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The kitchen at Luciano's Pizza and Wings is a pizza-maker's paradise. It's huge, with acres of scrubbed tile and steely bright stainless, banks of pizza ovens warping the air around them with their heat, and half a dozen double-basket fryers lined up against the wall looking no more than five minutes out of the factory shrink-wrap.
A man could cause trouble in a kitchen like this. A man -- a smart man -- could train an army of ethno- specific pizza men and wing-dunkers, send out flying squads of delivery drivers to the far corners of Capitol Hill and downtown, spreading the joy of Buffalo pizza and Buffalo chicken wings to the increasingly urban population. A man with money enough and patience enough and the skills of an Upstate native galley kid could make his mark on the New West with this much space, this much equipment and the kind of fearless confidence it must have taken to sink gobs of dead presidents into creating this kitchen before knowing whether there'd be enough demand to earn that money back.
But then, that's the story of the restaurant business. And when Kris Ferreri opened Luciano's six months ago, he was pretty sure -- no, totally sure -- that his version would have a happy ending.
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Central Denver
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10 wings: $6.95
50 wings: $22.95< br>14-inch pizza, cheese and pepperoni: $11.75
Old Italian white, large: $15.75
Buffalo-born and Buffalo-bred, with family ties that go back to when the first Ferreri (Kris's great-grandfather Luciano, after whom he named the restaurant) settled in the area in the early 1900s, Kris spent much of his life steeped in the near-mythological Upstate pizza-and-wing scene. For more than two decades, he lived surrounded by chicken-wing joints, bathed (like any good Buffalonian, metaphorically speaking) in the hot sauce and sweet reds of that two-note food town. Anyone who's spent any time in Buffalo knows exactly how seriously that city takes its wings. It's nearly an unwritten ordinance that every restaurant must serve them, and that all of those restaurants must pay a certain (though sometimes backhanded) deference to those served at the Anchor Bar on Main, where the fried chicken wing was invented.
In Buffalo, the chicken wing inspires the same sort of fanatical devotion and sectarian violence that, in saner places, is reserved for religion, politics or sports teams. England has its soccer hooligans cracking each other's skulls with lead pipes and batteries over loyalties split between Arsenal and Manchester United. The Irish blow up each other's cars over questions of theology, political occupation and the rights of little redheaded girls in orange dresses to walk through certain Belfast neighborhoods. In Buffalo, drunken old coots and UB hat boys get in street-corner brawls and punch out each other's teeth arguing over who fries a chicken wing better, La Nova or Jim's, Duff's or the Anchor.
But the truth (and I can only reveal this now because I am thousands of miles removed from the streets of Buffalo, and it's unlikely that any Buffalonians are going to make the drive out here to Denver to punch me in the nose, because all of their cars will be frozen in the ice for another three months or so) is that none of those chicken wings are any better than the others, because they're all cooked the same way. You take a fistful of skin-on, gooey, raw, dismembered chicken wings and legs out of a blood-slick plastic bag, toss them into an over-hot fryer for twelve minutes, remove them, give them a shake, dump them into a steel bowl, add a long pour of Frank's RedHot and a short pour of melted butter (or even better, butter substitute), toss and serve. That's it -- the trade secret. Properly arranged ten to an order, they should come with a few sticks of celery and some blue-cheese dressing for dipping, even if purists scorn the use of both. There's no question of doing a chicken wing better or worse than any other restaurant, just the question of whether you do it right or wrong.
In Buffalo, it's a point of pride that while the fried chicken wing's fame has flown far beyond the city limits, no one outside the city can make an order exactly right. But Ferreri does. When he moved to Denver, he brought with him an expertise that comes only from spending years in the home of the chicken wing, as well as a very specific regional pizza. He knows his stuff, and it shows.
Like any other ethnic restaurant -- and cooking la basse cuisine de Buffalo makes Luciano's just as much an ethnic restaurant as any Ethiopian, Cajun, Vietnamese or French joint -- Luciano's must first please its constituency, in this case that small ex-pat crowd of I-90-corridor New Yorkers who, like me, got wise and fled the muggy summers and brutal winters along Lake Ontario for somewhere -- anywhere -- better. And any ex-pat who sees one of Ferreri's to-go orders tucked into a butcher-paper-lined cardboard box would know that Luciano's is the real deal. Wings packaged in Styrofoam (a sin all too common among Denver's wing pretenders) melt the box and, consequently, taste like Styrofoam. Wings packaged in foil pick up a slight metallic aftertaste through the heat and the acids in the hot sauce, and that's no good, either. Packaging the wings in paper and cardboard both protects the flavor and creates a smell that's instantly recognizable to any former Upstater: searing hot oil, hot sauce and hot, damp cardboard mingling into a perfume that's uniquely Buffalonian.