Osteria Papavero brings authentic, seasonal Italian dining to Madison

Chef Francesco Mangano reminisces on the landscapes and flavors of his childhood in Bologna and Tuscany, Italy at Osteria Papavero.
A wooden cutting board is decorated with an assortment of meats and bread on a wooden table.
Photo by Nikki Hansen
Gran Piatto at Osteria Papavero

Osteria Papavero’s wooden sign with a burst of cheery, red poppies is flapping in the wind on a rainy, blustery day in downtown Madison. Tucked inside the brick building on East Wilson Street where it first opened in 2006, the restaurant serves rustic Italian dishes inspired by owner and chef Francesco Mangano’s childhood in Bologna, where he spent the school year, and Tuscany, where he spent summers. “We try not to make too much food from Bologna, because it’s pretty fatty food,” Mangano says with a laugh. “No, I’m just joking, but it’s really rich. Bologna is called La Grassa in Italy, [which means] ‘the fat one.’ ” South of Bologna and moving into Tuscany, dishes native to those regions use more vegetables and olive oil. Osteria Papavero’s menu combines a little bit from both places, Mangano says. No matter the dish, Mangano focuses on using high-quality ingredients — from foraged mushrooms to French chocolate — to create delicious, unfussy dishes that remind him of home.

A plate of grigliata sits on a wooden table next to a red candle.

Photo by Nikki Hansen

One such dish is the grigliata. Grigliata is “a good representation of what Italians eat,” Mangano says. While the dish changes weekly, it always features a trio of grilled meats served with farmer-style potatoes cooked with tomato, onion and fresh oregano. “Very simple, very homey,” says Mangano.

Chef Francesco Mangano wears a green shirt and an apron and sits at a wooden table in front of an orange wall.

Photo by Nikki Hansen

Chef Francesco Mangano

Hold the Drama | Authentic Italian Comfort Food
Mangano believes Italian food’s popularity can be attributed to the large Italian American community in the United States, but he also thinks it has wide appeal because of its authenticity. “It’s cozy, familiar, uncomplicated food,” Mangano says. “We aren’t building towers of splashy food or trying to make anything that is ‘hoity-toity.’ There is complexity in the sense that the ingredients are good and the preparations are relatively simple.” Mangano says that he likes to be able to recognize the food on his plate and believes his customers agree. “It’s the quality of what you use, the care that you put into it,” he says. “We are not doing theater.”

Licensed to Cure | Try the Gran Piatto
In 2008, Osteria Papavero became the first restaurant in Wisconsin approved by the health department to produce cured meats. “We can make prosciutto, salami, coppa, pancetta, cooked pates and terrines,” says Mangano. “It’s actually five different [approvals] because the procedures are different.” To try them all, order the gran piatto, a large platter of assorted meats served with giardiniera, two kinds of cheese, marinated olives and grilled bread. “It’s a smorgasbord of what we have that week,” says Mangano.

A slice of bread pudding is plated on a gray plate on a wooden table next to a colorful wall.

Photo by Nikki Hansen

It’s All in the Ingredients | Homemade Takes the Pudding
Making bread pudding “is not rocket science,” Mangano says, but the ingredients make all the difference. “Are [you] making your own brioche or not? What chocolate are you using? What eggs are you using? Are the eggs from the farm? This is what makes the bread pudding good.” A chocolate bread pudding has become a mainstay because of its popularity, but expect other seasonal flavors, too, including a pumpkin bread pudding in late fall and a special for New Year’s Eve made with panettone, an Italian Christmas cake with citrus and raisins.

Osteria Papavero's wooden sign hangs outside the restaurant.

Photo by Nikki Hansen

Pops of Red
It’s everywhere you look. In addition to appearing on the restaurant’s signage, bright red poppies are scattered throughout the restaurant’s decor in paintings and on its menus. In Italian, papavero means “poppy” and an osteria is a tavern, “so our name would directly translate to ‘Poppy Tavern,’ ” says Manager Jonathan Rodriguez. The flower is a welcome sight in Italy, Francesco Mangano further explains. “Poppies are one of the first signs of summer in the Italian countryside,” he says. “In inland Tuscany, a lot of the rolling hills are turned to wheat crops — yellow and amber in color.” Poppies provide a stark contrast to the countryside, he says.

Osteria Papavero
128 E. Wilson St.

Erica Krug is a contributing writer at Madison Magazine.

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