To turn a dark little neighborhood gun shop into a bustling pizza joint sounds like a long shot.
But Grampa's Pizzeria, with its clean white brick façade, overflowing window box and friendly Willy Street vibe, has transformed Larry Gleasman's venerable store into a boisterous night spot. Gilbert Altschul's ambitious menu makes it among the most exciting new restaurants to open on the east side in years.
Grampa's, run by chef Altschul and his fiancee Marissa Johnson, is open for dinner seven days a week. It feels at once casual and elegant, refined and approachable.
Altschul went to culinary school in Arizona and has cooked in restaurants around the country, including Mickey's Tavern, run by his former stepmother, Jane Capito. (Read the story in The Capital Times about Capito's influence here.)
At Grampa's, he uses simple ingredients on a surprisingly ambitious menu for a pizzeria. On small plates, salads and 12-inch pies, Altschul incorporates Midwestern, Asian and Italian influences without resorting to muddled "fusion" cuisine. He glories in fresh tomatoes, locally made sausage and assertive spices. He tops dishes with micro-herbs and colorful nasturtiums from Garden to Be and his own backyard.
The produce is local, but the flavors span the globe. For a recent seasonal small plate ($5), Altschul blistered and skewered tiny Japanese shishito peppers and showered them with soy sauce, a Japanese spice called togarashi and bonito flakes (made from dried, smoked tuna).
On the same night, a decadent Italianate pizza special paired meaty chanterelle mushrooms with an earthy garlic cream sauce, fresh parsley, sage and thyme and the Grampa's house blend of cheeses — mozzarella, provolone and grana padano parmesan ($14).
Chimichurri, a tangy Argentinian herb sauce, balanced thick chunks of pork confit served in a small cast iron skillet and enough for a meal in itself ($9). Mozzarella, which takes the kitchen up to an hour to season and stretch every day, squeaks in the teeth like market-fresh curds, set off by colorful cherry and plum tomatoes, basil leaves no bigger than a pinky nail and fat crystals of vanilla fleur de sel ($7).
The name "Grampa's," a nod to the shop's retail history and Altschul's grandfather's recipe for pizza dough, seems deceptive. While there are chairs from SWAP (the university's resale store) and black-and-white family photos on the wall, it's more hot spot than homespun.
The '60s soul music is loud, the atmosphere young; there are no booster seats for babies. (Altschul and Johnson faced the wrath of breastfeeding mothers following a minor misstep a few weeks after opening in July. Altschul says he's "moved on.")
Altschul's palate is decidedly adult. The Finnochio pizza ($13) packs a fair amount of heat from Anaheim chilis and spicy fennel sausage. Even hotter is the Barberini ($14), a beautiful pie: creamy white ricotta, small, hot red peppers called Calabrian chilis, fresh garlic, lightly spicy watercress and — a revelation — a drizzle of honey on top. Every pizza is a foot in diameter, with a thin but sturdy crust and a moderate amount of char.
The panzanella ($7), soon to be shifted off the menu in favor of something more autumnal, celebrated tomatoes at their peak in early September, tiny purple flowers hiding among coarse pieces of Madison Sourdough bread and a shower of parmesan. The beet salad ($8.50) will hopefully stick around longer — it's among the best and prettiest I've had, with sugary, tender beets, lightly truffled pistachio cream and long, curling sprouts for crunch.
Grampa's desserts are easy to love, and may be developing a reputation on their own. Individual sticky ginger cakes ($6), about four inches in diameter, offer extra toasty brown edge — the best part of any cake. They come with a tower of lightly sugared cream, whipped just until airy.
Bar manager Josh Swentzel keeps the bar, which is beer and wine only, reasonable and varied. Beyond the craft beer on tap, try the Sicoris, an easy Spanish red blend with lots of earthy flavors and berry fruit ($9) — it's a wine that matches almost any of the pizzas — or the Novellum Chardonnay ($8) with the mozzarella.
Altschul says he'd like to make Grampa's into a small chain, opening "six to eight" versions of the restaurant in cities like Austin and San Diego. While it would be churlish to wish him anything less than success, part of the draw of Grampa's is Altschul's creative presence in the kitchen, his drive to be both open-minded and rooted in a place.
A gun shop may not seem like a natural predecessor to a pizzeria. But it's hard to imagine Grampa's creative, bold interpretations of Wisconsin-grown pizza anywhere but on Willy Street.