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Bite Me

A Tale of Two Cities

Buffalo-style pizza is a small-scale, fiercely regional take on the thin-crust New Yorker that's the gold standard of the American pie-maker's art. At Luciano's Pizza and Wings(see review), Kris Ferreri offers a pizza that isn't just a good copy, but borders on the kind of uncompromising reconstruction more commonly done by model-train fanatics or people who spend their lives building one-to-one scale reproductions of the Spruce Goose out of Popsicle sticks.

The Rocky Mountain West has its own pie. Two, really -- both gimpy spinoffs of extant styles unique to our area. The first isn't so much a "style" of pizza as a terrible, focus-group-driven fixing of something that was never broken in the first place: the sauce. The culprit behind this misguided fix could be Southwest drift -- that misguided impulse among those isolated from the actual demographic landscape of New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona who still believe that everyone living here is either an illegal Mexican immigrant stuffing his face all day with burritos and carnitas, or some bull-riding, shit-kicking leather-tongued latter-day cowboy whose diet consists of only two food groups: steak and chiles. New York and California ad execs, marketing gurus and tastemakers can't imagine that any of their fellow Coasters might actually move to the West voluntarily, bringing with them a taste for real pizza dressed with real sauce. To these Coast-centric folks, the Southwest (like the Midwest and the Upper Midwest, which begins in Buffalo and doesn't end until the plane is safely on the runway at LAX) is like a game preserve -- nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there -- where natives still wear sombreros and serapes, fuck the livestock, and can't taste anything that isn't drenched in Tabasco or festooned with jalapeños. Their essential belief in this fallacy is so strong that it's driven them to create entire product lines that supposedly cater to this mythic group. In other words, us.

Now, everyone knows that Frito-Lay ships slightly different Doritos products to Mexico than get stocked on the shelves in, say, Cleveland or Branson. Everyone knows that Mexican Coke (the kind you drink) is sweeter and thicker. What they don't know is that major-brand chains like Domino's and Papa John'sspike their pizza sauce with chile powder or red-pepper flakes to crank up the spice for us poor, benighted savages in the West, who obviously could never appreciate the subtle sweetness of a proper red.

And while Domino's can do whatever the hell it wants to its sauce -- spice it up, tone it down, lace it with crack or stud it with nuggets of gold, for all I care -- because I'm not eating its awful pizzas anyhow, this trend of deliberately corrupting perfectly good red sauce has been picked up by nearly every independent operator in the Southwest. In these parts, it's a rare pie that doesn't come with a bite, and -- in case you can't tell -- that really pisses me off. One reason I'm perhaps a little over-fond of the pizzas at Luciano's is that its sauce tastes like tomatoes, not like some Heinz ketchup variety spiked with poblano juice.

The second pizza style native to the Mountain Time Zone is the kind of mile-high, huge-crust, deep-dish pie done by places like Beau Jo's and Woody's. This style is far less offensive to me than the hot-sauce variety because it actually tastes good. True, it's essentially a counterfeit, shrunken Chicago-style import, but if nothing else, it has a proven provenance and regional purity that I can't help but respect. Plus, the guy who thought of serving these with a side of honey for dipping the bones deserves a Nobel Prize. That's genius on a stick.

For a true Chicago-style pie, stop by Beniamino's Chicago Pizzeria, at 1 Broadway. This address has swallowed about a half-dozen operations in as many years, a record challenged only by the havoc wreaked by 250 Steele Street on the former Jack's on Steele/Agave Underground/ Bistro 250/Bistro Adde Brewster. But owner Ben Guestknew what he was getting into when he moved in last November. He understood (from reading one of my columns, actually) that the spot might be cursed, that it had a history of failed concepts. And although he was nervous, a killer deal on the space and equipment convinced him to sign on the dotted line.

Make that a killer deal and the fact that he'd been talking about opening a pizza joint for the past fourteen years, ever since he moved to Denver from Chicago's South Side. And his friends were getting kinda sick of hearing about it.

"When I finally did it, when I pulled the trigger, no one believed me," Guest says. "I called up my friends and said, ŒI'm jumpin' in.' And they had to come down here and see before they'd believe it."

Guest recognized that one of the many things missing from the SoBo neighborhood (and the Denver pizza scene in general) was an authentic Chicago-style pizzeria being run by a guy really from Chicago. At Beniamino's, Guest is offering "famous Chicago stuffed pizza" -- not deep-dish, but stuffed, a difference that's very important to Windy City natives who want to know whether they're going to get something along the lines of a Lou Malnati'sor a Giordano'spie. Guest may be a rookie to the restaurant business (he's been in sales until now), but he's a dedicated connoisseur of South Side pies. He knows what separates a good one from a bad one, and he's invested a lot of time in producing a great imitation of the pizzas of his youth. The pies here are beautiful: high-walled and golden-brown, filled with quality ingredients, sealed with a layer of soft dough, then topped with an herb-heavy sauce. Every one is a candidate for a Food Arts centerfold and tastes as good as it looks.

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