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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Overcast
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Phil Clementi, Owner Papa Phil's Ristorante Italiano
Papa Phil's Ristorante Italiano, 2611 Monroe St.
It's a family tradition.
Clementi: It's a family tradition.
Credit:Susan Kepecs

Why you should go: Almost all of Mad City's old spaghetti houses are gone, but Papa Phil's tweaks those Italian American comfort food recipes for the 21st century, and gets 'em just right.

Your papa was Papa Phil? Yes. I use his mug as our logo. Recognize him from the picture on the menu? He's sitting right over there. He's 95 - he lives around here, and all the kids in the neighborhood call him Papa. He gives 'em Oreo cookies. He comes down here every day for lunch, so I know he gets at least one good meal. He used to have a pizza and spaghetti place in town, Phildora's - my mom was Dora - across the street from Lombardino's. I worked there in the '60s. To tell us apart they used to call him Papa, but now I have grandkids who call me Papa.

Lorenzo's, on University Avenue, belonged to my grandfather on my mother's side of the family. That's where I started out, washing dishes and peeling potatoes when I was 10.

In the '70s I sold liquor for a distributor. In the '80s I had the Goal Post Supper Club in Middleton. In the '90s, went back to selling liquor, and here I am again. This business is in my blood. I opened Papa Phil's four years ago this month.

Are you using Papa's recipes? We have some of his and some from Lorenzo's. My father was born in Sicily, and my grandfather Lorenzo came from Naples. But our traditional red spaghetti sauce is my dad's. We had it five or six days a week when were kids. We couldn't afford much so we had spaghetti every way you can think of - with meatballs, kidney beans, lentils or just plain.

My wife's had some influence on the family recipes, too. She does the cooking at home. She's combined some of the dishes from both Lorenzo's and Phildora's, and put just a touch of her German accent on it. When I married her she couldn't cook, but she's a great cook now.

I've got three sons, and they're all good in the kitchen, too. When I opened Papa Phil's, one of them was cooking, but he decided to get out of the kitchen. Now I've got another Madisonian, Dan Eveland, doing the job. He's very aggressive - he likes to try different ideas. We have two specials every night. We'll sit down and talk about it before he starts cooking, but I always let him exercise his creativity.

One of the best dishes we've come up with lately is our cod Vesuvio, which we serve on Wednesdays and Fridays. The cod's baked with sundried tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic, sprinkled with a little crushed red pepper and served over risotto - it's really good. We make all our own sauces, and everything's from scratch, so if you want more garlic or less salt, just ask.

I decided to change the menu for spring. I wanted to eliminate a few things, but everything we've got has its fans. So I ended up adding new dishes, but not subtracting any.

What's for dessert? We make all our own desserts. We always have cannoli, though sometimes we change the fillings. We run tiramisu a lot. And we always have three choices. Sometimes there's cheesecake - or whatever Dan feels like making!

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