Saturday, December 1, 2007

Anna Alberici carries on the tradition of Madison’s Little Italy at the Greenbush Bar

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Brava magazine, December 2007
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Anna's Cannoli

Anna Alberici was just a child when the bulldozers came. Her family’s home fell with the others in the neighborhood -- with the grape vines, flower gardens and tomato patches, the groceries, churches, spaghetti houses and taverns. Gone was the multiethnic enclave bounded by West Washington Avenue, Park Street and Regent Street, the territory once nicknamed Little Italy. Anna’s neighborhood, the Greenbush, or the “Old Bush,” was a target of the 1960s’ zeal for “urban redevelopment;” the area, with its rich history, was cleared for new concrete megastructures.

A few buildings along the north side of Regent Street survived the wrecking ball. One was the Italian Workmen’s Club, which ran a bar downstairs. Today the club, still in existence, rents that downstairs space to the much-loved Greenbush Bar, owned by Anna and managed by Gretchen Hils, Anna’s life partner. “When I saw that it was for rent [in 1993] I jumped on it,” says Anna. “It seemed like a natural for me to be in that space. “I remember going there with my family.”

VVK: What do you remember about the old Greenbush neighborhood, and what it was like when everyone had to leave?

AA: Even though I was only 10 when we left, I miss it. I really did love it. I wish it were still there. Often when I drive past the area where I lived I think about being a kid, what the neighborhood looked like, how I felt. There were several small grocery stores. All Italian and everyone knew everyone. I would be sent to the store for a pound of salami and “Mr. Frank” would slice it to order, put it on our account and send me home.

I just remember what a huge change it was when we moved. I hated it. My mom was very sad. The older folks really had a hard time when they had to leave. The rest of the people scattered about.

VVK: How does the establishment tie in with the area’s past? What makes it special?

AA: I named the bar in tribute to the neighborhood. It fits into the old tradition of the old Greenbush neighborhood in that we serve Sicilian cuisine. Most of the Italians in the old Bush were from parts of Sicily.

I think what makes the Greenbush special is the coziness. You go down a flight of stairs. Before you get to the door you can smell the food and hear music, talk and laughter. It's warm and inviting, especially on a cold winter night. We pay special attention to not only the quality of the food but also the drink. We have a "top shelf" rail, great wines at a good price, lots of bourbon and scotch as well as local beer.

VVK: What led you to the culinary trade?

AA: My mother was a great cook. She also cooked in restaurants all of her adult life. She was born and raised in the Greenbush neighborhood and cooked in almost all of the Italian restaurants at some point. At home she made traditional Sicilian meals. She loved cooking and we loved eating.

I feel lucky to have acquired a taste for things like Sicilian olives, snails and garlic -- and lots of it -- at an early age. It shaped my love for food that is simple, tasty and wholesome.

VVK: The Greenbush is known for its commitment to local, sustainable food products. What’s behind that?

AA: I remember as a child how good meat and poultry products in this country were. And how that changed in later years. Now I buy all of my non-processed meat -- everything except pepperoni, salami and prosciutto --from Pecatonica Farms in Hollandale, Wis. Their meat is all natural and free range.

We are totally committed to using local and buying local as much as possible. This is the way I eat at home and I feel it my duty to serve that kind of food to my customers. The flavor of local, organic and naturally raised food is so outstanding. I think it is also all local businesses to help other local business survive. We need to support each other. The chain restaurants are out of control and they don't serve our community except in the area of employment, which is good, but ….

VVK: What’s your favorite dish at the Greenbush?

AA: Spaghetti and meatballs. It is comfort food to me. The recipe is pretty much what I grew up with.

VVK: What’s your favorite thing about what you do?

AA: Simply cooking. I love it when I’m alone in the kitchen and preparing whatever it is I'm making that day. It's kind of Zen for me.

VVK: What’s ahead for the Greenbush?

AA: I hope that the Greenbush can keep growing. We often consider opening for lunch, but parking in the day is an issue. I'm currently on a steering committee for the Regent Street south campus area redevelopment. I think it will be great to get Regent Street on the track of more businesses and more of a neighborhood rather than just a busy street.

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