(Originally published in Colorado AvidGolfer)
By JOHN LEHNDORFF
If you really want to start an argument, your choices are:
- Discuss national politics, or
- Declare which pizzeria serves the best pizza in the U.S.
Visitors from other states are prone to make fun of the food in Colorado, especially our pizza. They loudly argue that nothing in Denver compares to the pies dished in New Haven, Chicago and every pizzeria in New York City. I understand their opinionated passion despite the fact that they are wrong.
Pizza joints aren’t just another eatery. They have a hold on our hearts. Parents bring the noisy kids to the neighborhood pizzeria so they can have an adult beverage. They grow into teens who come of age hanging out there. Pizza is fun delivered to your front door. Pizza often means a party. The same cannot be said for quinoa tuna power bowls.
I grew up in the so-called Pizza Belt of central New England and I’ve been a dining critic in Colorado. Let’s just say I have a few authentic slices of various style pizzas under my belt. I will put the pizza being produced right now at Front Range pizzerias up against any in the country.
Is there a “Colorado-style” of pizza? Many places have claimed to serve “mountain-style pies” but most are simply faux Chicago deep-dish. (A tip of the cap to Colorado’s Beau Jo’s pizza for introducing honey on the table that turns excess crust into instant dessert.)
Colorado has always been a collection of newcomers who bring their styles with them. If a great pizza is made with Colorado-produced flour, meats, cheeses and veggies, that’s a Colorado-style pizza.
There are a literal pile of pizza crust, sauce and topping styles available at Front Range pizzerias including Neapolitan, New York, Chicago, Sicilian, Detroit, New England Greek, California, New Haven and St. Louis … not to mention organic, gluten-free, Paleo and vegan. Style is nice but I want to know: Is it great pizza? Is it a pizzeria I’d take my friends to visit? Is it pizza that makes me sigh when I find it in the fridge the next day?
My nominees for outstanding pizzeria are listed in alphabetical order to avoid ranking debates. I can’t say whether these are the “best” among the thousand pizzerias of Colorado but I’m sure these are in that discussion. I trust these crusts from Boulder to Manitou Springs.
Blue Pan Pizza
Style: Detroit-style pan pizza.
The two Blue Pan Pizza locations serve reputable Chicago thin crust and classic New York-style pies, but the reason to wait for a table are the award-winning Detroit-style pizzas. Baked in a square pan, the deep bready crust is encased in mozzarella and brick cheeses resulting in a grilled cheese-like crispy caramelized edge that is simply unbeatable.
Order this: The Brooklyn Bridge generously layered with mozzarella, brick, Pecorino Romano and fresh ricotta cheeses, tomato sauce, pepperoni, Italian sausage, garlic and oregano. It’s worth the wait.
3930 W. 32nd Ave., and 3509 E. 12th Ave., Denver; bluepandenver.com
Style: Old-school Italian-American pizza
You will never find tofu, corn or truffle oil on any Carl’s Pizza nor kale in any of the salads. From its throwback neon sign to the red vinyl booths, the North Denver eatery looks like a casual restaurant chain’s attempt to recreate a Rat Pack-era pizza joint. That’s because it actually is one. Carl DiGiacamo opened it 1953 and it is one of Colorado’s first real pizzerias.
The art on the walls depicting Frank Sinatra, Rocky Marciano, the wines of Italy and the Broncos have been the same for generations.
You stop in for the atmosphere and to taste what American pizza was like before everybody started styling it. Crusts come in regular, thick, thin and pan-fried, the pizza sauce is thick and heavily herbed and the mozzarella is whole milk. The toppings cover the crust circles from edge to non-puffy edge. The simple pizzas have no cutesy names and there are only 15 toppings.
Put some Dean Martin on the jukebox and save room for frita: fried pizza dough bites drenched in butter, cinnamon and sugar.
Order this: A panfried 14-inch crust with red sauce and sausage, meatballs, fresh garlic and onions on top of melted mozzarella.
3800 W. 38th Ave., Denver; carlspizza.yolasite.com
Famous Original J’s Pizza
Style: Saturday Night Fever-style pizza
You order a slice and walk down Welton Street eating it slightly folded from a paper plate. You might as well since Famous Original J’s is a take-out window on Welton Street within arm’s-reach of the RTD Light Rail line. There are picnic tables or you can carry it into the 715 Club. The folks behind the nearby Rosenberg’s, Colorado’s top bagel bakery, were craving New York-style thin crust pizza. Like the bagels, Famous Original J’s uses New York city-style water and flour to create credible replica pies. The short list of toppings includes Taylor ham, wide pepperoni and fresh garlic.
Order this: Two slices of cheese pizza with pepperoni and add a shake of Parmesan. Don’t forget the napkins.
715 E. 26th Ave., Denver, famousoriginaljs.com
Style: Authentic Napoletana pizza
This is Colorado’s Neapolitan pizza temple. The knife-and-fork pizzeria with excellent service and a superior wine list is operated by the next-door Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder’s much honored Italian restaurant. A red-hatted pizzaiolo stretches the individual pies made to traditional specifications that spend just spend two minutes in a wood-fired Italian oven. The topping are only the best from prosciutto cotto on the corn pizza to the Grana Padano cheese on the shrimp pizza. There are two fast-casual Pizza Locale locations in Denver that dish a good pie but the original location is something special.
Order this: Funghi pizza topped with oyster mushrooms, green onions, and garlic oil plus mozzarella, Taleggio and Pecorino Romano cheeses.
1730 Pearl St., Boulder; localeboulder.com
Style: Traditional Neapolitan (with a twist)
The space isn’t fancy and there’s just a few communal tables, but pies fly out of that 900-degree oven constantly. Pizzeria Lui makes a fine classic organic flour crust with great chew and taste with a nice char on the edges and a light coating of simple tomato sauce. What elevates the place are the first-class, out-of-the-ordinary toppings. The BBQ pork pizza is crowned with house-smoked pork, roasted Walla Walla onion, jalapeno, cream cheese, smoked mozzarella, barbecue sauce and cilantro. Other toppings on specials have included roasted pineapple puree and pistachios. Spicy honey is available on the side along with house-made hot sauces.
Order this: The Eggplant “Parm” topped with thin roasted eggplant slices, fresh mozzarella, pesto sauce, chopped garlic, Parmesan and breadcrumbs.
5380 W. Mississippi Ave., Lakewood, pizzerialui.com
Ruffrano’s Hell’s Kitchen Pizza
Style: New York City pizza
The owner told me he dreamed he owned a pizzeria so he studied a pizza joint in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and opened a tiny, bright red eatery in Manitou Springs famous for painfully hot combinations including hot Italian sausage, pepperoni, chile-fired sauce and various kinds of peppers.
It is worth the 45-minute wait for the bona fide Sicilian square pie.
Order this: Deep-dish Sicilian pizza with meatballs, garlic sausage, red sauce, mozzarella, Parmesan and fresh basil. Allow 1 hour.
1670 E. Cheyenne Mountain Blvd., Colorado Springs; 9 Ruxton Ave., Manitou Springs; facebook.com/ruffranoshellskitchenpizza
Style: New Haven-style pizza
Baked directly on the stone in wood-burning oven, White Pie’s irregularly shaped individual pizzas arrive smelling like a campfire, charred around the edges with crust dusted in singed flour. After one piping hot bite I went from skeptical to a believer. This is the real deal from my homeland. I appreciated every bite of the Porky Porkorino pie layered with red sauce, serious mozzarella, thinly sliced sopressata, pickled chiles and hot honey.
However, the pizza de resistance is White Pie’s signature namesake dish which is one of the best pizzas I’ve ever tasted.
Order this: White Pie topped with creme fraiche, mozzarella, garlic, bacon, crimini mushrooms and a sunny side up egg.
1702 Humboldt St., Denver, whitepie.com
John Lehndorff burned the roof of his mouth while researching this feature. He persisted. He writes Nibbles for the Boulder Weekly and hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU.
Other Notable Local Pizza Attractions
Butter-basted pizza crust: Denver Pizza Company (denverpizzaco.com)
Wisconsin-style macaroni and cheese pizza: Ian’s Pizza (ianspizza.com)
Best garlic knots ever: Virgilio’s Pizzeria (ilovepizzapie.com)
Pizza with a great by-the-glass Italian wine list: Pizzeria Republica (pizzarepublica.com)
Wood-fired lamb, artichoke and arugula pizza: Basta (bastaboulder.com)
Connecticut Greek-style pan-baked pizza with tzatziki sauce, gyro meat and feta: Papou’s Pizzeria (denverpapouspizza.com)
A Word about Gluten-Free Pizzas
Many eateries that serve pizza now also offer a gluten-free crust. Some alternatives are crumbly, rubbery or tasteless. We won’t even discuss the cauliflower ones. One exception comes from Denver’s Victoria’s Gluten Free Kitchen. Made with white rice flour, tapioca flour, egg whites, sunflower oil and yeast, these hand-stretched pizza crusts are the closest in taste and texture I’ve sampled to the gluten-rich originals. The company’s GF pizza crusts are available at select markets and used widely by Colorado restaurants including Oskar Blues, White Pie, Postino, Etai’s Bakery Cafe, Oblio’s Pizzeria, Bar Dough, and Denver Deep Dish Pizza. victoriasglutenfreekitchen.com