on East Johnson Street. The Greenbush, in its heyday a home base for a largely Italian immigrant community, was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Bayview, Braxton and Brittingham apartments.

"I grew up a block from Regent and Park Street," notes Madtown co-owner Joe Cerniglia, a member of the Italian Workmen's Club. His parents emigrated from Sicily but met in Madison.

Cerniglia's Sicilian family recipes are the basis for the pizza, pasta, sandwiches and calzones at Madtown. The flavors conjure the modest grandeur of a well-cooked meal from mom, at affordable prices and in generous portions.

"You know, you always love your mother's cooking," Cerniglia says, adding that when people ask him where he goes out for pasta, he says he doesn't go out. Lucky for us, we can go out to eat what he used to eat at home.

Cerniglia and his wife, Kay, opened Madtown Pizza in July with co-owners Kelly and Frankie Grant in the space formerly occupied by Supreme Pizza. Cerniglia delivers while Frankie cooks and Kelly works the front.

I was never keen on Supreme Pizza, but walking home on a cold winter night I scoped out the prospect of a good pizza joint close to home, and what I found was prospect turned to promise. Inside: new ceilings, new floors, new inspiration.

I ordered a "slice" - actually a personal pizza - of the Wisconsin bacon burger pizza with ground beef, bacon and onions. I watched its inception, the dough babied and hand-tossed, then topped and slid into the oven. I sensed that my waiting for a to-go order had no effect on Frankie's speed as he worked; there's no rushing "just right," and I appreciate that. He checked and turned the pie repeatedly, and when, and only when, it was ready, he took it out. Sure enough, just right.

I took the box outside and gazed at the face of broil-kissed cheese framed by a golden crust. Parmesan is a default finishing touch on pizzas here, so if you'd like yours without, just say so. I then abandoned all propriety and started eating, devouring all four pieces by the time I reached my front door just two short blocks away.

Madtown's pizza is one of the best thin-crust pizzas I've had in Madison, perhaps only rivaled by Roman Candle. The crust is snappy and crisp and almost outshines the toppings. (Everyone loves the crust, Cerniglia says, and despite other pizza industry folks asking for the recipe, he's keeping mum.)

Another star feature is the "gravy," or sauce, which thankfully comes on a number of menu items. The flavors are merrily married - a savory blend of aromatics that lends heaps of flavor to the "authentic Sicilian recipe spaghetti," a meal of heroic proportions.

Also noteworthy is anything with the Italian sausage, a mildly spiced family recipe produced by Cerniglia's brother at Cerniglia Products in Middleton. My favorite is the Italian sausage in a mini-calzone, a doughy hot pocket filled with cheese and garlic sauce that I fantasize about holding in my mittens for a cold-weather snack. The minis, at $2.25, now have a place on my list of tasty, inexpensive standbys. Or upgrade to the regular size, yours for under $5.

The menu also features several sandwiches, also all under $5, including the headliner, an Italian beef sandwich in seasoned au jus, with a brush of "gravy," on garlic bread. For those looking for a Chicago-style Italian beef with giardiniera, this isn't the place, although you can request to add onions and green peppers. It's a basic, filling sandwich, although I'd be inclined to ask for extra jus next time. In addition to that signature sandwich, there's a gooey, cheesy beef version that comes with garlic sauce; it stands out more in my mind.

For those dining in, the adjoining wood-paneled room makes for a no-frills, casual eatery. Or go stag and sit on a stool looking out onto Johnson Street.

Despite its evening-only hours, something tells me that Madtown Pizza has the staying power to weather this economy with smartly priced, simple eats that - even for a "kid," as Cerniglia called me - make me nostalgic for a slice of the Greenbush that was before my time.

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