By Philip Poston
By Jonathan Shikes
By Noah Reynolds
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Kate Gibbson
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Patricia Calhoun
Chefs and restaurant owners are competitive animals by nature and disposition. Not Iron Chef, cooking-contest competitive -- not just lighted-stage, rule-book and panel-of-judges competitive -- but seriously, almost compulsively, knock-down, drag-out Thunderdome bloodthirsty.
2623 E. 2nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80206-4702
Region: Central Denver
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7986 West Alameda Avenue, Lakewood
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Garlic knots: $2.99/dozen
In a successful restaurant, there's no room for sentiment or surrender (except on the menu). And in a failing house? I've seen better behavior and more decorous conduct in old newsreel footage of the Hindenburg disaster. On any given day, in addition to paying bills and seeing to the troops, any industry lifer in an above-the-line position is bending a few neurons toward bettering his house, checking on the quality of his fish and, if possible, sending someone on a covert mission to see if the fish down the street is better. If it is, he's figuring out why the fish down the street is better. He's on the phone with his supplier, using a few choice four-letter words and paying through the nose (or through anatomy of a more southerly geography) to make sure it never happens again. And on any given night, he's again turning his gaze outward, thinking about how he can poach that hostess from across the way, how he can squeeze a couple more nickels out of his menu to compete with the new guy at the end of the block, what kink he can throw into his top-selling entree so that it remains his top-selling entree even when some other jerk across town is doing the same thing, only cheaper.
This is a great business, and the best guys in it -- the survivors, the hard-core elite -- are one half P.T. Barnum, one half Patton. Do you think Emeril wants to be some catchphrase-spouting monkey, performing for an audience full of quivering Midwestern farm wives? No. Monkeyboy is a cook. A good one, too. But every time he yells "Bam!" he makes, like, a million dollars. And once he saw that this kind of embarrassing japery could fill his restaurants and move bottles of Emeril's Signature Sauce like there was crack in 'em, Emeril became the best "Bam!"-shouter in the business. If you're gonna be a monkey, be the best monkey. If you're gonna have a fish restaurant, have the best fish restaurant. And if you're gonna make pizza, you make sure everyone knows it's the best pizza in the entire goddamn world.
Even if it's not.
Here in Denver, we argue over the best cheesesteaks in a city so far removed from the home of the cheesesteak that you'd think the discussion would be pointless. We slap each other around over sushi and have one (maybe as many as three) of the best sushi restaurants in the country, even though we're a thousand friggin' miles from the nearest ocean and many more from Tokyo. We -- eaters and industry alike -- battle with sectarian fervor over chile and cheeseburgers the way the Irish once did over which color God liked better, orange or green, and I'm frankly amazed that some of these disputes haven't been settled with rifles and car bombs. But the weirdest thing we fight over is pizza. Whose is the best, whose is the worst, whose is even pizza at all.
I'm not very good at math, but I've done some calculating, and I estimate that since moving into the Mountain Time Zone from the East Coast, I've eaten probably eight million slices of pizza. None have been the best, but I realized that fact even before I bit into my first Denver slice, because the best pizza in the country, possibly the best in the world, was made at Ferrara's Pizza, a small family shop in my home town of Rochester, New York. Angelo Ferrara, who owned the place along with his wife, Natalie, was about 600 years old and had spent 599 of those years doing nothing but making pizzas and listening to the absolute worst accordion-driven Italian music ever created by man. Usually he did both at once. And because of this dedication, the food gods had granted unto him some wicked pie-making skills: His crust was better, his cheese stretchier, his sauce sweeter and more subtle than any other. I know all this, because I worked with Angelo for a year or so when I was fifteen.
Actually, "with" is an overstatement. I worked near Ange, spending my days shredding his cheese and washing his dishes and assembling the boxes into which his perfect pizzas would soon be slipped. Wisely, the man never let me within five feet of one of his pies, and grew almost radiantly nervous whenever I dared open one of the massive oven doors behind which his product did not so much cook as bloom.
Although Ferrara's pies were without a doubt the best pizzas in the world, I've tried many in this town that strive to reach that perfection, fighting for a slot in the top five or ten. And this month, I decided to check out the pies at two of the city's most vocal competitors.
Bene Gourmet Pizza has been open for almost a year in Cherry Creek, one of the Oregon-based mini-chain's five outlets (there's another in Greenwood Village). Like most pizza joints in this day and age, Bene has a shtick, a couple of gimmicks meant to raise its profile. First there are the gourmet pies, with seven kinds of chicken pizzas alone, everything from a Thai/teriyaki with bean sprouts, shredded carrot, sesame seeds and peanut sauce (ugh) to a lime chicken with green chiles and tomatillo. And then, owing to its Out West heritage and recent founding, Bene has also jumped on the local-and-organic bandwagon, promising -- on its website, menu, walls, wherever -- that every handmade pizza has been constructed from "fresh, quality ingredients" farmed organically and bought locally whenever possible.
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