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Monday, September 15, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fair
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Grampa's Pizzeria wins the triple crown on Willy Street
Appetizers...Pizza...Dessert...
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The Barberini: More high-quality, local ingredients; fewer guns.
Credit:Eric Tadsen

Owners Gilbert Altschul and Marissa Johnson have traded one grandpa for another. They've taken over the former Grampa's Gun Shop space and introduced a pizza recipe from Altschul's own grandpa in a classy, updated space called Grampa's Pizzeria. There's no question in my mind it's a good switch for Willy Street.

Inside Grampa's whitewashed cinderblock façade is a surprising elegance, blending warm industrial and bygone-era touches. Dark walls, gorgeous multihued wood floors, Edison bulb sconces, salvaged pressed-tin ceilings and a cozy copper bar delineate an intimate space. Photos and memorabilia add a homey touch (and yes, there are a couple of guns). The back of the restaurant gets a healthy glow from numerous windows looking out onto a grassy yard, where rabbits hop and nibble in the raised herb bed for your dining amusement. Thoughtful touches like a rocky waterfall and artwork on the shed doors make the backyard feel appropriately tailored for a restaurant.

An amuse bouche -- in my case, a simple bit of goat cheese/mushroom pate on a cracker -- is a strong message that this is not meant to be a typical casual pizza dinner. Not surprisingly, then, Grampa's air of approachable elegance continues on the menu. Small plates to start include olives, seasonal vegetables and cheese, as well as pork confit (accompanied by giardiniera and chimichurri). I tried a simple caprese set off by vanilla fleur de sel, which adds sweetness to the classic preparation of mozzarella, tomato and basil. The sweetness is amped up by a bit of Banyuls vinegar.

Grampa's specials are a blank canvas for Altschul's creativity. The special salad combined cherry tomatoes and melon balls over gelled tomato water, topped with a modest dollop of lemon sorbet. The colors play in lovely late-summer harmony, as do the flavors. Tiny basil leaves pull them into a unified theme.

The pizza selection is more tightly focused at Grampa's than at most similar Madison competitors, with a mere six pizzas on the menu (in addition to a "create your own" option). The selection reads as precise rather than lacking. The ingredients veer toward high-quality and local: Underground chorizo and pepperoni, Mad Urban Honey and locally foraged hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, not to mention duck prosciutto and other house-made goodies. The crust is thin but not flimsy, and baked in a standard oven rather than wood-fired. Gluten-free crust is available for an upcharge.

My favorite pizza was the Barberini, a spicy-sweet pizza with tomato sauce and Calabrian chiles offset by cool ricotta topped with watercress and a drizzle of honey. I also enjoyed the special of the night, a sweet corn-parsley pesto pie with chorizo and Anaheim chiles, adorned with a sprinkling of cilantro and lemon. Other pizzas include the pork confit with gorgonzola, a pesto-tomato combo with smoked mozzarella, and a sausage pizza with the Anaheims and fennel.

The Grampa's Facebook page gives good info on the nightly specials, which have included a basil and squash blossoms pizza and a smoked salmon version. Unless you are a big eater, one pizza will feed two if you're also ordering a salad or small plate.

Staying streamlined on the main course will allow you to save room for dessert, which you most definitely should. Two dessert choices may seem like not enough if you have a sweet tooth, but these two knock it out of the park (and are big enough to share).

The sticky ginger cake was dense but moist, with a delicately crisped golden crust, the pleasant warmth of the ginger offset by a mound of softly whipped cream. The ice cream sandwich comprises two giant, chewy cookies filled with ice cream. One day it might be snickerdoodles filled with vanilla, a swirl of hot fudge and walnuts; another day, oatmeal raisin sandwiching butter pecan. The variety in textures gives it more substance than your typical ice cream sandwich. To be blunt, it's killer.

Grampa's has a vastly different ambience from Roman Candle or Glass Nickel, and its pizza could not be mistaken for that of Café Porta Alba or Pizza Brutta. It brings something different to the spectrum of local pizza options without needing to bump anyone else out of it. May it enjoy as long a reign as Grampa's Gun Shop.

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