Denver pizzerias: the new versus the old
Four pies enter, but only one leaves
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Updated: Sunday, March 17, 2013 05:03
Denver has never been a pizza battleground like New York or Chicago, but the simple food has always been the subject of heated disagreements over technique and ingredients: thin crust versus deep-dish, organic uncured pepperoni versus canned black olives, made to be eaten on the run with a paper plate or delicately with the help of a knife and fork.
Since Denver came into its own as a culinary city, battles have been fought between the various diehard pizza factions. On one side are unwavering New York-style partisans who prefer their pie thin as cardboard and eaten in a grimy alley somewhere, and on the other, neo-yuppies who embrace Wolfgang Puck’s gourmet approach. And never in this city’s history has there been such a glut of pizza joints, all vying for supremacy.
Fly-by-night delivery joints open and close in the blink of an eye. White tablecloth restaurants try to outdo each other with the wildest toppings and the most local ingredients. And all the while, the old-school places cling to their hardcore customers and try not to sweat the new kids on the block. So in the interest of good journalism, we at the Advocate are pitting two newcomers and two old-timers against each other in the battle to see who can sling the best slice.
The battle begins where most people’s nights end: Benny Blanco’s—you know, Benny Blanco? From the Bronx?
The 12-year-old space on 616 East 13th Avenue is just big enough to hold four regular people, or ten wasted refugees from the neighboring Beauty Bar. The Benny Blanco’s experience is pretty simple: Big Pun is on the stereo, and a pre-made pie sits right in front. Order a slice ($2.50 each, 50 cents extra per topping) and the boys behind the counter will warm it up in the oven. Try not to spill it on anybody’s lap while stumbling out, and it’s all gravy.
Blanco’s pizza is firmly in the mold of Colorado-style New York pizza. The cheese sits like a slab on the crust, the sauce is barely there, and there’s a mile of chewy crust to get through before the slice is done. When it comes to taste, this slice of the Bronx is little different from the ones you might find at Cosmo’s in Boulder or even Joey’s on East Colfax. But Benny Blanco’s has one thing that few other places can match: it’s open until 3:30 in the morning.
A Benny Blanco’s slice is a solid snack even with the sun out and a clear liver—it would be heaven after a night of dancing and off-brand vodka.
Lucky Pie Pizza
Let’s class up the joint. Lucky Pie Pizza & Taphouse has been in part of the former Dixon’s space at 16th and Wazee for barely a year, but Executive Chef Joe Troupe honed his slicer at Lucky Pie’s first location in Louisville, which opened in 2010. It’s a good fit for the hip, historic northwest part of the 16th Street Mall; the space is a little flat but unpretentious, the beer list is incredible, and the near-constant stream of brewery-focused events shows these guys aren’t kidding when it comes to suds.
And, oh yeah, the pizza is fantastic. Lucky Pie’s menu manages to toe the line expertly between conventionality and weirdness for weirdness’s sake. The Bruges pizza ($13), with shaved Brussels sprouts, pistachios, and apples, is earthy and satisfying. Pair it with a pint of Flemish Red ($10) for that Belgian experience.
But pizza experiments like the Bruges are just that—experiments. To see what Lucky Pie is really made of, pile on salt and satisfaction with the Popeye pizza ($13). Spinach, garlic, and mozzarella are bolstered with a slew of salty cheeses: fontina, Grana Padano, and beautiful shavings of pecorino. Bacon can be added for an extra Jefferson, which should be done immediately and without hesitation.
In a town where too many hoity-toity restaurants load down their pies with bizarre samplings of vegetables and unsatisfying meats, it’s a humdinger to find a single pie that sticks in the memory.
Marco's Coal Fired Pizza
For some folks, all pizza concerns are secondary to matters of the crust. In that case, their first stop should be a relative newcomer in Ballpark, Marco’s Coal Fired Pizza found at 21st and Larimer.
Owner Mark Dym’s Neapolitan-style version—not cracker thin, and not doughy—is one of the true wonders of Denver’s culinary world. It’s a complex crust with what must be a fascinating mineral composition, a crust one could sit down with and discuss the finer points of No Exit, over a glass of tawny port. If only the pizza was as intriguing.
Marco’s is not the freshest place or the unchallenged lord of the Denver pizza scene, but it is probably the most accomplished one. It’s the only restaurant in Colorado to be certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, a fancy way of saying Marco’s pizzas take their notes from Naples’ pizza masters. Admittedly, the choice of the Pistacchio pizza ($18) was an odd one—pistachio crème, sweet Italian sausage, and mozzarella—but a bad pizza is bad no matter how credentialed.
The pistachio base was bone-dry, with so little crunch and flavor as to slip from memory. The sweet Italian sausage was authentically spiced and flavorful, but seemed tossed on as a lukewarm afterthought. Anywhere else this would have been merely a disappointing pizza. But after having been bombarded with claims of authenticity, it’s almost offensive. Don’t shit in my hat and tell me it’s Dark Chocolate Chunk night down at Pinkberry, Marco’s.
Bonnie Brae Tavern
Bonnie Brae Tavern offers an aggressively unpretentious approach. This restaurant, along University Boulevard at Exposition Avenue, has been around so long, it has passed from mere institution into cultural treasure. Opened by Carl and Sue Dire right after the end of Prohibition, the turquoise booths and Depression-inspired decor have hardly changed in 78 years. It’s not just a place that can dredge up fond feelings; through sheer hominess, it’s likely to implant warm memories that never occurred—gee, remember when Uncle Paulie laughed so hard he sprayed Miller out his nose?