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My grandma Judy discovered Big Bill's New York Pizza by sheer dumb luck. She was on an errand in the County Line strip mall that houses the pizza parlor and decided to take my mother a carry-out lunchtime calzone. This single act of generosity forever changed our family's dining-out habits. In the sea of chain restaurants that were just about the only options in the southern suburbs in the late '90s, Big Bill's was a real catch, and it became the default spot for our nights out.
Bill Ficke, a former assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets, had opened the joint in November 1995, after he sold the shoe store he'd owned for two decades. At the start, it was under the banner of Lil' Ricci's New York Pizzeria, a slice shop already popular on East Hampden Avenue. But Ficke, a native of Long Island, had definite ideas about pizza, and he imported Pete Tutrone, a pizza maker on Long Island, to make the thin-crust New York pies he remembered from back home. When the deal with Lil' Ricci's soured the next year, Ficke bought out his partner and renamed the spot Big Bill's. My family discovered the place soon after, and while we recognized that the pizzas — crispy and dripping with grease — were much better than any of the Sysco product-laden pies in the neighborhood, we didn't have the palates or experience to really know why.
Fast-forward ten years, when, like every other recent liberal-arts-school graduate I knew, I renounced my uncouth upbringing and moved to cultured New York City, where I developed a taste for food snobbery — and pizza in particular. I learned the ins and outs of what makes a good pie while stuffing my face with slices from restaurants and counters across this dining mecca, analyzing crust-to-cheese ratios and generally becoming unbearable when anyone brought up the topic in casual conversation. So when I returned to Denver, utterly convinced that decent pizzas didn't exist west of the Hudson River, it took me a while to give in to my family's pleas that we return to our old favorite. I didn't want to be disappointed. I didn't want my childhood memories of greatness reduced to youthful naiveté.
8243 S. Holly St.
Littleton, CO 80122
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
Finally I relented — and immediately experienced an array of confusing emotions ranging from shock to wistful nostalgia to chest-swelling pride. Turns out that fifteen years ago, my silly suburban family had accidentally stumbled into loving a mini-mall pizzeria that does New York-style pies exactly right. And now that I'm back from the Big Apple, Big Bill's is again my go-to place when I want great pizza. But not just great pizza: This is also my comfort spot when I'm missing my childhood — or a perfect spot for melancholy reminiscence related to my former life in the Empire State. Such pensive longing hits me like a truck during the first days of fall, when my spirits drop with the temperatures, so one night a few weeks ago, I drove an hour from Boulder to Centennial for a fix.
Big Bill's restaurant hasn't changed much since I was a kid. It's always been a frill-less dark space with little lighting and bare wooden tables in a dining room always full of families, waited on by high-schoolers and old-schoolers — servers who've been around forever — wearing T-shirts displaying clichés like "Fuhgeddaboutit." I've never seen a single patron sitting at the bar in the back corner, but the area by the open kitchen along the back wall is still a popular gathering place, teeming with kids who pull themselves up on the counter with grubby hands to watch the pizza-makers toss balls of dough and create flat, wide discs. The walls are still adorned with murals of the New York City skyline, although hearts were painted around the Twin Towers after 9/11.
Big Bill's expanded right before I went to college, probably more to mitigate the half-hour wait times than to make room for more of Ficke's sports paraphernalia. Still, it seems like the owner is proudly displaying an autographed token from every athlete who's ever graced a college or professional team over the past decade and a half. And Ficke himself is frequently visible at a table along the wall, watching those athletes duke it out on one of the many TVs in the joint, occasionally getting up to stroll through his restaurant, a towering presence joking with the hordes of regulars.
But I'm more interested in looking at what's on my table than the view around the restaurant. I started my emergency nostalgic dinner with a crisp Fuhgeddaboutit golden ale, made especially for Big Bill's by Rockyard Brewery. It went perfectly with a childhood favorite: garlic knots, fluffy balls of Italian bread baked until golden brown and crisp on the outside, then rolled in garlic and parmesan and served with hot, chunky housemade tomato sauce for dipping. (Occasionally, I've opted instead for the Sticks & Stones — knots combined with breadsticks, eight-inch rectangles dusted with garlic, parmesan and red-chili flakes — and regretted it. The knots alone are better.)