Other than I didn’t have a car so my world was very small when I went to college at the University of Wisconsin in the late 60’s, I don’t know how I missed Lombardino’s. Built in 1954, not a lick of this old-school Italian kitsch fest has changed since. Which is a real feat as the restaurant was bought in 2000 and a very fancy chef brought in. So although the ante’s been upped on the food, not a mosaic tile, not a twist of wrought iron, not even a cheesy slogan has been updated. This is a rarity in this day and age where new owners feel compelled to modernize and squeeze the last drop of soul out of their purchases. Here now is a brief tour through Lombardino’s, where I ate right after I conducted the marching band at the Homecoming football game last weekend.
First of all, there’s the Lombardino’s sign painted on the side of the building. The restaurant is on one of those corners, University and Highland, that you pass all the time if you drive in Madison. The sign is a good 40 feet long and not a dab of paint has ever been applied to restore it. This is something that most people can’t keep their hands off of but it’s something that aKitschionados, collectors and architectural historians in general praise. Let things age with dignity, just like a human being who doesn’t pump themselves full of Botox, silicone or anything else that eventually cosmetically alters them into a Stepford wife.
The sign connects to an equally long wall made up of multicolored 1 inch mosaic tiles, the same colors as in the mural so, all in all, a perfect color palette, albeit a little too dark to see well in my photos.
Ceramic reliefs of figures I don’t know to be particularly Italian but I could be so wrong about pepper the tile wall leading to the entrance of the restaurant.
Here are some close ups:
It’s always a beautiful thing when someone keeps their fat fingers off trying to restore something historic, a move that can only make the actual value plummet, and they choose instead to just leave it to age naturally. In this case, the ceramic relief fell off but you still get the spirit of the party-going figure who once attended the side of the building.
As you swing around the corner to get to the front door, which I unfortunately forgot to photograph, you get a hint of the wrought iron craziness that goes on inside.
I also forgot to take an overview shot of the restaurant when I walked in. Duh… But I was still euphoric from standing up in front of 82,000 people and a uniformed-to-the-nines 300+ piece marching band and conduct them playing my songs, all of this without knowing how to read music. So these brain lapses are to be expected. But I knew I was in the right place to celebrate when I saw this slogan on the overhang entrance to the bar:
Tipping the camera down a little bit you can see that the wrought iron entrance is made up of a lot of grapes and Christmas lights. It’s always an excellent sign when Christmas lights are left up all year round.
Once through the portals, there are two walls worth of astounding mosaic and larger tile work.
The ones made up of one-inch mosaic tiles are my favorites. Mr. Lombardino obviously loved his women.
The scenes made up of larger tiles are pretty great too. I especially love the miniature pizza boy standing at the side of the table next to the actual diner who’s cooling his head with his Bloody Mary:
The ceramic reliefs continue inside as do lots of little shuttered windows with wrought iron balconies. It’s always an excellent sign of kitsch when window treatments exist where there are no real windows and balconies exist only to have wine bottles hang out and peer at the guests.
I’m assuming this big tile relief, at least 8 feet long, is some famous building in Rome but world traveler that I’m not, I can’t be sure:
Another earmark of kitsch is when artwork such as this is backlit with Christmas lights and used as a bulletin board with guests at the Last Supper looking down upon it.
I’m pretty sure that this is on a wall leading to the bathroom:
The two larger tiles make sense in the scheme of things but I’m always partial when ashtrays are haphazardly stuck in to enhance the design.
I forgot to take my usual close up photos of the seriously good food but thankfully I have this photo of who I ate it with there:
From L-R, Mark Blackwell, who traveled to Madison with me to shoot my conducting debut, Jon Sorenson, from the University of Wisconsin Foundation who came up with the idea of me conducting in the first place and had the good taste to choose Lombardino’s for dinner, me, Comm Arts Chair Prof. Susan Zaeske, Professor Mary Louise “Lou” Roberts, and David Bedri. We ate like the pigs that this kind of decor demands.
I appreciated Lombardino’s even more because I started off my Madison trip as I have the three other times I’ve been back since I graduated, by going to see my old dorm, Carroll Hall, a stone cold classic Atomic Age building I moved into my freshman year. Both the interior and exterior left a lasting architectural impression on me that continues to this day. Carroll Hall was a stunningly modern Mid Century building with a beyond to die for lobby. I still have the brochure that made me choose it as a place to live:
Though the building itself was a little too rectangular for my tastes, the steelcase windows and turquoise metal plates that matched the blue of Lake Mendota made me so swoon every time I rounded the corner to see it:
To my horror, here’s what it looks like now:
Yikes! What are people thinking to just slop right over the gorgeous puppy?! Whatever material they used was so cheap you can still see the lines of the metal rods that held the turquoise plates in place. And then you go and paint it brown?! So it will disappear into the lake, not drawing attention to itself like some geeky coed? At least the blasphemers were bold enough to make it striped but shades of beige don’t really help much. And it’s really cheap paint, the kind that gets sucked into whatever material it’s painted over and even 100 coats will never give it any presence. Which is exactly what the owners of Lombardino’s didn’t do. Which is exactly why the first place I’m going to eat whenever I hit Madison again is Lombardino’s!