(This feature originally appeared in the March/April 2014 AAA Encompass magazine)
By John Lehndorff
Roadside plaques all over Colorado spotlight heroes, note historic events and point out big peaks. There’s even a granite monument on Speer Boulevard honoring a dubious “birthplace of the cheeseburger.” Why is there no bronze tablet outside Carl’s Pizza in North Denver?
Pizza was served in Colorado before Carl DiGiacamo started making dough on 38th Avenue in 1953, but this was the state’s first real pizzeria.
Often run by quirky, flour-dusted owners, pizzerias were a new place where car-focused, rock-n-rolling Boomers would come of age while their parents had a calming brew. Pizza was cool.
Sixty years later Colorado is blanketed by pizza joints of every persuasion: Neapolitan, New York-style, deep dish Chicago, square Sicilian, and organic, gluten-free and vegan. Asking which is “best” guarantees a noisy debate. If you’d rather just eat a great slice, hit the road with EnCompass and hang out at some memorable, one-of-a-kind pizzerias.
Carl’s Pizza 3800 W. 38th Ave., Denver
Carl’s Pizzeria. © Kim Long
From its Rat Pack-era neon sign and cramped red vinyl booths to a menu of iconic red sauce dishes, Carl’s is still a quintessential neighborhood pizzeria. Owner John Ludwig makes the dough, knows everyone and cranks out bubbling hot, thin or thick crust pies. There are no cutely named combo pizzas—just pick from a fairly short list of toppings. Arugula is not one of them. I‘m a fan of the housemade sausage and meatballs plus mushrooms and onions, which Carl’s puts on top, not under, the mozzarella. For the full effect, start with the minestrone and finish with the frita—fried dough with butter, cinnamon and sugar.
Cheesy Lee’s Pizzeria 600 W. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park
Located in the Elkhorn Lodge, Cheesy Lee’s is a good pizzeria with a silly name in a seriously historic and rustic location. You’re chowing down on a Tropic Pizza topped with ham, bacon, pineapple, mandarin oranges and cinnamon in the same room where Lord Stanley sipped tea while building his shining white namesake hotel down the road. The eatery’s “Estes Park-style” pizzas are distinguished by a slightly sweet and crunchy thin crust layered to the edges with toppings and a comforter of a “secret” five-cheese blend. It’s worth the drive for Maddie’s Mac N’ Cheese Pizza layered with seriously good baked macaroni. It’s named for one of the Lodge’s friendlier ghosts.
Ruffrano’s Hell’s Kitchen Pizza 9 Ruxton Ave., Manitou Springs
Rufran’s Hell’s Kitchen Pizzeria © Kim Long
We all dream about pizza occasionally. “I had this vivid, full color, 4-in-the-morning dream where I owned a pizzeria,” says Nelson Rufran. He consulted with a pizzeria owner in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and then duplicated it in Manitou Springs, down to the claustrophobic feeling and fire engine-red paint. This is pizza so New York it makes you want to fold up a couple of huge slices and reenact the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever. Don’t miss the signature Hellfire with its molten mass of hot Italian sausage, pepperoni, spicy tomato sauce and cherry peppers, or the bona fide Sicilian pizza cut in thick rectangles.
Buenos Aires Pizzeria 1307 22nd St., Denver
Buenos Aires Pizzeria © Kim Long
There’s nothing like a cool lager and a hot pizza topped with mozzarella, hearts of palm, ham, hardboiled eggs and Russian-like dressing to get you psyched for a Rockies game. In a charming old, brick space near Coors Field, the Buenos Aires-born owners serve pizza the way it’s traditionally made by Italians in Argentina. The foundation is a fresh, thick, breadier sort of crust. The huge toppings menu runs from conventional items to blue cheese, coconut, pears, mint and roast pork. Spanish-style chorizo replaces the ubiquitous pepperoni. It’s very satisfying to dip the “bones”—the pieces of leftover crust—in verdant chimichurri sauce. The fig, bacon and cheese empanadas and the “good luck” gnocchi (served only on the 29th of each month), are both home runs.
the oven 7167 W. Alaska Dr., Lakewood
Hardwood smoke infuses the crusts, meats, desserts, tables and even the streets near this destination pizzeria overseen by ingredient-obsessed chef Mark Tarbell. Almost everything on the menu gets cooked in dual ovens set in this super-modern restaurant where you can sip serious cocktails and watch your pie (no slices!) get crafted. The house-made sauces, sausage and mozzarella and scintillating additions like olive tapenade and roasted vegetables crown a fine, olive oil-rubbed thin crust that’s nicely charred in spots. I like the Egg & Spinach: a fried egg, bacon, fresh tomato white sauce a splash of sriracha chile sauce. The baked “doughnut” with chocolate espresso mascarpone is what we like to call a “happy mouth” finale.
Virgilio’s Pizzeria & Wine Bar 10025 W. San Juan Way, Littleton
Virgilio Urbano © Kim Long
Don’t let the suburban mall address sidetrack you from eating one of Virgilio’s pizzas. Born in Naples and raised in America’s pizza cradle Connecticut, Virgilio Urbano has helped raise the bar for everyday pizza in Denver. I love the exceptionally chewy and pliable crust prepared Margherita-style—layered with tomatoes, olive oil, basil leaves and dreamy whole milk mozzarella. Inspired by his personal mission to get healthy, Urbano has also created a satisfying vegan pizza on a crisp gluten-free crust with veggies and melted soy cheese that makes all diners feel welcome. Four final words of advice: Get the garlic knots!
Pizzeria Locale 1730 Pearl St., Boulder
Pizzeria Locale is not the place to order two slices of pepperoni and a fountain drink. There is no “stuffed crust” here, just a world class knife-and-fork pizza. You may even need reservations to secure a night time table. (Yes, it’s that good.) I love to watch the pizzaiolo—the pizza chef, carefully working the dough (no tossing) and gracing it with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto di Parma and herbs and the caring for it in an Italian oven. The thin, carefully singed crust that emerges has a perfect soft chew and clean wheat flavor. Be aware: It takes less than two minutes for these great pizzas to cook so don’t order them until you’re ready to dig in. The attention to detail plus the unusually good wine list and first-class service are really no surprise. The pizzeria’s owners operate Colorado’s most celebrated restaurant, Frasca Food and Wine, next door.
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John Lehndorff (email@example.com) is the former dining critic at the Rocky Mountain News and food editor at the Boulder Daily Camera. He hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, streaming at kgnu.org).
Other top crusts in Colorado
Poor Richard’s © Kim Long
Poor Richard’s Restaurant 324 1/2 N. Tejon St., Colorado Springs
With its adjoining toy and book stores and a wonderful kids play area and patio, families flock here for hand-tossed whole wheat pizza with local veggies and meats and a sauce made only from fresh tomatoes. Desserts include a stellar butter-crusted coconut cream pie.
Dolce Sicilia Bakery 3210 Wadsworth Blvd., Wheat Ridge
Besides crafting authentic Italian breads, cookies and pastries, Sicilian-born baker Francesco Spatola with help from his mom also dishes the best Sicilian pizza in the region—moist and chewy with a savory chunky tomato sauce on top.