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New York-style pizza is a tricky thing. In the places where it's done properly -- on the island of Manhattan, in one of the boroughs or, with rapidly declining rightness, in any of the cities that make up the outer estates of the Pizza Kingdom -- it's not even called New York-style pizza. It's just pizza -- 'za, a pie, a slice. You might find a joint selling Chicago deep-dish pizza or New England charcoal-fired pies, but these will always be labeled as such, because they are essentially foreign foods. And by the unwritten code of the pizza man, if you are hawking such one-offs in Bensonhurst, Rochester, Buffalo, Camden or Philly, you'd damn well better let people know before they even walk into your shop. Otherwise there could be confusion, angry words, possibly bloodshed.
17150 E. Iliff Ave.
Aurora, CO 80013
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Lil’ Ricci’s, 3333 South Tamarac Drive, 303-337-6591. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Large double-cheese pizza: $14
Meatball hoagie: $5.75
Pasta sampler: $8.50
Because in these places, real pizza always means a thin crust; means a proper, sweet red sauce; means a big, greasy slice wide enough to fold and hold cupped against the heel of your hand. This isn't the "New York" way of doing it, it's just The Way. And the Tao of the pizza man is understanding that within these strict parameters, there are infinite possibilities. As with sushi, the art to New York pizza-making is finding perfection in tiny adjustments to a simple product. And Chicago deep-dish has about as much in common with real pizza as a Mrs. Paul's fish stick does with a high-grade toro hand roll.
But as you travel a certain distance from the Pizza Kingdom -- say, west of the Ohio border, north of Syracuse or fifty miles south of South Philly -- the pies begin to require labels. At this point, the labels also become meaningless. Getting a "New York-style" slice in Winnipeg, Atlanta or Mooseface, Wisconsin, is eating a lie. Outside of the tri-state area, the best you can hope for is a good forgery to stick in your face -- a pie made in the image of true greatness but destined to come up short.
Still, restaurateurs outside of the charmed territory persist in copying the work of the Big Apple masters. Here in Colorado, Anthony's Pizza and Pasta has been growing its mini-empire for nearly twenty years, from its first location at 1550 California Street in 1984 to a tenth outpost that soon will open in Highlands Ranch. Most of them resemble Anthony's small, strip-mall location on East Iliff in Aurora, which is cast from the ex-pat mold, with Yankees, Mets and Giants pennants on the walls, a smudged TV in the corner by the door and a few tables lining the perimeter. The kitchen is open, more or less, and busy all the time; these guys take their work seriously. You have to wait for your food here, and Anthony's makes no apologies for that. Customers must suffer a certain amount of hunger and deprivation while the kitchen goes about its business. I like to think of the delay as a necessary purification of the spirit, but it's really just a slow torture of sights and smells as other people's plates and pies are paraded past.
Anthony's calls its 'zas by their proper names. There's a "traditional New York thin" only parenthetically referred to as a "Neapolitan round," and a fat, full-bodied Sicilian that the menu warns can take upwards of two hours to prepare. There are also pastas, heroes and an array of toppings to put on them and the pies, a grab bag of interchangeable elements that's both artful and spare -- no more than you'd expect from a place that looks and smells the part of a busy neighborhood pizzeria, but no less than anything you could want.
And on my first visit, what I want is a little bit of everything. I want to jump the counter and stalk through the coolers, taking a finger-full of red sauce here, a mound of mozzarella there, then stuff my pockets with meatballs for the ride home. But I am restrained by the need to concentrate, first and foremost, on my pie -- a traditional New York thin. When it arrives, it's steaming beautifully. The color is that perfect, mottled, creamy reddish-pink and yellow-orange -- shades that could only be called "pizza" in the big box of culinary Crayolas. And the smell -- all yeasty, sweet and saucy with just a hint of bitter oregano -- is like home to me. The slices are cut large, meant for folding, and the mild sauce is properly understated. Most pizza places west of the Mississippi reflexively kick up their reds with crushed red-pepper flakes or, occasionally, pepperoncini brine to give them a bite that I find as grating as nails on a chalkboard. But not Anthony's.
The crust is wonderful, too: stiff and solid, but with enough developed gluten so that it bends without cracking. I pick up a slice, fold it, cup it, wait for the point to sag, then bite. The cheese is mellow with whole milk and just a little funky, well-matched to the sweet sauce; the dough is nearly flavorless, acting only as an architectural support for the flourish of good ingredients. In fact, everything is as it should be except for one thing: There's no orange grease. The slices are greasy, no doubt about that. They're well-lubricated by what little water cooks out of the sauce and the oils squeezed from the cheese by the heat of the oven, but those liquids never congeal into that magical stuff that's supposed to ooze into the fold of the slice and then run out across the back of your hand.
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