History roots brothers in food and family

It's all in the family the Altschul brothers
History roots brothers in food and family

Pizza dough is a fickle mistress, moody and unpredictable, slave to the whims of weather and alchemy. Gil Altschul can concoct, knead and expertly coax the same recipe at Grampa’s Pizzeria every night, “down to the grain,” and it’ll still come out a little different every time. Every baker knows this, but Gil isn’t one–even though he owns the almost-two-year-old Willy Street eatery that’s been known to draw two-hour waits, along with the brand-new Gib’s Bar next door.

Gil is a trained culinary chef–he first earned a business degree from UW-Whitewater, then attended the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona, all the while working his way through McDonald’s, Quiznos, Uno’s and Biaggi’s, then up to high-end restaurants in Scottsdale, Chicago and San Diego. But he comes by the baking thing naturally, too.

“Janey did the baking,” says thirty-two-year-old Gil of his stepmom, Jane Capito of Mickey’s Tavern and Lazy Jane‘s fame, then married to his father, Dan Altschul. The couple originally met at Ovens of Brittany, then later started Botticelli’s. As kids, Gil and his older brother Phil were charged with pushing display cases full of scones up to the Dane County Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings while little brother Ben, four years younger, hung back in a world he remembers mostly in brightly colored, vivid flashes: puffs of flour, clinking glasses, roaring laughter, waitstaff hustle, butter noodles.

Ben and Gil couldn’t be more different, as they’ll both tell you, although Gil will tell it to you quicker. Ben is dreamier, the artist of the two, a theater kid who likes to spin a tale and stretch it out like his brother’s pizza dough. He never formally did the restaurant thing, instead focusing on real estate after attending UW-Madison; today he owns twelve residential and commercial properties in Madison, including the two that host Grampa’s and Gib’s Bar–and now his own, the reborn Tip Top Tavern on the northeast side. The brothers love each other, but it’s good that they each have their own arenas.

“When I proposed to the family that Grampa’s Gun Shop may be moving and maybe we should make it a pizzeria, my father encouraged Gil to be in the lead position there–and he was right,” says Ben. “I never would have dreamt of Grampa’s. Ain’t my style. But it’s the style that I have always admired so deeply, that’s what Gil created. And Gib’s, too. If I would have done Gib’s? It would have been like,” he pauses, then laughs, blowing a puff of American Spirit downwind, “Mickey’s Fun House.”

But Mickey’s Fun House, Gib’s Bar is not. Gil has a style that’s more deliberate, refined, decisive. Grampa’s–focused on artisan pizza topped with fresh herbs and veggies from the garden out back–is small and intimate, so there’s often a wait. After too many nights sending customers away, Gil remembered this sweet patch of pizzeria paradise in Arizona that had an adjacent house where waiting patrons lingered over wine beneath strands of twinkling lights. So he gutted Ben’s Victorian next door to Grampa’s and named it Gib’s Bar, after their dad’s late father, Papa Gib. The result is this immaculate, upscale space, but cozy–like your friend knows this guy whose cousin’s got this great house in the city where there’s always a party.

“It started off pretty simply in my head as a waiting room, then it took on a life of its own,” says Gil, looking around at the theater chairs from Context on King Street, the old ironing closet repurposed as a Murphy bar, the medical lab cabinet that general manager Ed Hong spotted at an Oshkosh antique mall, now showcasing rare spirits. Gil and his fiancee Marissa Johnson, along with his consultant Hastings Cameron, found these details by scouring antique malls, Deconstruction on Walsh Road and often his own home. Now they walk through Gib’s Bar each morning, repositioning throw pillows just so. Marissa also manages the front of the house at Grampa’s, because “people like her a lot,” says Gil. “She’s a nice buffer between me and the guests sometimes.” (Incidentally, Gil’s biological mom’s father was a pizza man, too; his photos grace the walls of Grampa’s, along with a handful of guns from the original shop.)

Meanwhile, down the road off Commercial Avenue, Ben has given the old Tip Top Tavern a homey feel as well, but it’s more like his home. After Botticelli’s closed and his parents split in the late ’90s, Ben relied heavily on his east-side community; between them and his patchwork family, Ben holds tight his values of diversity, tolerance, safety and unconditional love. That’s what he and managing partner Alfred Rasho hope to give back to Madison with the Tip Top. Once a troubled dive bar rife with fights, gambling and prostitution, says Ben, now–after a seven-month renovation and “healing” time–Tip Top is “safe, clean and comfortable,” per the ever-guiding company principles.

Inside, a scrolling, tiled ceiling hovers over rich knotty paneling and stained glass. Outside, a freshly planted tree and flower boxes bloom in the expansive fenced-in courtyard. Daniel Byrne, formerly of the Madison Club, Maple Bluff Country Club and RP’s Pasta, serves old-school comfort food earning rave reviews. A guy named Fred leads tai chi on the patio on Saturday mornings and Nate Meng facilitates a Sunday night open mic that draws a standing-room-only crowd. This fall they’ll expand next door with the Tip Top Salon, in place of what’s always been a barber shop–but in the French sense this time.

“A place for community to gather under an inspiring host, partly for the sake of amusement and partly to refine the knowledge of the participants through the art of conversation,” says Ben, in typical fashion. “So that’s what’s gonna be shakin’ next door.”

Business is a complex thing, almost as complex as family, and their family’s influence is evident in all of the Altschul brothers’ businesses. Ben has announced plans for the Atrium, a restaurant in the courtyard of the old Botticelli’s, but it’s a long-term project. Each business is uniquely each brother’s own, and that’s okay. That’s what makes them work.

“Our family has had its share of challenges, but there has never been a question of how connected we are,” says Ben. “Life is hard and the restaurant business itself is really challenging, but we’re all still here. And I think that’s very promising.”

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