Located on famous State Street in downtown Madison (see map), Gino's has been in business since the early 60's. Virginio "Gino" Gargano was a teen-aged Italian immigrant who came to the U.S. with his brothers on the advice of his uncle Carlo Caputo, a local store owner. Gino opened his restaurant on State Street just down from his uncle's store when he was just 21.
Gino's brothers, Peppino and Biagio,also opened restaurants - Peppino's on Capital Square in downtown Madison (see map), and Bellini's (formerly The Monastery) on East Washington Ave. (see map). Their children run those respective restaurants today.
According to the locals, Gino's is a local institution - long known as the restaurant where many married couples had dinner during their first date while going to the University of Wisconsin. The ground floor area of the restaurant is pretty much the same way as it was 40 years ago.
What is now the upstairs dining area was the living quarters of Gino when he first opened the restaurant. Gino once said that he "slept with his work" and there were times he didn't leave the building for days.
The last time we ate there was about a year ago after the Iowa/Wisconsin football game. We went there with Scott and Marcia Schroeder, and Dave and Pat Heusmann during our annual road trip for Iowa football. Given that Iowa won the game, we were in good spirits and decided to live it up for the evening. Cindy came up with the Gino's recommendation and we went with it.
Cindy and I had first eaten there a number of years ago during a weekend trip to Madison. Actually, we sort of just fell into the place, not knowing the reputation or history of Gino's. I had meatballs and pasta that first visit, and the meatballs were the best I'd ever had. Dissecting the meatballs, I found spices and large chunks of garlic throughout. The meatballs I make at home are based off the meatballs at Gino's.
That evening a year ago, they sat us upstairs in the "newer" section of the restaurant. (It was Gino's old apartment from years ago.) I had their lasagna which was very, very good. And very cheap - $9.95 for the the serving which was very generous. Cindy had the broccoli chicken alfredo that she liked very well, too.
I don't quite remember what Scott and Marcia had - something with a red sauce, if I remember right - but Dave and Pat got a Gino's pizza. I had always wondered about their pizza and I was glad they got it. Dave said it was just "outstanding" and "awesome". It looked great. I'll have to get it sometime and let you know how it was.
I've been going to Madison for a number of years and just outside the Beltline Highway on Verona Rd. is a place called Gino's Italian Deli (see map). I'd never stopped in and I decided to do that on my way out of town back to the Quad Cities.
Gino's Italian Deli is a small market with a deli meat counter where they'll make sandwiches. In the summertime, they put tables outside and people can sit and eat out there. But they also have a big freezer area where they have ready-to-eat meals. One of the things that caught my eye was the lasagna.
It came in two sizes of pans - a six serving size for $16.50 and a 12 serving size for $31.00. The instructions were to cook it at 350 degrees for an hour and 15 minutes. I didn't have anything planned for dinner that night, so I grabbed one of the six serving sizes. I thought that $16.50 was a little expensive, then I realized that we could eat on this for at least three meals.
I went up to the counter and asked the check out lady if this Gino's Italian Deli was the same people as Gino's downtown. She said, "It's the same family."
I asked, "Is this the same lasagna as they sell at Gino's downtown?"
She looked at me and said, rather coolly, "I said it's the same family."
Well, that didn't tell me anything other than there's some sort of relationship within the family with Gino's downtown and Gino's Italian Deli. And she was kind of bitchy about it. I sort of wondered about it after I bought it.
However, any fears I had went away after I cooked up the lasagna when I got home. I don't know if it was exactly like the lasagna at Gino's, but it was still pretty good. I'll definitely pick up another pan of lasagna from Gino's Italian Deli the next time I'm up in Madison.
But the original Gino's in downtown Madison is worth a visit. The old time charm, the good food, the comfortable ambiance - it all makes Gino's one of those great little restaurants that you'll want to visit again and again.
(Update - Gino Gargano decided to retire at the age of 73 and closed Gino's Restaurant in downtown Madison in 2013 after being in business for 50 years. The Deli on the southwest side of Madison remains open and they still offer Gino's famous lasagna to go.)