Arcade drama on Monona Drive
A trove of vintage game cabinets moves from Rossi's to the Pizza Oven.
Game cabinets, particularly the '80s-era variety most of us conjur when we wax nostalgic about arcades, have a primal historical connection with greasy, hole-in-the-wall pizza places. A Pac-Man or Tempest machine would sit in the corner of the one-man pizza outfit, holding the attention of a group of kids long enough to keep them around for a slice more than they might otherwise devour. For three years, Rossi's Vintage Arcade and Pizzeria on Monona Drive captured that casual, nostalgic feeling of youth gathered around the greasy pepperoni hearth to take in a game of Burger Time or Doctor Who pinball.
Sadly, it appears that the realities of running an arcade in 2015 caught up to Rossi's this week, when Madison arcade cabinet collector (and Droids Attack guitarist/vocalist) Brad Van announced on Facebook that he felt it necessary to make a hasty exit from Rossi's after several incidents of machines being broken into or damaged. Van sad he also had some disagreements with owner Rossi Parisi over when Van could have access to the cabinets for maintenance and care.
"Unfortunately in that time my business relationship with Ross has deteriorated," says Van in his post, and the accompanying photo doesn't paint a pretty picture. It's of a sign outside the arcade publicly shaming Van for making off with "Rossi's" arcade cabinets—although they are owned and maintained by Van—and promising to "work around the clock" to restore games to the pizzeria. While it's unclear where the new games will come from, Van assures us that they won't be games from his collection.
It's not all bad news though: while Rossi plans to keep his pizzeria stocked with arcade games of as-yet-undetermined origin, Van has secured a new home for his collection in Monona at the Pizza Oven. So you can still sample that excellent collection of cabinets–now a sort of virtual arcade known as Aftershock Retrogames living between the bar and the pizza buffet. "I wanted to keep as many of the games available for people in the same general area, and a lot of folks had good things to say about Pizza Oven," said Van. "I went in and introduced myself, and it just took off from there."
As for Rossi's, Parisi should be commended for trying something different that resonated with Madison residents. Barcades have become a staple in cities across the country, but the under-18-friendly venues that offer classic arcade experiences without alcohol involved are rare, and Rossi's certainly carved out that niche, once they were primed for operating across the street from a high school.
But while you can sell nostalgia, being nostalgic for outdated business models doesn't work forever, and the reality is that an arcade is a different animal today than it was in the heady days of Pac Man Fever. Games aren't the diversion from a pizza party; these things are historical artifacts to be appreciated and savored in their playing. From the sound of it, Parisi seemed to think the games were there exclusively to keep the arcade packed with hungry patrons, not as interactive displays in a museum of gaming history.
When I interviewed Van for an Isthmus story when the arcade first opened, it became clear that his priority was to do right by the history of the games he collects. He rotates the machines in the arcade not to keep quarter expenditure up, but to make sure all the classics of yore are represented over time, with a few mandatory staples anchoring scene according to his sense of historical importance. You might think Pac-Man, but no real arcade collection is complete without a Tempest machine.
Point being, Van understood what made these games relevant today—mixing a reverence for their history with the simple fun of a night out with friends. They aren't diversions anymore—they're the main event. The new wave of arcades treats them as an artisanal good to be savored and respected, something Van felt wasn't happening at the old location.
It's a shame that there seems to be bad blood with Rossi's, but hey, best case, now there are two great arcades in Madison. Parisi has no plans to lessen the presence of arcade machines at the pizzeria—according to their outbound voicemail, Rossi’s will be closed until September 29 for a “grand re-opening” featuring pinball that “challenges even the most skilled of players,” which is a weird selling point, but sure, yeah. More importantly, Parisi stresses in the message that his focus will be on providing games that suit a safe, fun, family-friendly atmosphere. That’s more Chuck E. Cheese than barcade, but seems like there’s room enough for two arcades going after two different kinds of arcade player.
I moved to Chicago two years ago, and my baseline for an acceptable barcade is still the presence of Tempest and Doctor Who pinball. So far, not many arcades have passed that high bar. Not sure what the future holds for Rossi’s Pizza, but so long as Van has his personal cabinet collection living somewhere in Madison, the city is richer for it.